March 11, 2022, Santa Barbara, CA – Had you taken a stroll down to Santa Barbara’s East Beach in the spring of 2017 or 2018, Katie Spieler cannot remember exactly which, you'd have noticed an awfully peculiar scene. For there was Spieler and her business partner, Dana Kabashima, coaching for their start-up beach volleyball organization, East Beach Volleyball Academy, the first in the area, though perhaps organization was a bit of a misnomer at the time.
There was only one kid.
"Dana and I would be down there coaching this one kid and he would go on runs by himself, was super unfocused, didn't want to be there, and it was just comical," Spieler said.
The days of a single kid are long over for Spieler, Kabashima, and East Beach Volleyball Academy. The numbers have exploded, upwards of 200 up-and-coming beach volleyball players, and East Beach is regularly hosting juniors tournaments on spring weekends, such as this one, in which no organization around the country is putting on a bigger event.
Indeed, only a handful of years after working with just a single kid, East Beach is hosting the only 2-Star event in the United States this weekend. Competing this weekend is Kara Namimatsu, who won a 1-Star on February 27. She’ll be competing with Sydney Morey. Also in the 16U division are Josie Gamberdella and Eliana Urzua. Ava Haughy and Haley Wang, too, are looking for another victory in the 18U division after claiming first place on January 23. They'll have to get through Elsa and Sadie Snipes. In the 14U Boys, Brady Theule and Chase Spicer are seeking a 2-Star title.
It would be easy to say, with the clarity of hindsight bias, that Spieler and Kabashima always knew this would be the case, that East Beach would become the massive academy it has become. But when Spieler and Kabashima had that one, lone, distractible kid? It was difficult to imagine a time in which multiple hundreds of youths would be in the program. Not that Spieler was ever particularly worried about it.
"I think when you're initially starting something, it's so fun and new," said Spieler, a Santa Barbara native who has been competing in AVP main draws since 2014. "I would wake up every morning so excited and we would get an email and I would be so stoked and reply to it. It's just the novelty of it and even if it's just one kid, I'm at the beach getting to coach. If it was something I didn't enjoy, it would have been pretty tough, but I think I just loved the novelty of it. I really believed in it so there wasn't really a doubt that it would take off. We knew it just needed a little time. I didn’t envision it getting that big. We'd have a practice with 20 kids and I'd be like 'This is insane!' That's where I was at. When it got to a really high number it was cool because we knew it might be a temporary thing, so we said 'We’re going to work as hard as we can and accommodate all these kids and give them the best program we can.' We just put our heads down and it was great."
It was Beach Volleyball Hall of Famer Patty Dodd who helped Spieler and Kabashima put their heads down and move them in the right direction. Dodd is the founder of the popular club, MBSand, located in Manhattan Beach. When Spieler and Kabashima launched East Beach, Spieler was crashing on couches in the South Bay, coaching for Dodd.
Dodd had launched a club before. She knew the work it entailed, the small details few think about, the details that make all the difference.
"Patty Dodd was a catalyst," Spieler said. "I'll never forget her line. She said 'You're going to need help every day so I want you to call me every day whenever a question pops into your head.' So I would literally call her all the time and she'd say 'Yep I use this software for registration, this is how you do this.' She was so helpful letting me shadow her and start the club. We basically started the structure of our club exactly on hers, then we morphed and adapted and changed our structure just to figure out what works best."
It has reached a point that East Beach does little in the way of marketing and advertising. Why advertise when you now have 240 youth beach volleyball players doing the work for you?
"It's just word of mouth and it's so cool," Spieler said. "Kids tell their friends and we grow from there. It creates a really good culture and kids want to be there and it’s not just a babysitting camp."
While East Beach is putting on the biggest tournament of the weekend, it is far from the only. SSOVA, along with the biggest open purse of the weekend, is hosting a 1-Star in Treasure Island, Florida. Blue Sky Volleyball, based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is hosting a 1-Star, as is Beach South Volleyball in High Point, North Carolina. The top seeds at Beach South in the 16U division are Andrea Kryak and Y-Nhu Do, Madison Loving and Gracie Behneke, and Scotlyn Edwards and Karli Kennington. The 18U is led by Maddie Sides and Kayla Voelker, Olivia Whisnant and Samantha Peterson, and Katelyn Matthews and Allison Spittal.
Altitude Volleyball, in Port St. Lucie, Florida, is hosting yet another tournament, which is again led by Olivia Chychrun and Thalie Brossard, Alize Lemieux and Casey Beaman, and Kayla Gentry and Madison Hardbarger. At the top of the 14U seeding is Ella Gravlee and Emelia Glover, Autumn Willmott and Kirra Snider, and Lyrik’a Renteria and Julia Lauro.
Up the coast, in Orange Beach, Alabama, at Edge Performance, Landyn Snowdn and Kaitlyn Anderson lead the 18U division, followed by Cameron Humphries and Laurel Dennis, and Olivia Edge and Kelsey Swart.
Edge and Swart are also the top-seeded team in the 16U division.
Seeding has not yet been finalized for the 1-Star in Pompano Beach, Florida, hosted by the Florida Beach Volleyball Tour.
~ Travis Mewhirter: @trammew