U.S.A., March 7, 2022 - If you've been paying close enough attention to the men representing the United States on the beach, you could get a glimpse of the impact that the grassroots level of the sport has had. You can see that three of the top players in the country, and by extension, the world, Tri Bourne, Trevor Crabb, and Taylor Crabb, grew up playing as youths, on the courts of the Outrigger Canoe Club in Honolulu, Hawai’i. If that fact has somehow been missed, further evidence will be seen in just two weeks, in Tlaxcala, Mexico, when Taylor Sander will make his debut as a full-time beach volleyball player.
Long one of the top talents in the indoor world, Sander was a four-time All-American at BYU, where he would set the record for aces in a match and in a career before going on to compete in two Olympic Games. The 6-foot-4 native of Huntington Beach, California decided that Tokyo would be his last major competition in a gym. He was moving to the beach, and he was jumping straight up the rankings, partnered with Taylor Crabb, arguably the top defender in the United States. It’s fair for some to wonder why Crabb would select Sander, who at first blush seemed so new to the beach, so raw, as his running mate for the 2024 Paris Olympics. Sander had never competed in an AVP or FIVB. He had never even attempted to break through a qualifier.
What was Crabb thinking?
He was thinking back to his days as a youth.
"Even prior to the Olympics and everything, we go back a long time," Crabb said. "When we were 15 years old, he won every beach tournament he played in when we were juniors. That's how we met, through our parents. We played in the semifinals of this 15-year-old AAU tournament, and our parents went up to each other and they said we should team up one day. Fifteen years later, we are teaming up."
Without that opportunity to compete on the beach at the precocious age of 15, we may not have seen Taylor Sander on the beach. We may have missed out on a generational talent.
"I grew up playing in all the AAU and CBVA tournaments in high school and was always successful and always wondered, 'Can I do it?'" Sander said. "I obviously have confidence in my volleyball game and my volleyball knowledge to come out and make the switch pretty fast without any practice really, just trying to see if I can make an Olympic Games on the beach. That's my goal."
Sander and Crabb, and Bourne and Trevor Crabb, are the faces of this next wave of beach volleyball players: Men who were able to craft their games on the beach at a young age, rather than following the traditional route of competing indoors until they couldn't, before making the switch.
Matt Fuerbringer wishes he had the opportunity to do the same. Forty-eight years old now, Fuerbringer was a four-time All-American outside hitter at Stanford, winning a National Championship in 1997. It wouldn't be until 2003 that he would make his first AVP Finals, and it would take until 2008 to win his first FIVB medal representing the United States. The transition from indoor to beach simply took time.
As more and more organizations are hosting more tournaments for boys all around the country, from California to Florida to middle Tennessee, that transition, if there is one to make at all, is going to become seamless, not unlike that of Taylor Sander.
"Look at Taylor [Sander] and how fast he's making that transition. It's because he grew up playing beach," Fuerbringer said. "There are just more tournaments now. With the girls game, it's been a good thing. With girls college volleyball opening up and girls becoming full-time, now there are tournaments year-round, and tournament directors are saying 'We'll have a boys division too.' They just have some boys teams, and all of a sudden you have regular play and people get into it, and they start getting better, and it’s all their buddies, they start playing against all the guys they played in club and play them again. That's the big thing, the regularity of the tournaments now. There are so many tournaments. It's almost confusing. There's all sorts of stuff.”
Fuerbringer knows for he has to travel to many of these tournaments to watch his son, Mateo, play. Mateo's been on the beach since he was 7 or 8 years old, competing in the 14U division before his age reached the double-digits. That, Fuerbringer thought, was a problem, so he and former UCLA setter Brandon Taliaferro, who has a son close in age to Mateo, sought to get a 12U division together.
"You wouldn't play on a 7-foot net, wouldn't play with a light ball, which is what you do when you play 12s and it makes such a difference," Fuerbringer said. "So we fought really hard to get it going and we got teams going. Now with the SoCal Cup we're doing, there were up to sixteen 12U teams signed up. I think just the youth, kids getting started a little bit earlier, is what I've seen on the beach-side."
Peruse the AVP America rankings, and you'll see the impact of that, for there are talents like Tim Brewster and John Schwengel, who have been able to play exclusively on the beach, kudos to the rising number of beach tournaments. You'll see Miles Partain winning the AVP Rookie of the Year in 2019 while he was still in high school. You'll see this in Nashville, Tennessee, at C2 Attack Volleyball Club, where teenagers are now pushing the likes of longtime AVP veteran, Ed Ratledge in tournaments on Florida's Gulf Coast. You’ll see it all over Florida, where high schools are creating boys beach volleyball club teams, such as the one being formed at Berkeley Prep, a private day school in Tampa.
In 2022, Berkeley Prep launched its girls beach volleyball team. As it often goes with boys in the high school ages, they noticed where the girls were headed.
"They have a boys indoor program, and now that I started the beach, all the boys want to play," said LT Treumann, the co-owner of BeVolley Academy and the coach of the beach team at Berkeley Prep. "I'm pretty sure I’m going to end up getting 20-25 boys to play beach."
As it is not an official high school sport in the state of Florida just yet, the boys at Berkeley Prep won't play a traditional schedule against other high schools. Instead, Treumann will take his boys up and down the Florida coasts to compete in various divisions against grown men or other similar high school club teams.
It calls to mind a story of a little-known player named Karch Kiraly. Raised on the breezy East Beach in Santa Barbara, California, Kiraly competed against grown men as early as 11 years old, partnering with his father, Las.
"There were no junior clubs, there were no junior tournaments," he said. "There was no such thing as junior or youth volleyball. I played, right from the start, against grown men."
It worked out well enough: Kiraly would go on to win the first Olympic gold medal ever awarded on the beach, alongside Kent Steffes, who also grew up competing on the beaches of Santa Monica. Now, more and more boys are pouring out of the gyms and onto the beaches, as the opportunities to compete are booming all over the United States.
"We have seen more and more boys at beach clubs and events nationwide," Wayne Gant, the Executive Director of AVP America, said. "It's hard to put a growth estimate on it. Our conversations with promoters and USAV also confirmed that they are seeing the same thing. Our largest junior event in Clearwater saw an increase of 35 boys teams in 2020, up to 48 teams in 2021. While that isn't a crazy number, the percentage increase is."
While the growth might pale in comparison to the girls' game, which has exploded at an astonishing rate, becoming the fastest-growing sport in NCAA history, the boys' game is certainly expanding. Certainly getting younger and younger. The talent is getting better and better.
"I wasn't tall enough nor jumped high enough to hit hard or hit down," Kiraly said of his early days on the sand. "I had to figure out different answers. It was the best thing that could have happened to me. It helped me get better, a lot faster."
Somewhere in the U.S., then, there could be the next Karch Kiraly, the next Taylor Sander.
Somewhere on a beach, that is.
~ Travis Mewhirter: @trammew