Sandy Courts & Seaside Games: The East Beach Volleyball Scene

I’m a beach volleyball enthusiast. A volley-ho, if you will. I’ll play with just about anybody, nearly any time, any day of the week. You can call me a beach bum, if you like, but lying out in the sun isn’t the point. It’s about the game. The sport. The lifestyle.

Consider the elements: You’re on the beach, cooled by an ocean breeze, running and jumping and diving in the sand. Girls in bikinis (or sleek boys in boardshorts, if you prefer) are all around, and there’s sun, blue sky, and surf. And for the game itself you have just a single partner, someone who is going to be your best friend, if he isn’t already, for the next half hour or so while you chase the ball around a court that’s just eight square meters on each side. There are three hits per side, so you know you’re going to be involved somehow in every play, touching the ball at least once every point, either passing and hitting, or setting your partner so he can hit. In case you can’t tell by now, I’m obsessed.

But I’m not the only one. Not by a long shot. Here in Santa Barbara, beach volleyball rules. The sport has been played here professionally on and off since 1950, and even though it didn’t actually start here, some consider S.B. the real home of beach volleyball because East Beach is where Karch Kiraly — considered the greatest of all time and still going strong on the AVP tour at age 45 — first learned how to play.

Get to Know Your Crew There are a lot of us, a diverse group of citizens from all walks of life you’d be hard-pressed to find sharing space anywhere else but on the hallowed grounds — er, the holy granules — of East Beach. Some make their living at it, such as S.B.-native Todd Rogers and his recently transplanted-from-Florida partner Phil Dalhausser, who at this writing have won three straight tournaments on the AVP tour but whom you can still see practicing along with all the local pros at East Beach at least one morning a week.

But there are many players who play only for the love of the game. There’s the 14-year-old kid whom everyone called “Junior Karch” because of his penchant for wearing one of Kiraly’s patented pink caps and his habit, à la Kiraly when younger, of playing from dawn to dusk. Or 82-year-old Bill Chapin, a “Senior Nooner” who came back to his three-times-per-week habit just nine months after doctors told him he might never walk again when he broke his knee a decade ago. Or Paul Romane, a Ventura realtor who makes the 65-mile round-trip to East Beach at least four times per week and plays straight through until dark.

Ask any of them and they’ll all tell you the same thing: They can’t get enough of it.

“There’s no phone here,” said Ed Edick, co-owner of Village Properties. “It’s good to air out the brain and get out from under the fluorescents.”

“It’s the competition and the camaraderie,” said Joe Blum, the S.B. mayor’s husband and a doctor at the county veterans’ clinic, who shows up nearly every weekday at noon. “You really have an intimate relationship with your partner.”

“It’s my sanctuary, my haven, and pretty much the number-one thing I do in my life,” said Dave Stapp, who owns Coast Carpet Cleaning, but spends as much time on East Beach as he does running a steam-cleaning machine over living room shags. He took up the sport four summers ago, not too long after his divorce became final, and last year, he moved downtown from western Goleta mainly to be closer to the action. “It’s good for the heart and soul. … It got me out of the emotional gutter and onto the beach, and now I’m here six days a week. Women and my job are now second and third.”

The entry point for Stapp, like so many current East Beach evening denizens, was the City of S.B. Park & Recreation’s evening classes in the summer, taught by Brant Lee (whom everyone calls “B”), a local beach legend and past winner of the masters tournament. More social gathering than hard-core training, the monthly sessions end with a friendly mini-tournament followed by a beach barbecue.

“I try to keep it fun,” said Lee. “If they pick up some techniques along the way, great.”

Lee himself is one of the addicted — he referees for the AVP on weekends, teaches the classes during the week, and when he gets a spare moment, where do you think he goes? That’s right, down to East Beach, where he picks up games with ex-Nooners (more about them later), up-and-comers, or local pros such as Nick Lucena, who took ninth in the AVP in town last month. “I feel better about myself in every possible way when I’m playing,” he said. “Life has a different perspective after some time at the beach.”

The class formula has worked for a decade, spawning hundreds of enthusiasts who now play regularly, before work, during lunch, after work during daylight savings hours, and all day on the weekends. Lee can even point out a handful of married couples who first met in his class, and probably at least half of the players you see filling the courts on any given evening have passed through at one point or another.

Russ and Mo Granger are veterans of less than a year, and they say they’re already completely hooked, as evidenced by the fact that they’re just getting to the beach at 5 p.m. on a Friday night, when their contemporaries might be heading for the bar. “Our Friday night used to involve being sedentary at happy hour, eating fried food, and drinking alcohol,” said Russ, an auto mechanic. “Now it’s exercise, sun, and bottled water.”

“At first, it was just something for us to do together, but the people here have become like family to us,” added Mo, who is a teacher.

Indeed, the evening crowd has grown so close they sometimes set up games in advance, via email lists and phone banks, to assure compatibility and a matched game — and a place to play, since from rush hour to sunset, it can be tough to get a court. Then they’ll often head over to a nearby eatery for some healthy post-play chow.

Back in the Day

Midday is a different story, however. The courts — occupied by classes and pros in the morning, and from noon-2 p.m. by the remnants of the lunchtime group once known as The Nooners, middle-aged men whose colorful nicknames include Hatchet, Terminator, Hammer, and Grumpy — are often empty during the lull before the evening crowd shuffles in after work. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, the old-timers will tell you, the place was packed all day, with duos lined up three deep on every court waiting to play the winning teams, and young ladies hanging out to watch.

“What we’ve got here now is the opposite of a scene,” said 30-year veteran George “Duke” Howard on a weekday afternoon, as he partook in the daily ritual of eating a banana and an apple that signify the end of his games before he takes up the L.A. Times crossword puzzle. “People only come here when they want to play, not just to hang around. There’s no scene. No showing off for the girls. It’s about the volleyball. When I first started, I used to come here because this is where everybody was. Now I stay here after I finish playing to relax because this is where nobody is. You can find solitude.”

Bob Van Wagner, 80, agreed. “It’s lost a lot of its luster,” said the veteran of 50-plus years who still dabbles with the sport every once in a while, but comes to the beach every day anyway just to watch others play. “It’s not so crowded anymore. Youngsters can’t afford to live here these days. It’s going through a different phase.”

But two weeks later the weather has warmed, and even Duke sees signs of life. Colleges and high schools are closing for the summer, indoor players are heading outdoors, and East Beach vibrates once again.

In a city where it costs $1.2 million to buy an average house, it only takes passion, not money, to indulge in the sport. East Beach is like “a front yard for those who rent apartments,” said Jorge Richardson, a k a “Mr. Volleyball,” a longtime player who now spends most of his beach time teaching beginners and coaching AVP players. “All you need [to play] is a pair of beach shorts.”

Steve and Judy Lough have been playing at East Beach since moving to town 30 years ago and help organize the Polar Bear tournament, an East Beach staple every Super Bowl Saturday. Their 18-year-old daughter Brittany, with her long blonde hair blowing in the breeze, waxed philosophic on the sport’s appeal. “Volleyball is definitely in my blood,” she said. “My brother and I started coming down here right after we were born. It’s like a community. Everybody knows you. And it’s a great place to hang out even if you’re not playing. It’s like our mall.”

Most days you can also find Taylor Vandergrift, a buff, tanned 22-year-old who usually has a bevy of bikini-clad babes sitting somewhere nearby wherever he’s playing. He got reeled into his first game of doubles just two years ago, when another East Beach denizen corralled Taylor and a friend, who had just come down to imbibe a few cold ones, into serving him a few balls.

“Two weeks later, I was playing against [Jeff] Minc and [Ben] Koskie,” Vandergrift said, referring to the recent beach pros from town, whom he hopes to join on tour as early as next summer. “I’ve been coming down ever since, pretty much every day, five days a week. It’s like a virus. You get hooked. So now I schedule my SBCC classes around my games.”

But perhaps the greatest hope for a revival of the scene rests with a throwback like young teenager Dillan Bennett. He’s home-schooled, so he spends countless daylight hours at East Beach, honing the game he fell in love with two years ago. While many in his age group get their sports fix the virtual way, via Xbox and its brethren, Bennett can’t get enough of the sand. “It’s got a lot of drama,” he said, describing the two-person game. “People don’t realize that the plays in beach volleyball can be more exciting than overtime in an NCAA final-four game. It’s really intense.”

What’s interesting is just how popular Bennett has become. Whether it’s because he reminds them of themselves 20 or 30 years ago, or who they wish they had been, people two and three times his age clamor to play with “The Kid,” as one veteran calls him, because of his can-do attitude and ever-improving skills. Duke is like his surrogate dad, and together they’ve beaten plenty of teams you’d think they wouldn’t be able to handle. “It’s amazing what you can do when you understand your partner,” Bennett said, sauntering off to find another game.

Maybe one day, Bennett will find other passions like I have with swing dancing or flying kites with my girlfriend and her kids. But truth be known, there’s still no place I’d rather be than down at East Beach diving to dig up a hard-driven spike, jumping back to my feet, and then slicing the set from my partner untouched into the corner of the opponents’ court. Life is good.

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