In an era when more than half of all marriages end in divorce, everyone knows it’s hard to make relationships last. But the rate at which the top men’s beach volleyball teams broke up last off-season made even those notably precarious Hollywood hook-ups look like life-long commitments by comparison.
Nearly all of the highest-ranking players changed partners last winter, as nine of the top 10 teams went their separate ways. But no need to call Dr. Phil — the partner shuffling happens every winter, and if this year’s mass exodus far exceeded previous realignments, the moves were to be expected as the players look forward to the 2008 Olympics. Qualification begins next spring, and the players are simply trying out the new match-ups to see if they have what it takes to make it to Beijing. Local fans get a chance to see the new teams in action on this weekend’s $250,000 Santa Barbara Open, the third stop on the Association of Volleyball Professional’s (AVP) 16-city summer tour.
“You want to have a year under your belt before qualifying starts, rather than just forming a new partnership when the points are being counted,” said Karch Kiraly, who is widely considered the greatest volleyball player in history. Ironically, Kiraly — who starred at Santa Barbara High School and UCLA before winning gold medals with the U.S. indoor team in 1984 and 1988, and capturing the first-ever gold awarded in beach volleyball in 1996 — is one of the few current players who doesn’t harbor Olympic aspirations. At 45, he’s lost his taste for the grueling international tour and knows he’ll be long past his prime by ’08.
In fact, it was his partner, 2004 MVP Mike Lambert, who instigated the cavalcade of changes. Since “Lambo” is looked upon as the most dominating force on the beach, everyone was waiting to see what he’d do before making a move. “It is a big tryout year for most teams, because you have to see if you’re a good match with your partner before it’s too late,” said Lambert. “I was lucky to play with Karch, who really is the Michael Jordan of volleyball, while he was still pretty damn good. But it’s time to look ahead.”
Lambert selected Stein Metzger, his former high school teammate in Hawaii and one half of the AVP’s 2005 team of the year. Metzger’s ex, 2005 MVP Jake Gibb, picked up Sean Rosenthal, who played last year with Santa Ynez’s Larry Witt. By the time the domino effect had run its course, every player with a Santa Barbara connection had found a new mate. The final pairings matched last year’s best defensive player — former UCSB setter and assistant coach Todd Rogers (now living in Solvang) — with the tour’s 2005 best offensive player, Phil Dalhausser, who moved to Santa Barbara two years ago.
Meanwhile, Dax Holdren, an S.B. native who still lives in town and who won last year’s Santa Barbara event with fellow 2004 beach (and two-time indoor) Olympian Jeff Nygaard, opted for Rogers’s 2005 partner, Sean Scott. Dalhausser’s ex, S.B. resident Nick Lucena, recruited beach novice Sean Rooney, the 2005 NCAA indoor MVP. Former UCSB star Eric Fonoimoana re-teamed with his 2000 beach gold-medal partner Dain Blanton, while Kiraly wound up with Witt, who is nearly 20 years his junior.
“Everybody is younger than I am now,” said Kiraly, who has won more tournaments than any other player — 148, including one last year — and begins each season knowing it might be his last. “I’m the grandpa on the tour, the Methuselah. But I’m having a great time trying to keep up.”
Who will emerge from the pack is anybody’s guess, but Rogers-Dalhausser served notice by capturing the title in Tempe, Arizona, earlier this month, when they throttled the first-event champs, Gibb-Rosenthal, in the finals. “It’s way too early to tell if we’re the team to beat,” said Rogers, who has finished second in S.B. four times without a win. “But it’s a good way to head for home. I’m really tired of being the bridesmaid here. I want that one almost more than any other right now.”
Santa Barbara will also offer fans a chance to witness a few of what Kiraly terms “karma matches” when former partners face each other for the first time. “Some of these guys react like a boyfriend getting dumped. They get real bitter, although it’s really just the nature of the business. I have no animosity toward Mike — in fact, I encouraged him to leave last year — but some guys get all fired up to take down their exes.”
There are no such personnel upheavals on the women’s side. Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Trainor — who waltzed to the gold medal in Athens in 2004 and captured the vast majority of AVP titles during the past three years — continue to steamroll opponents, having won the first two 2006 tourneys without even dropping a game in the two-out-of-three, double-elimination format. While there are three new women’s teams, nobody gives them much of a chance of unseating Walsh and May-Trainor. The odds of winning are so low it might be why two Santa Barbara players gave up the ghost completely this year. But S.B. also represents only the second beach appearance by perhaps the next great hope, former Stanford standout and two-time Olympian Logan Tom, who grabbed a ninth in Tempe.
Meanwhile, the AVP tournament is still the only professional sporting competition to take place within Santa Barbara County. Credit the influence of Kiraly’s legacy, and perhaps the legion of top-notch players who have followed him on the sand at East Beach. “When you have a local kid grow up to be the best at what they do, it’s really inspiring. You have someone to look up to,” said Holdren, who would love to repeat last year’s victory. “What could be better than to win at home in front of family and friends? And I get to sleep in my own bed on Saturday night.”
Insider’s tip: While the fans come out in force for the finals, you’re making a grave mistake if you don’t show up for the early-round matches on the outside courts. Some of the closest games and biggest upsets take place on those outer courts, where you can sit right on the sand alongside and at the ends of court, just a few feet from the action (think Jack Nicholson’s seats for the Lakers at Staples Center).
4·1·1 The AVP Santa Barbara Open takes place May 18–21 at West Beach, just west of the pier. Play begins Friday at 8 a.m., Saturday at 8:30 a.m., and Sunday at 11 a.m. Gates open a half hour earlier. The women’s final is slated for Saturday at 1:30 p.m. and the men’s Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets for Friday, Saturday, or Sunday are $15 general admission ($5 students and children), $35 for courtside seats. Admission is free for the qualifying round today. Visit www.avp.com for more information.