Like Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady, Todd Rogers has guided a raw understudy into high society-in this case, to a position of preeminence in American beach volleyball-but Rogers’s relationship with the younger man, Phil Dalhausser, is one of equality and exquisite balance.
Rogers, 33, is known as “The Professor” because of his cerebral approach to the game. The San Marcos High graduate played and coached volleyball at UCSB. Last year, he gave up his coaching job to pour all his athletic ability and knowledge into playing on the beach. He had a three-year plan, culminating in the 2008 Olympic Games at Beijing. He needed a partner to achieve that goal.
Todd Rogers and Phil Dalhausser (going for the spike) practice at East Beach.
Dalhausser, 27, is known as “The Thin Beast.” He stands 6‘9” tall, and with his shaved head resembles a flagpole with arms. He grew up near beaches in Florida but did not start playing volleyball until his senior year in high school. After graduating from University of Central Florida, he moved to Santa Barbara with Nick Lucena of Florida State, and they teamed up for three years on the AVP tour, winning a title in 2005 at Austin, Texas.
After four solid years with Sean Scott as his partner-but falling a few points short of qualifying for the 2004 Olympics-Rogers was ready to up the ante. International teams were putting behemoths at the net to take advantage of a reduction in the area of the beach courts. Dalhausser puts up the biggest block of any U.S. player, and the 6‘2” Rogers has a genius for digging balls in the back court. It was a match made in S.B. volleyball heaven-East Beach.
Rogers and Dalhausser took the domestic AVP tour by storm last year, winning eight tournaments. Rogers was named the MVP, as well as the best defensive player for the third year in a row. Dalhausser earned awards as the most improved player and best offensive player. More important to their Olympic project, the team proved it could compete internationally, winning the FIVB tournament in Austria.
The qualifying process for the Beijing Games is now underway. With two spots open for U.S. men, it’s a three-way contest. The other contenders are Jake Gibb/Sean Rosenthal and Mike Lambert/Stein Metzger. A third-place finish in Berlin two weeks ago gave Rogers and Dalhausser an early boost in the points race. The most important event is this week’s $1 million FIVB World Championships at Gstaad, Switzerland. It offers more than twice the points of a regular event on the World Tour.
“I’d trade down to a 25th in Long Beach for a first place in Gstaad,” Rogers said Sunday after he and Dalhausser won the AVP’s Long Beach Open. They took their $28,000 check and went immediately to the airport for a flight to Switzerland.
The triumph at Long Beach was significant in that it stoked the competitive fire of the local pair. (Rogers lives in Solvang with his wife Melissa and two children; Dalhausser recently bought a condo in Ventura.) They had won five of the year’s first six AVP tournaments but then went winless in four events before taking down Gibb and Rosenthal in Sunday’s final. The scores were 21-16, 19-21, and 15-9.
Rogers and Dalhausser wanted a two-game sweep, but the second game got away from them when a lucky ace serve by Rosenthal trickled over the top of the net. Rogers angrily kicked the ball with his left foot, a reminder of his skill at soccer. “That was a bad time for that serve,” he said. The momentum seemed to shift to Gibb and Rosenthal-a South Bay favorite who was backed by “Rosie’s Raiders”-but Rogers and Dalhausser seized it back in the deciding game. Rogers showed his finesse as a hitter that has earned him another nickname, the Velvet Hammer, and Dalhausser ate up their rivals at the net, scoring three of the final four points on ferocious blocks.
More of the same in the Swiss Alps this week could prove to be a peak experience.