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 for more information.


Please note this login is to submit events or press releases. Use this page here to login for your Independent subscription

Not a member? Sign up here.