Michelle More and Suzanne Stonebarger’s friendship started thanks to a hairstyling gone bad.
More was on a recruiting trip to the University of Nevada. One of her hosts was Stonebarger, who is a year older.
“She highlighted my hair in the dorm and I ended up looking like a skunk,” said More.
Blonde streaks aside, the two soon developed a close friendship in Reno that has carried over onto the beach where the fourth-year team has morphed into one of the most popular tandems on the women’s side of the AVP Crocs Tour.
Their “Team Gorgeous” moniker—originally coined by the AVP crew in 2004 —is a rare example of team brand recognition in a sport that continues to fight hard for mainstream sports and entertainment acceptance.
“We kind of laugh about the name,” said the 6’1” More, a native of Torrance, Calif. “It started as a joke. We don’t take it too seriously, but if that’s the way we differentiate ourselves from the competition and the fans like it, that doesn’t bother us. Back then the AVP people probably gave us that because they didn’t know our names (laughs).
But we don’t want people to read this, especially young girls, and think this is all because of our name. There is a lot more to us. We’re best friends and we have a story.”
And this story has everything to do with a strong friendship.
“I’m able to go out there and play beach volleyball with my best friend. Not too many people can say that,” said Stonebarger. “We have an ideal situation.”
More feels their friendship has been a major key for the team when it comes to the beach game.
“We genuinely care about each other and how each other plays,” said More. “We have the same goals in mind. Any time you get to train and work with your best friend, it’s rare. When you have that common respect for the person you are playing with on and off the court, it definitely helps the partnership on the court. Our partnership is rare and unique.”
Stonebarger, who turns 27 in August, says the fact the team has remained together for four years in a sport where partner switching has become as common as tying shoes has had something to do with their popularity with the fans. The duo is already fifth all-time in career domestic women’s tournaments played in as a team (45).
“It has a lot to do with us sticking together,” said Stonebarger, a hair and make-up artist in her spare time who is also developing her own skin care line. “As a team, it’s easy to point us out in a crowd. We get the crowd involved out there. We like to go out there and have fun. People don’t know us as individuals as much as they do as a team in the beach world.”
“It’s hard to for fans to relate to a team when the players are switching all the time,” said More, who turned 26 in June. “I think when a team sticks together it helps the fans relate to them better. Suzanne and I are both very outgoing and extroverted people. That definitely helps. I also think being approachable is something the fans like.”
But the Redondo Beach roommates pull no punches with each other.
“We are kind of like sisters,” said More, who has been labeled the thinker of the team, while Stonebarger is regarded as the doer.
“We have our ups and downs. We are pretty blunt with each other. When we say something, it’s truly what we feel. We have a common understanding. If we say something critical, it’s for the betterment of the partnership. A lot of people hold stuff back. That gets you in the long run. We always try to get everything out there. It helps with the lines of communication.”
The duo also does not shy away from the fact there is a disparity between their popularity and the size of their tournament checks.
Since becoming a team, More and Stonebarger have 11 top 10 finishes to their credit. They enjoyed a breakout season in 2006, finishing a career-best fifth on two occasions and logging a total of nine top 10 finishes in 15 starts. But the duo had only one top 10 finish and nine top 20 finishes through the first half of the 2007 AVP season.
“We’re not satisfied with how we are playing this year,” said the 5’9” Stonebarger, a Northern California native. “We’re both really competitive. We’ve got high expectations for ourselves. We want to be a team that is in the semifinals and finals. We know there are a lot of great teams out there battling. But we know what we are capable of and we are going to keep fighting to get there. We need to win more. If you’re successful, you’re having fun. We need to pick up our fun level. ”
More, who has worked in the real estate and loans industry, was equally blunt on the popularity versus performance topic.
“We’re not the best team on the tour, obviously,” said More. “I think some of our popularity does come from how we look and the story we have, but we still need to continue to earn (our popularity). There is still a lot more that needs to be earned. It’s very important to us that we continue to earn it.”
More and Stonebarger are also enjoying an additional rarity in a sport where individual sponsorships are the coveted Holy Grail in terms of potential added exposure and usually much-needed additional income.
Stonebarger and More, who have their own website at www.morestonebarger.com, have a sponsorship base that includes the likes of OP, Jose Cuervo and FIJI Water.
FIJI Water president and COO John Cochran sees a number of factors that have contributed to the team’s popularity both on and off the court.
“They are attractive to fans on the tour because at the core they are such good friends. They are like sisters out there,” said Cochran. “They have a blast playing together and that shows. And not only are they athletic, but when you meet them they are smart about the game and their lifestyle. They take it seriously.”
The duo is also a big promoter of the continued development of the beach game.
“We both really love the sport and have a big passion for it,” said More. “We like to be involved in things that promote the sport. At first, Suzanne and I didn’t know too much about the beach circuit. It’s important for girls to know this sport keeps growing. You never know until you do it. The sport is looking good for younger generations. And I think as the sport grows and the AVP keeps developing, more and more teams are going to be recognizable.”
More and Stonebarger, though, want to be recognized and remembered for something beyond just a catchy name.
“It’s exciting to go into your field or work and make a name or a statement,” said More. “But we don’t want to be known as just Team Gorgeous. We want to do well and be successful as volleyball players.”