Diamond in the Rough

Davide DePas
Ryan Doherty at 7 foot 1, putting up an imposing block at the net.

A former minor league baseball pitcher turned beach volleyball pro, the rather tall Ryan Doherty and partner Casey Patterson made news in early May with an upset win over defending Olympic gold medalists Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers.

“It was a pretty emotional moment for me,” said the 7'1" Doherty, who got the win in his first-ever final, and just his ninth open pro beach volleyball tournament.

In late June, Doherty and Patterson followed up that shocker by winning the Belmar, N.J., open in the Jose Cuervo Pro Beach Volleyball Series.

Doherty’s breakout summer continued when he and Patterson won their second consecutive Cuervo tournament, coming out on top in Chicago less than a month later.

But before he was pounding spikes, Doherty was throwing strikes.

The player some fellow beach pros have nicknamed “Avatar”—after the James Cameron film featuring nearly 10-foot-tall creatures—played baseball for the Arizona Diamondbacks’ single-A affiliate team.

“I spent a couple of seasons in the minor leagues, but never got up with the big dogs,” said Doherty.

The road from the pitcher’s mound to the beach began after he was let go by Arizona in 2007. At that time Doherty decided to spend some time with a friend in Hilton Head, S.C.

“We had a place that was about a quarter of a mile from the beach and there was this nice volleyball court and he was like ‘you should learn to play,’” said the former pitcher. “We bought the cheapest volleyball we could find, we tried to pass it back and forth three times and when we [finally] did, we celebrated. From then on we were having the best time and I loved it and kept wanting to play.”

So much so that more than two years ago, Doherty decided to head west to the beach volleyball mecca and train with the pros on the sands of Huntington Beach, Calif. But Doherty didn’t just show up in Southern California and expect to be the “King of the Beach” just because he’s tall and has the wingspan of a 747.

“You know, he wasn’t the best guy,” pro beach volleyball veteran Ty Tramblie said. “But what I respected most about him is that I would come down to the beach and he was always the first guy there with a bag of balls working on his swing over and over again, every day consistently. He was there all day long.”

Doherty also started working with a local high school coach. The hard work paid off with that win over Dalhausser and Rogers in the National Volleyball League (NVL) tour stop in Baltimore, and winning again in Belmar and Chicago might just have put a little fear in the minds of opposing players.

“Yeah, I think the intimidation factor is kicking in,” Patterson said. “This guy’s huge and he’s beaten the best team in the world. He’s a threat now.”

While Doherty is naturally a solid blocker due to his expansive reach, it is not his only skill on the sand. During the championship point in Belmar, he backed off the net and made a dig that carried over and hit the line, securing the pair’s second win this season. A smart play with perhaps a little bit of luck mixed in, it was certainly not a play you’d expect from a big-blocking 7-footer.

“That one just happened to get lucky and go down,” Doherty said of the point, making sure to add that he has “been working a lot on trying to be a little bit more athletic and pulling off the net. I’m trying to be able to do a little bit more than just be a big, lumbering guy up there.”

During his first full season playing pro beach volleyball, Doherty showed what a force he can be at the net, with seven blocks in a victory over Matt Prosser and Matt Olson in Belmar, the day before he and Patterson hoisted the trophy.

The win on the Jersey Shore, not far from his hometown, was extra sweet for Doherty.

“I grew up forty minutes south of here in Toms River, N.J., and a lot of my friends and family knew that I moved out to California to pursue beach volleyball, but they never really got a chance to watch me play,” he said. “As soon as that last ball landed and I got to look up and see my friends and family as excited as I was, I just about lost my mind.”

It was a very satisfying win for someone who first landed in southern California as a somewhat anonymous player.

“No one knew his name for the first year,” said Patterson.

But after three solid tournament wins, including a victory over the reigning Olympic gold medalists, we expect that everyone will soon know who Ryan Doherty is.

Originally published in September/October 2012

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