A little over a month after the controversial Manhattan Beach Open was played under the old school rules, the Corona Light Wide Open tour brought the classic vibe back to the Manhattan Beach sand with the tour’s crescendo, the U.S. Open of Beach Volleyball.
As the AVP folded and the scramble began to ensure that the prestigious Open would still go on, the decision of tournament director J. Parker Saikley to play the traditional rules (sideout scoring, long court, no antennas) resulted in a massive divide among fans and players.
When the Corona Light Wide Open tour pulled into Manhattan Beach there was no mystery as to the format for this tournament—it was old school all the way. Minimal prize money and traditional rules kept many top players away from the Manhattan event but it was a different story for this Open. A $50,000 purse brought out some of the big names in the sport. Sean Scott and Nick Lucena reunited for a shot at a title, as did Sean Rosenthal and Aaron Wachtfogel, fresh off of their Manhattan Beach Open victory.
Beach volleyball legend and the Chief Volleyball Officer of the U.S. Open Karch Kiraly feels the Corona Light Wide Open Tour’s objective to take the sport back to its roots is what beach volleyball needs right now.
“One of the things we’re trying to do is emphasize the lifestyle and the fun that is a part of beach volleyball,” said Kiraly. “Part of the idea of classic is not just rules but things like no stands [so] people can pull their chair up really close to the court, they can banter with the players from two feet away. That’s a part of the flavor of beach volleyball that I knew growing up and that ignited my passion for their game.”
On the men’s side it appears that the Rosenthal and Wachtfogel partnership is officially a force to be reckoned with after the duo captured their second straight title in only their second tournament together. The pair fought their way out of the loser’s bracket to reach the title game—setting up a rematch with Matt Prosser and Josh Binstock, who had easily dispatched the eventual titleholders in the winner’s bracket final earlier that morning. The championship match would prove to be a different story.
The final was a deadlock affair for most of the contest. The teams traded points and momentum swings before Rosenthal and Wachtfogel went out in front 11-9 courtesy of two giant blocks from Wachtfogel, who stands only 6’1”. He said those blocks gave him an extra boost and also helped him and Rosenthal conserve energy by alternating the duty because blocking is such a demanding task.
“It felt great. You gotta watch out for the little guy because you can’t see their hands. Sometimes the big guys you know where they are [at the net] but the little guys are sneaky. Plus it saves energy to split blocking.”
Prosser and Binstock answered right back with a 2-0 run of their own behind a crushing spike straight to the sand by Prosser followed by Binstock turning the tables on Wachtfogel, with a block of his own to make the score 11-11.
The teams traded points to reach 12-12 before Rosenthal joined in on the block party when he sent Binstock’s cross-court kill try back to the sand to give his team a 13-12 advantage. A controversial double-contact call on Binstock pushed Rosenthal and Wachtfogel’s advantage to match point at 14-12. Prosser did his best to overcome a tight set at the net but Rosenthal stuffed Prosser’s kill try to give his team a 15-12 victory and a U.S. Open title.
The sideout scoring format which resulted in much longer games coupled with the soaring temperatures on the sand made conditions tough for all. Rosenthal said he was proud of the way he and Wachtfogel battled in the face of adversity.
“We came back. We were tired, the legs were cramping a little bit, but you just have to fight through it. We just played our game. Aggressive. Serve tough. Swing tough, that’s how you play this game.”
Rosenthal said another big victory to end the beach volleyball season was something to be proud of.
“It’s another tournament in Manhattan with great players out here. When you look at all the teams on that board before you start playing and you don’t just feel like ‘I’m going to win this tournament, this is a lock.’ A lot of good teams out here, so for us to come out on a top means a lot.”
On the women’s side, Diane DeNecochea coaxed partner Brittany Hochevar into playing in the U.S. open and the pair promptly ran through the competition en route to capturing the 2010 U.S. Open title.
DeNecochea and partner Hochevar capped their undefeated weekend by cruising to a 15-6 in the championship match over Floridians Tara Kuk and Brooke Sweat to capture their first tournament championship as partners. Hochevar and DeNecochea came into the final well-rested after scoring a victory in their toughest match of the tournament, a 15-11 victory over Kuk and Sweat in the winner’s bracket final.
The game seesawed early between the teams before DeNecochea broke the stalemate with a block to make it 6-5. A sprawling over-the-shoulder back bump from Hochevar that dropped to the sand started a 5-0 run that would prove far too much for Kuk and Sweat to overcome. DeNocochea, who stands 6’4”, was firing on every shot, going up, over and all around the court and her precision pushed the lead all the way to 12-5.
Kuk stopped the bleeding, albeit temporarily, with a rare stuff of DeNecochea at the net to make it 13-6. A lofted touch shot from Hochevar brought her team to match point at 14-6. DeNecochea capped her and Hochevar’s victory with a ferocious kill shot right down the middle to put an exclamation point on the weekend and possibly her career as a beach volleyball pro.
If Denecochea decides to hang up her two-piece, she will do so after a lofty contribution to the women’s game. She has been ranked in the AVP’s top 14 each season from 2001-2008. In July 2009, she set the record as the oldest female to win a pro beach volleyball event, capturing the crown in the AVP’s Coney Island when she was 41 years old, a record she bested with her US Open victory. DeNecochea wasn’t afraid to use the “R-word” after her win but she hasn’t completely ruled out a return.
“I think this might be my last tournament so I’m excited to finish with a win. But we’ll see what happens next year,” DeNecochea said. But Hochevar said she will try to convince her partner to come back for one more season.
“I’m doing my best to talk her out of retirement,” Hochevar said. “If she’s playing at this level at the age that she is, she’s not done. She’s got more volleyball left in her.”
As the AVP hangs on life support and the questions mount as to what will happen next season, the Corona Light Wide Open Tour’s growing success shows that the future of beach volleyball is still very bright, Kiraly said.
“I know we’ll have our Corona Light Wide Open series and it’s going to have more events next year with more prize money. Nobody knows what’s going to happen with the AVP, every day that goes by makes it look less likely that there’s going to be a purchase and resurrection,” he said. “We’re trying to run a business model that is sustainable and it is; we’re on year four of the U.S. Open, we’re not losing any money, we’re running a national tour that could very easily ramp up into something like the AVP if a couple of other pieces fall into place.”
Originally published in January 2011