Taryn Kloth, Kristen Nuss, Savvy Simo named recipients of the 2021 Eric Zaun Award

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Eric Zaun serving during the 2017 AVP New York/Robert Beck, AVP

There was never any doubt about the Eric Zaun Award committee’s decision to select Kristen Nuss, Taryn Kloth, and Savvy Simo as the female award winners of the 2021 Eric Zaun Award (the men were Evan Cory and Seain Cook). We all knew they were phenomenal selections, three young women with bright futures, both on and off the court. Three young women who play beach volleyball with the type of enthusiasm and swagger and success, with limitless ceilings, Zaun would have loved. Three young women who, in Gulf Shores, Ala., in the heat of an NCAA Championship match on court one, ignored the don’t-touch-anyone COVID protocols and hugged it out after their quarterfinal match.

“I didn’t lose a game, and not want to go over and hug the other girls,” Simo said on SANDCAST, of which she has been a wonderful new member. “I know it was COVID and we had to distance or whatever, but towards the end, we’re over COVID. We’re over it. We’re spreading love. Even the girls at TCU, I’ve never met those girls before, but at that level, especially the ones, every team is so talented, and everyone has so much respect for one another, and regardless of who we played, there was so much respect.”

Yes, these are three young women who fit every category for this award and more.

And yet, if there had been any doubt, any lingering wonder if Nuss and Kloth and Simo had the doggedness required of anyone accepting an award named after beach volleyball’s ultimate Road Dog, well, that was erased on Monday night.

Hurricane Ida has done its worst throughout Louisiana, rendering much of the state without power for what could be up to a month. To Drew Hamilton, coach of Nuss and Kloth, this presented no issue whatsoever.

Nothing was going to stop this man from getting his grilled cheese.

Without power, Hamilton resorted to a butane torch — yes, a butane torch — to, uh, grill his grilled cheese sandwich.

“I don’t think I’ve seen anything this road dog in a long time,” said Ed Ratledge, who partnered with Zaun when Zaun won both the AVP and VolleyballMag Rookie of the Year Award in 2017. ”High compliments to the chef.”

And, thus, the certainty: These chicks are road dogs, indeed.

Here I’d typically say something like “all jokes aside” but jokes are a part of this award, and having a little personality, a little charisma, a little swagger, a little something extra, is a legitimate consideration we — Katie Spieler, Jon Mesko and I — take into account when selecting the winners. Nuss, in spite of being the winningest player in NCAA beach volleyball history, has a regular blooper reel on Instagram, which also features a mouth-watering food chronicles. She’s humble to a fault, yet carries a certain swagger about her that makes you want to watch, a combination of which this sport needs more.

“She has that confidence but she’s also very humble,” Kloth said of her partner. “She has that unbelievable balance that almost nobody else can find: confidence, humble, but she knows that she has skill. She knows that she can perform at a high level. It’s special.”

So new to the beach, and so very ok with being the rookie on the beach, is Kloth that she celebrated a trickle ace to beat Sara Hughes and Brandie Wilkerson in Atlanta — and then realized she hadn’t won at all.

“I was like ‘Yahoo! We won!’ We did not win,” Kloth said. “I wanted to crawl under a rock.”

Instead of crawling under a rock, she won the whole dang tournament.

Kristen Nuss-Taryn Kloth-Jon Mesko-Travis Mewhirter-Katie Spieler
Travis Mewhirter, Kristen Nuss, Taryn Kloth, Jon Mesko, and Katie Spieler giving out the Eric Zaun Award in Manhattan Beach.

They’re all good, yes, but there are so many good players out there. We look for more than talent in Zaun Award winners. Mostly, we look for character, the type of individual that, when they’re on the beach, the beach becomes a better place, a funner place, a brighter place.

“There are so many things Eric would’ve loved about Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth,” Spieler said. “They weren’t born into the perfect beach volleyball path, they made their own perfect path — just like Eric, a kid from a small town in New Jersey who drove his van across the country on his way to becoming one of the top players. He would’ve loved how they keep it fun. Yes, it’s about winning but they create fun bets between themselves for extra winning motivation — researching delicious food spots nearby and agreeing that they get to go after but only if they win the tournament. They make you smile just being in their presence — a classic EZ trait. Eric would’ve loved how they make the world and this volleyball community brighter.”

Simo, like Nuss and Kloth, makes the beach a better place. I’m biased, yes. She’s a co-host with Tri Bourne and I on SANDCAST, but I think it’s worth noting that, in four years now, Simo’s the only one we’ve ever invited on the show to fill that role.

Why Simo?

She’s something of a trailblazer. When UCLA was eliminated from the 2019 NCAA Tournament, she didn’t mope — not publicly, anyway — but instead went to the Final Four and served as a sideline reporter. She is unanimously loved by those she plays against.

“You just learn so much more when you fully invest in something,” Simo said. “I wouldn’t have learned as much if I was half in, half out. Being all in taught me so much more. You say stuff and you feel dumb, like people aren’t listening or they don’t care, but you just have to trust that everyone’s worked their hardest to get there and what you’ve done in the weight room and whatever is going to pay off.

“I can use all that I have now and take it to the real world or the pro level, an d it’s a blessing more than anything. Now I gotta take the leap of faith and go train.”

The Zaun Award doesn’t provide a ton of funding — each individual is awarded $1,500 to help cover the costs of travel — but it’s something. The idea of the award is to make it easier for those like Simo, Kloth, and Nuss, newcomers to the beach with all the talent yet perhaps not the funding, to make that leap of faith, to alleviate the financial burden that comes with traveling to qualifiers with no guarantee of making a dime back. (Note: Nuss and Kloth have won quite a bit of prize money this year, but we selected them before their success, and we decided that they shouldn’t be punished for their success; the Zaun Award is a cherry on top)

In just two AVP tournaments, Nuss and Kloth are over qualifiers. Simo’s on her way there, with back-to-back main draw finishes in Atlanta and Manhattan Beach. Now comes Chicago, a final tournament in a truncated season, Zaun’s favorite stop.

“Morale is so high in Chicago in the summer,” Zaun used to say.

so here they are, three young women keeping morale high, through hurricanes and qualifiers, with butane-torch-grilled-cheese sandwiches and all.

That’s Road Dog.

Recipients of the Eric Zaun Award

2021: Kristen Nuss, Taryn Kloth, Savvy Simo, Evan Cory, Seain Cook

2020: Andy Benesh, Crissy Jones, Kelly Reeves

2019: Logan Webber, Megan Nash, Aurora Davis, JM Plummer, Kacey Losik

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