HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — If you’re looking for a small slice of beach volleyball comedy, you can find it on Volleyball TV or YouTube. Rewind to April 6, qualifier day of the Itapema Challenge. Andy Benesh and Miles Partain — current world No. 3, Gstaad Elite16 gold medalists, winners of two straight AVPs, the most successful USA partnership since Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena teamed up in 2015 — were matched against a Hungarian pair few outside of Hungary or current players are likely to have heard of.
Itapema would be a late start for most teams but earlier than expected for Partain and Benesh. Partain left UCLA, where he was the starting setter, early to pursue an Olympic run in earnest. Their offense, heavy on jump-setting — a skill Benesh had never before tried — and ball control — something that was Benesh’s frequent undoing in previous years — had yet to be tested. Their defense, with a heavy dose of angle blocks and late line moves from Benesh, had yet to be unveiled in competition.
“We had a two-hour phone call and we decided we were going to live by the sword and die by the sword,” Benesh said. “If it doesn’t work, we’re going to keep failing until it works.”
Artur Hajos and Bence Streli nearly put that sword straight through the chest. A 21-11 first set win extended into a 15-13 lead in the second.
These were the Americans who were supposed to revive USA beach volleyball? The ones getting handled by Hungary? (in all fairness, “those guys are really good,” Benesh said, whether or not you have heard of them).
“I was so nervous for that match,” Benesh said. “I literally could not pass a ball.”
Despite the passing struggles and the multiple lift calls and the jump-sets that tested the nerves of both referees and fans and coaches alike, they survived. Partain won a crucial joust on an overpass at 16-14 to keep the deficit at one. Two straight errors gave them a 17-16 lead and they’d close out the set and the match, 21-19, 15-8.
It’s funny to look back on that match, and the diverging paths of those teams since. Hajos and Streli have made just one main draw, at a Futures in Spain. They are the 79th ranked team in the world.
Benesh and Partain, meanwhile, have single-handedly revived USA beach volleyball.
They’ve won 29 matches and lost just 10. The three medals they have won — bronze in Ostrava, gold in Gstaad, silver in Montreal — have all come in Elite16s. They’ve lopped off Poland’s Bartosz Losiak and Michal Bryl, Alex Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen (three times), Ondrej Perusic and David Schweiner, Evandro Goncalves and Arthur Mariano, Adrian Carambula and Alex Ranghieri, George Wanderley and Andre Loyola. Twice in the same tournament, they beat Anders Mol and Christian Sorum, becoming the first American team to hold two victories over Norway.
“We didn’t have a lot of tournaments to mess around,” Benesh said. “We weren’t necessarily in a great spot points-wise. We only had two tournaments to mess with it. I knew Miles had my back if it went poorly.”
There are successful partnerships, and then there is the unique alchemy of Benesh and Partain. The former is a 6-foot-9, 28-year-old with a booming, contagious laugh who briefly quit the sport to try his hand at financial advising. The latter is a 6-foot-4 defender with a quiet demeanor and a mind that is forever tinkering and experimenting, to the point that it can drive their coach, Mike Placek, a bit batty.
“Even at some points Mike was like ‘You guys are jump-setting 15 feet off the net!’ ” Benesh said, laughing that contagious laugh. “But we had to push the range to find it.”
The combination of an open-minded coach, a partner with a tendency to push limits, and the boldness to fail and fail and fail until something works is partly what has led to Benesh becoming arguably the most improved player in the world. While much is rightly made of Partain’s absurd range with the option attack, world-class jump-setting, and spectacular defense, it is Benesh who has taken his game to a level that he is currently in the conversation as the best blocker not named Anders Mol.
He finished second in blocks in Itapema, first the following week in Saquarema, second in Ostrava, second in Gstaad, and tied for first with Mol in Montreal. Beyond the physical ability to block a ball, however, it’s Benesh’s cerebral nature that has led to teams hitting it squarely into his gigantic mitts. While Partain is the brains behind their offense, it is Benesh who was the visionary of their defensive system.
“I’m trying some different stuff with timing and shapes and stuff. A lot of it is Miles trusted me on the defensive vision and a lot of it is Miles behind me,” Benesh said. “We collaborated. It’s a lot based off of Norway. I watched so much film on them. We try to mold it in a way — they’re doing some different stuff this season. Ours is very choreographed. I know exactly where he’s standing behind me. Him being able to bait and switch behind me has elevated my blocking a lot.”
It didn’t come overnight. Far from it. A few times per week, depending on the competition schedule, Benesh and Partain will make the two-plus hour trek to San Diego, where Placek is based. The car rides are not quiet or filled with music or podcasts, rather with hours and hours of trading ideas.
“We’ve had many debates, probably 75 hours’ worth of debating,” Benesh said. “The amount of exits Miles has missed from us talking about volleyball — one time we drove north of L.A. and he was supposed to drop me off in Torrance. We went 45 minutes too far.
“I just had theories and I really wanted to try them out. It’s difficult if you don’t have that trust with your partner. One thing Miles changed really well — he was super uncomfortable standing on the line side because it’s so easy to hit a cut shot, but I was like ‘Bro, we’ll just run a three [the call for a late line block from the blocker]. You’re going to walk into a cut shot and bounce it.’ For some reason, giving up that much court on a cut shot is different than giving up a line shot 10 times in a row. You like don’t believe the defender is going to stand there.
“We combined some of my theories with some of the stuff he was doing with Paul [Lotman in 2022]. I think Miles is one of the best in the world at baiting people into shots he wants them to hit. His timing on his juke moves is really good. We’ve made it so we have 12-15 different calls. They all play off each other. You can see the same look and we have three variations of it — one where he stays, one where he goes, one where he goes and comes back. Now we can get into the chess match of predicting, which is where it gets really fun.”
Their success has, in turn, made it a world of fun for American fans, who alas have a regular medal contender in any high level tournament in which they play. Their two main competitors in the Paris Olympic race for the two USA spots — Trevor Crabb and Theo Brunner and Tri Bourne and Chaim Schalk — have just one medal between them, which came in the only tournament either team has pushed beyond the quarterfinals.
Part of this is due to the constantly evolving nature of Benesh and Partain, the youngest team in the American system. On paper, teams have played Benesh and Partain multiple times; in reality, each occasion in which they match up with the Americans it will be a new team they have to thwart, a new look to which they must adapt.
Take, for example, the four-hour film session after a loss in the bronze-medal match in the Saquarema Challenge to Austrians Julian Horl and Alex Horst. In their next tournament, the Ostrava Elite16, they emerged a completely new team, with a different defense.
“It’s not like he’s mad or I’m mad, we’re just genuinely trying to figure out the best solution. We added another layer to our defense after that match which helped us skyrocket after,” Benesh said. “He has conviction and genuinely wants to know the solution to the problem we’re solving.”
Or the eye-opening moment for Benesh after a narrow escape against Estonia in the final round of the Ostrava qualifier, in which Benesh and Partain had to fend off three straight match points. He could have optioned, helped Partain get out of a rare sideout rut. Instead, he didn’t. Since? He’s as likely to option as Partain.
After Ostrava, and Benesh making that offensive adjustment, they have lost just two matches on the Beach Pro Tour.
“That’s one lesson I learned, and thankfully we didn’t learn it the hard way. These blockers are too good. You can’t just leave your guy on an island,” Benesh said. “That was a big learning moment for me to not be scared of the situation and take the option if it’s there, and Miles is obviously pretty cold-blooded with that.
“Adding different layers, having the comfortability to step outside of our comfort zone in match has been big. If we get really, really good at passing, it’s going to be good.”
As if it’s not good already.
Still, even with his meteoric rise, from nearly stunned by Hungary to a ubiquitous medal contender, Benesh knows he isn’t even close to nudging up against his potential.
“Since I started playing beach volleyball, I could never do what I thought about,” he said. “I think my body is finally catching up. I think I’m still a year or two away from being able to do what I want to do.”