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Beach Bytes: FIVB Itapema country quota, 66th Laguna Open, Thole, engagement, granola

MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. — The prep for the three winners of Tuesday’s country quota for the upcoming FIVB Itapema four-star was, to say the least, unconventional.

One team — Kim Hildreth and Megan Kraft — had never played together, and the prospect of practicing brought its own set of issues; Hildreth lives in Florida, Kraft is on campus at USC.

“A little bit of extra scheduling because Megan is still in school and USC has practices, and because I live in Florida,” Hildreth said after they knocked out Zana Muno and Delaney Mewhirter, 21-17, 22-20. “But sometimes you just click when you play with someone and our rhythm was great from the start.”

The first of two winners on the men’s side, Troy Field and Chase Budinger, had previously played together, but it’s possible they had even less practice time than the women. After winning a silver medal together in Rwanda in July, Budinger resumed playing the three-tournament AVP season with Casey Patterson, while Field competed with Eric Beranek and Miles Evans. In the leadup to the country quota, Field was coaching a clinic in Mallorca, Spain, and Budinger was on his honeymoon. When they were, alas, in the same country, they were playing fours, at the SharpeVision four-man put on by the McKibbin brothers.

No matter.

They swept Adam Roberts and Logan Webber, 21-17, 21-19, earning their bid to a four-star tournament, the highest international level Field has played.

“Huge opportunity to get points before the new system is implemented,” Field said, alluding to the Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour that will be debuting next season. “This tournament will be my fourth in terms of points so it’s huge to climb not only the world tour rankings but domestically with Phil [Dalhausser], Jake [Gibb], and Nick [Lucena] retiring from international competition.”

Lucena hasn’t yet made any formal announcement as to whether he intends on continuing to play internationally. With the Paris Games just three years away, he very well might remain a presence on the World Tour. Regardless, the points Field is gaining will be invaluable in his ascent through the ranks.

“Looking forward to getting more and more practices to improve my defense,” said Field, who switched from his usual role of blocking to defend for Budinger. “By no means do I think defense is easy, so it will come from hard work and a lot of practice.”

As for the last team?

We just don’t make a whole lot of sense, Tim Brewster and me, seeing as we’re both left-handed and neither of us have much experience playing left side. The country quota marked the third event we’ve played together, and at no point had we ever come to a firm decision over who plays what side. Lefties, as many are aware, almost exclusively play on the right, so as to maximize the threat of the option. To see a lefty on the left in a tournament is about as rare as an event that doesn’t feature Norway on the podium.

We didn’t decide until the day before our match against Billy Allen and Andy Benesh who was playing left. For the previous two events — in Tel Aviv in 2019, and Nijmegen this past September — I’d played left. It worked alright the first time, as we claimed fifth, a career-high for Brewster. But it went epically wrong in Nijmegen, where we lost to a subpar Czech team.

So we switched. And it worked, against one of the best teams on the AVP this year, as Brewster was positively brilliant in a 22-20, 21-18 win that puts him in the first four-star of his career.

Itapema begins on November 10. Teams who are competing but did not have to concern themselves with the country quota are Chaim Schalk and Theo Brunner, Taylor Crabb and Taylor Sander, Emily Day and Betsi Flint, Sarah Schermerhorn and Corinne Quiggle, and Sara Hughes and Terese Cannon.

Webber-Cook, Simo-Gaffney win 66th annual Laguna Beach Open

Add another one to the list, Logan Webber. In a season that has featured monumental win after monumental win — New Orleans AVP Next Gold, Waupaca, Seaside, to go along with a pair of AVP main draws — Webber added yet another big victory to his growing list of them last weekend.

He and Seain Cook won every match en route to winning the 66th annual Laguna Beach Open, defeating Andy Benesh and Billy Allen in the finals.

It was a small field, with just 12 teams on the men’s side and 12 on the women, but it didn’t make it any less dense. Webber and Cook, a winner of this year’s Eric Zaun Award — Webber also won the award in 2019 — beat David Lee and Kyle Friend twice, and Allen and Benesh twice.

On the women’s end, it was AVP rookie Savvy Simo and former Cal Bear Jess Gaffney who won, defeating twins Annika Rowland and Teegan Van Gunst in the finals.

Simo qualified twice this year on the AVP, finishing with a career-high of seventh in Atlanta, where she knocked out Brazilians Larissa and Lili in the qualifier and stunned Olympians Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes in the first round. Gaffney qualified in Manhattan Beach with Tory Paranagua.

Savvy Simo hits over the block of Teegan van Gunst/Mitch Ridder photo

Kelly Claes, Jordan Cheng get engaged

Kelly Claes’s and Jordan Cheng’s surreptitious relationship was at once the best and worst kept secret in beach volleyball. In a community that knows virtually everything about everyone, the fact that a high percentage of individuals were unaware that Claes was dating her coach was almost as impressive as Claes making the Olympic Games.

Perhaps that’s a stretch.

But it is a secret no longer, as Claes said yes when Cheng proposed in early October, before Claes left for the World Tour Finals. The two are planning an early spring wedding, before the beach volleyball season gets underway.

Top German blocker Julius Thole retires

In a wildly unexpected announcement, on October 25, top German blocker Julius Thole told his 14,400 followers on Instagram that he was retiring from professional beach volleyball, choosing instead to pursue law school.

“The decision was not an easy one for me and I’ve been thinking about it over the past few weeks. The main reason is that in the next three years I will no longer be able to practice the sport with full devotion. This has always been the most important requirement for the success of the team,” Thole said.

“Now I want to intensify my law studies. I was already studying during my career, which I certainly did well in the circumstances, but I have now reached a phase, shortly before the state examination, in which my academic studies will no longer be compatible with my commitment to the sport.”

Thole, who is only 24 years old, has been playing full-time professionally since 2017, compiling a phenomenal four-year stretch with Clemens Wickler. They won seven medals together on the World Tour, including a pair of silvers at the 2019 World Championships and World Tour Finals. They qualified for the Tokyo Olympics as Germany’s top pair, knocking out Jake Gibb and Tri Bourne before falling to Russians Viacheslav Krasilnikov and Oleg Stoyanovskiy to claim fifth.

Wickler, who is regarded as one of the best defenders in the world, will now play with Nils Ehlers.

Molly Turner, James Shaw: Granola moguls of Hermosa Beach

There’s a new look at the Hermosa Beach Farmer’s Market on Fridays. Past the fruit stands and the superfood this and superfood that, you’ll find a peculiarly tall couple under a tent with a sign labeled ‘M&J Away.’ Such is the name of Molly Turner and James Shaw’s upstart granola business, which began during the COVID pandemic when there was little else to do but cook granola and realize how dang good your granola is.

They began selling the granola — it is excellent, and you should try it — online, and when the volume of orders was beyond anything they expected, they took it a few steps further, creating a spreadable granola butter and getting a slot in the Hermosa Beach Farmer’s Market on Friday mornings and afternoons.

“We’ll be there every Friday all the way up to mid-December,” they wrote in their email newsletter. “If you’re in the Southern California area, come say hi!”