I had big beach volleyball plans for 2020.
The FIVB Olympic qualifiers in Cancun and Rome. The Olympics in Tokyo.
Exciting parity in both the NCAA women’s beach and men’s indoor seasons.
And then this fall, after a trip to last year’s NCAA title match, my wife Julie’s favorite team, Wisconsin … what could have been.
As we all know, those plans were not to be as volleyball in 2020 morphed into flight credits one by one. And though the AVP came through and delivered three superb events in Long Beach, they did not allow external media, so we covered it from our living rooms.
Of course, there’s always a silver lining. I’ve since dusted off my tennis racket and have made solid progress in regaining some of my skills that have lain dormant for 40-plus years. I’ve practiced the piano consistently, and, occasionally, like most of what I’ve played. And I’ve been able to spend weekends with my wonderful bride.
But I still missed my volleyball photographer/writer life, attending events.
That’s why I was so excited about the opportunity this past weekend as the Florida Region of USA Volleyball put on the Florida Best of the Beach tournament.
It marked an opportunity to photograph my first pro beach volleyball of 2020, never mind that it was November. I was joined by VolleyballMag.com contributors Mark Rigney and Michael Gomez, and our photo gallery from the event at Hickory Point in Tavares, Florida, follows. If you missed our previous coverage, here is our preview, Friday’s qualifier recap, Saturday’s first round recap, and Sunday’s semis and finals recap.
“I was sitting at home on a Sunday afternoon, thinking about where beach volleyball was going, thinking that nobody was doing anything, and we hadn’t had any big East Coast events,” executive director Steve Bishop recalled. “And I thought, ‘Well, we have this gem of a facility here, and with no FIVB’s or AVP’s here, let’s see what we can do.’
“So I had a meeting with the staff, we started putting ideas on paper, and they rolled their eyes at me like they normally do. It was a pretty big idea to put out there.”
After making a few calls, Bishop realized that they actually had a shot at pulling it off.
“We reached out to our tourism board for support, they said yes, we reached out to the Norelli family for support, they said ‘Great idea, yes.’ We reached out to some other people. We started out with a purse of $30,000, then went to $50,000 and finally to $60,000.”
As they said in Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.” And a $60,000 purse in November of a pandemic year helped in happen.
Could it become an annual event?
“I’m very pleased. The feedback we got from the athletes and fans and spectators that came here for the weekend was extremely positive,” Bishop said.
“We’ll look at the schedule and see what we can do. The athletes love the format, love being able to play with different athletes.
“I don’t want to create a tour. I’m not trying to compete with the big guys. They do what they do, but if we could carve out a little spot and do something on the East Coast for our East Coast fans to watch, we’d be open to that.”
If it was all about taking advantage of the opportunity, few did it better than 18-year-old Caleb Kwekel.
He wasn’t even in the field until an hour before qualifier play began Friday. He went undefeated in the qualifier to make the main draw and tied for fifth, earning $750.
“I wasn’t expecting to be playing, so on Thursday night I did a super-hard workout,” Kwekel said. “I was only expecting to show up, collect the $150 for being a standby player and then leave.
“So I wake up Friday morning and go to Starbucks and get a big frappucino, sugared up, and then I get a call from Brad (Connors), and he says, ‘Hey man, we’re playing in an hour. How’re you feeling?’
I said, ‘I feel great, let’s play.’ So I’m super-shaky, had a headache and everything.”
No matter, he took the spot of Bruno Amorim, who tested positive for COVID.
“So I had Ben (Vaught), Brad, Adam Roberts, and me in the pool. I went undefeated in the pool, even though I was super-tired and sore from the workout.”
You’d be excused if you hadn’t heard of Kwekel previously. His pro beach volleyball experience, per BVBinfo.com, consists of a single tournament, a 49th place, second-round loss in the AVP Hermosa Beach qualifier in 2019. Saturday he faced a pool of main-draw talent, including two of the USA’s international stars, Phil Dalhausser and Theo Brunner.
“In this format, you forget how tired you are because you’re playing with the best. Avery (Drost), Theo, and Phil were all very nice people, and amazing to play with, it was a great environment.”
Predictably, Kwekel, who is from Sarasota, went 0-3 Saturday, but acquitted himself well, pushing the matches to tiebreakers twice, and losing three of those sets by the scantest of margins.
What was it like to play with Dalhausser?
“He’s so calm,” the 6-4 Kwekel said. “He’s not negative in any way, he’s only positive. It didn’t matter if I hit one out, it was just, ‘OK, let’s get the next point.’
“It was kind of like the Karch mentality, where you forget the last point. The best players forget the last point the fastest. I feel like a midget next to him, he’s so tall. He’s a super-good guy as well, he’s super-friendly. He’s fun to be around.”
Kwekel’s finest moment of the event might have occurred after his tournament was over, when he had the chance to sit down with Dalhausser after the match. Dalhausser offered the youngster 15 or so minutes of advice.
“I was struggling hitting down the line on the right side, my favorite spot to swing to. Theo’s such a good blocker, he was just reading me and clamping on it.
“Phil was saying that if I take a set more in the middle of the court it opens up my line a lot more. Vice versa, if I was more of an angle hitter I could take a set closer to the pin, opening up the angle.
“Just to be more aware of my surroundings and what kind of a player I am and what kind of a set I need.
Kwekel asked Dalhausser for advice on developing his talent: Are there more opportunities playing on the left? Right? What’s the next step for a young gun?
“It’s situational”, Dalhausser told Kwekel. “Just keep being a well-rounded player, play both sides, block, whatever. Just be you.”
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