Even at the elite youth beach level, partner switches occur.
And for recent Laguna Beach (California) High School graduate Peri Brennan, making that type of adult decision was not easy.
Brennan explained she mainly played with recent Mira Costa (Manhattan Beach, California) graduate Olivia Bakos from her freshman through junior seasons.
But both are defenders in the beach game.
“After many fun and successful years with my primary partner Olivia Bakos, we realized as we got older that neither one of us wanted to be blockers,” Brennan said. “I am 5-foot-8 and a true defender. Olivia is a little taller but quick as a cat and a great defender, but knew that blocking was not her passion either. We had registered for some tournaments together this spring and summer before parting our ways to rival colleges. Unfortunately, Covid took over the world and took those opportunities away from us.
“Olivia and I decided we needed to pair up with taller players to bring our game to a higher level and prepare for college. Olivia paired up with 6-2 Xolani Hodel to compete in the U19 Trials and I paired with Tessa Van Winkle. The U19 trials was a main goal of mine to train for this spring and summer before going off to college. The trials have been postponed and now are lurking somewhere in the future — or not. Times have changed for all of us in the volleyball world.”
Brennan and Van Winkle, both headed to UCLA, were part of the first-ever VolleyballMag.com Girls Beach Fab 30 rankings published last month, and along with the USC-bound Bakos were in the running for the distinction of being the top recruit in the Class of 2020.
Brennan is the No. 1-ranked AAA women’s player in the California Beach Volleyball Association, while Van Winkle ranks seventh. Brennan also is the No.2-ranked competitor in USA Volleyball’s Women’s B Under-18 seeding-point system (behind No. 1 Class of 2020 recruit Megan Kraft). Brennan also won the 2018 and 2019 Interscholastic Beach Volleyball League Queen of the Beach honor (top high school pair in Southern California) with Lexi McKeown (2018) and Piper Naess (2019). She also finished fourth in a NORCECA tour event last summer in Mexico with Devon Newberry (also currently at UCLA).
“I love playing with Tessa,” said Brennan. “She’s 6-2 and very tall. It’s nice to have a big block up and then I can focus on defending. She lives in San Clemente which is next to Laguna so it’s super-easy to do practices.”
Van Winkle has been equally thrilled with the partnership.
“We gel well together,” she said. “Peri is such a fast defender. She plays well and reads well behind my block, and she sets really well. She knows every shot in the book, so she is really shotty. She’s also really speedy and has really good ball control. We flow well together. I’m so excited that we are both going to UCLA. UCLA has been both of our dreams since we were little. It’s pretty cool that we both have that in common.”
Brennan and Van Winkle took similar paths to the beach. Van Winkle started in the indoor game, but watched her older sister get into the beach side of things first. Abby Van Winkle also plays at UCLA and as a freshman was part of UCLA’s national-championship beach team.
“Beach was always something I was interested in,” Van Winkle said. “I loved the beach and the beach and volleyball together was the perfect combination for me.”
Her first indoctrination into the beach game was at the age of 12.
“I fell in love with it right away — as soon as I started playing,” Van Winkle said. “I played club indoors at Laguna Beach probably from fifth grade until I was 14. By my sophomore year in high school I gave up indoor and went beach only. I wanted to train and focus on the beach. Especially after I committed to UCLA, beach volleyball was my only passion.”
What exactly lured Van Winkle to the sand?
“Honestly, everything,” she said. “First, you are at the beach and then it’s two people instead of six. You get to do more because you are constantly running around. Since I am tall and I am a blocker, I am able to do everything. You always are touching the ball, passing and hitting. You have to be good at every skill rather than being specialized in one thing.”
Van Winkle admitted her first foray into the beach game wasn’t exactly a walk in the park.
“At first it was tough,” she said, “but once I started training beach only, I never looked back. I kept wanting to get better and improve my beach game. There is so much to improve on because the game is so different. You don’t realize things such as the wind direction and there is more shotting involved than the indoor game. The indoor game is more of a power game.”
Brennan made the indoor club rounds with three different organizations before giving that up in eighth grade.
“I wanted to pursue beach,” she said. “Quite honestly, I didn’t like indoor. The beach was a lot more fun. I liked the environment a lot better. The beach was always where I belonged I guess? I like the whole environment and I like the competitiveness. It’s also a close-knit community where you can feel the energy and vibes from everybody.”
Brennan said she really started to ramp it up on the beach end around age 11. “That’s when I started playing in tournaments,” she said. “I became obsessed and I wanted to play in every single tournament there was. I kind of got better quickly. I was so fixated on the sport and wanted to be playing it all the time.”
Brennan and Van Winkle currently are under the tutelage of sport great Dane Selznick through his Santa Monica/Laguna Beach Volleyball Club. Brennan had explored other beach club options to the north and south of Laguna, but Southern California traffic made that unpalatable.
“Dane has improved our game,” Brennan said. “He’s very technical. He’s detail-oriented and that makes us think more about the game. He’s helped us a ton.”
Selznick labels Van Winkle, “a work horse who wants to be as good as she can be and is always ready to compete.”
“Her presence at the net and athletic ability have helped her win many AAA adult tourneys this past season,” he added.
Selznick is equally bullish on Brennan.
“Peri is one of the smoothest players on the sand,” he said. “Very few players hand set with the consistency and error-free technique as Peri does. She is one of the best servers who has every shot in the book and can play with anybody. She’s always in the game and rarely sees a serve.”
UCLA beach coach Stein Metzger had plenty to say about the pair at the time of their signings in Westwood.
“Peri is a very accomplished competitor whose record speaks for itself, as she is the No. 1-ranked adult player in the CBVA,” he said. “Her ball control, attention to detail and winning mentality will serve her and the program well for the coming years.
“Tessa is a dynamic and formidable blocker. Her physicality and strong work ethic will have an immediate impact on the program.”
Like Van Winkle mentioned earlier, the prospect of going to UCLA to play beach volleyball is the stuff dreams are made of.
“I don’t really believe it yet,” said Van Winkle, whose mother Laurie (Jones), played indoors at UCLA and was part of two national-championship teams. “It was always my dream and I worked really hard to get there. I didn’t know if I could make it. All the hard work really paid off.”
Like Van Winkle, who is thinking about getting into business and sports broadcasting, Brennan is looking at that same type of communications route as a possible major and also mentioned film.
“UCLA always has kind of been the dream school,” Brennan said. “I liked the team and the coaching staff. I love the campus and I felt like I was wanted there. If I get into film, it would be fun producing and writing. I’d be right there in Hollywood anyway.”
Selznick sees a bright future for both star pupils.
“Peri’s potential is unlimited,” he said. “She can compete at the pro level with humbled confidence. Tessa’s work ethic makes her a valuable collegiate commodity. She has all the skills and is one of the most fit players on the beach. She will definitely shine for years to come.”