The first question many wondered: Was Theo Brunner being serious? Or was he just trolling, as he is apt to do on Instagram?
The recently named AVP and VolleyballMag.com Blocker of the Year had posted a series of pictures on his social media account, two of he and Chaim Schalk, then one of just him, then a broken heart, all of which was followed by a hilariously mislabeled caption in which USA Volleyball mixed up him and Schalk.
“I guess you don’t have to worry about that anymore,” Brunner wrote.
The next day, Brunner confirmed that he and Schalk, the No. 1-ranked team in the United States and AVP, the duo who had finished fourth in an otherwise disastrous World Championships for the Americans, were splitting up. And if they were splitting up, at the top of the ranks, then the trickle-down wouldn’t be so much of a trickle-down of partnership breakups as it would be an avalanche from the top to bottom.
The first such new pairing has been announced: Chaim Schalk and Tri Bourne.
“I just was looking to switch it up. I like change a lot, I like variety,” said Bourne, who competed in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. “I get bored easily. Trevor [Crabb] and I turned potentially what was supposed to be a three or four event partnership into five years, split-blocking and entertaining. I’m just ADD and I just want to switch it up, do something new.”
This might come as a surprise to many.
It was a surprise enough to Schalk.
Bourne is on the heels of his first AVP MVP, and he and Crabb won Team of the Year by a landslide. Schalk, meanwhile, was defending for the man who just won his third career AVP Blocker of the Year. But a few weeks ago, John Hyden, Bourne’s first partner whose game shares more than a passing resemblance to Schalk’s, pulled Schalk aside and told him to check in with Bourne, gauge his interest in a potential partnership.
“‘I think you need to make a move, I think you’re the perfect fit for what he wants to do. I think you guys could be a great team and you could be that fit that he wants,’” Schalk recalled Hyden telling him. “He got the ball rolling, got me thinking a little bit.”
And when one thinks about it, much of it makes sense. Schalk, like Hyden, is a 6-foot-5 right side defender. Schalk, like Hyden, runs a more tempo-based set to the pin. Schalk, like Hyden, is more than happy setting his partner for an option — much of the time spreading the court — as Schalk frequently did with Brunner, and as Hyden more than frequently did with Bourne. Schalk, like Hyden when he was in his prime, has one of the best work ethics on Tour, a mindset that matches Bourne’s.
“I think we’ll be a good fit,” Schalk said. “I think we’ll both play a different style than we were. I just think the best part about it is that him and I have the work ethic and if we need to figure something out, we’re going to do everything we can to get over that hurdle. That’s what makes a great team. We’re gonna have ups and downs but we’re gonna be able to grind through it.”
This is far from the first time Schalk has made a considerable gamble with his beach volleyball career.
It was only a few years ago that Schalk, a 2016 Canadian Olympian, made the choice to transfer to the United States, absorbing a fine and sitting out of international play for two years. It was a decision made for a number of reasons, though primarily it was desire to win, something he had never before done as a Canadian, and a strong American federation in which the top 12 players in the country are paid a salary and, in some cases, health insurance, based on their Beach Pro Tour World Rankings.
But when he began his American career, he did so from the bottom, buried in qualifiers and country quotas. Now? He’s the No. 1 ranked American defender, both on the Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour rankings and the AVP. He still has his fourth place finish at the World Championships on his points ledger for entry ranks, meaning he and Bourne will be on the cusp of beginning the first Elite 16 of the Olympic qualification cycle in the main draw. As far as gambles go, this one was actually quite reasonable. Not that it was easy.
“It was super hard to do to Theo,” Schalk said. “We’ll always be close and he’s taking it super well. He understands that it’s a business and I love that guy. Just the idea of getting in the grind with Tri and outworking everyone through the Olympic push, it was really attractive to me. To me, Tri is the best player in the United States not named Phil [Dalhausser]. He makes his partners better so hopefully he can make me better too.”
For Bourne, too, the move was a difficult one. He and Crabb have been close since childhood, when they grew up playing on the Baby Court at the Outrigger Canoe Club. They won back-to-back Manhattan Beach Open titles in 2021 and 2022 and became an All-Hawaiian AVP Team of the Year.
“I was so stressed out, losing so much sleep, because I didn’t want to talk to Trevor,”
Bourne said. “It’s just so different when it’s one of your closest friends. I just wanted to spice it up and try a new system and block full time again.
“At the end of the day, I think Chaimer has one of the best work ethics out there. That’s what put him on the table. I’m interested to see how far that can go.”
Brunner was both surprised and not.
“It’s a business, so I had no illusions that Chaim would never do that, and if Tri had approached me wanting to play D, I might have jumped ship,” he said. “I’m definitely not mad about it. It’s just the worst being older, I saw him calling in the middle of the day and I already had my spider sense going off, ‘Here we go.’ He goes ‘This is going to be really hard’ and I said ‘Just do it.’ ”
The Band-Aid has been ripped, and now, as the blocker who has been recognized as the best at his position, the one with more AVP and Beach Pro Tour points than anyone aside from Schalk, Brunner holds the keys to the rest of the partnership shuffle.
Where does he go?
Miles Partain, the VolleyballMag MVP and AVP’s Best Offensive Player and Most Improved, has already made a firm commitment to Andy Benesh. Taylor Crabb and Taylor Sander appear as committed as any, though at this point, it’s impossible to say. So could Brunner turn, incredibly, to Trevor Crabb, the 33-year-old Hawaiian with whom he has established one of the Tour’s best rivalries? Crabb, despite split-blocking with Bourne, was the one who played defense when matches were in their tightest moments. He’s a right side, Brunner a left. On paper, it makes sense, but so do a number of combinations.
“We actually like each other,” Brunner said of Crabb, in spite of — or maybe because of — their constant sniping and trash talk on social media. “We get along super well. I think his personality is good for me too because he’s going to be instigating and creating all the energy which I love.”
Crabb, meanwhile, as an elite blocker and defender, and one of the most consistent side-out players in America, could also have his pick. Paul Lotman, Chase Budinger, Troy Field, Miles Evans, Reid Priddy, to name a few, are all players with no set commitments but with points — and a proven ability to compete at the highest level — to their name.
Alas, that’s all merely speculation.
There is only one confirmed beach volleyball team in the United States of America: Tri Bourne and Chaim Schalk.