KAUA’I, HAWAI’I — Typically volleyball is about running faster and jumping higher. Which is why the Dinosaur tournament handicaps for age.
“When we dreamed this up 25 years ago, I wasn’t sure if it was going to take off,” tournament director David Chalkin said. “The idea was to attract older players who could afford to come to Hawai’i, take a vacation, and bring some young blood with them, and bring some AVP players into Hawai’i.
“After 25 years, the seed has grown, and I’m pretty proud of it.”
Indeed, this past weekend the Dinosaur celebrated a quarter century, a tournament where the sum of the age of both partners must exceed 80 for men and 70 for women to qualify for entry.
The older team receives a one point bonus for every four years of combined age, not to exceed five points. The game is also the original big court format: double-elimination, side-out scoring, 30-foot x 30-foot courts, no antennas and no let serves.
Chaikin, a property manager on the big island, is proud of the event, which has been held on Hawai’i, Mau’i, Oahu, and now Kaua’i. He not only has run the Dinosaur for 25 years, but conducted volleyball tournaments for nearly 20 years before that.
The tournament has attracted plenty of current and former pros, including Hawai’ian brothers Taylor and Trevor Crabb, Mike Dodd, Sean Rosenthal, Steve Timmons, Janice Opalinski-Harrer, Sheila Shaw and many more. This year the event included teams from Tennessee, Georgia, Texas, Washington, Illinois, and, of course, California and Hawai’i.
Former pro Aurora Paaluhi, formerly Skarra-Gallagher, and Tina Damasco won their third consecutive women’s Dinosaur, particularly meaningful for Paaluhi, 39, who married former AVP pro Mark Paaluhi on Kalapaki Beach one year ago Sunday.
The men’s winners, Danny Ortega and Jeff Urton, both of Manhattan Beach, Calif., barely met the age requirement at a combined 80 years, one month and 14 days. They were undefeated for the weekend, always having to overcome deficits of as many as five points in games to 15 because of the handicap.
There are two typical strategies: The most common is the horse-and-buggy team, where an older 50-plus player recruits a 30-plus player. Perhaps the ultimate horse is FIVB and AVP star Taylor Crabb, one of the favorites to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, who is 27. He partnered with 55-year-old Rob Desantis.
Last year Crabb and his father Chris won.
“It was a great experience. I remember growing up watching him play, and winning it a few times, so it was good to finally be old enough to have a chance to play with him,” Taylor said. “It was a great accomplishment and something that I had a lot of fun doing.”
Chris Crabb was unable to play this year due to coaching obligations for his nephew’s volleyball team. Enter Desantis, a converted tennis player turned beach volleyball addict. Desantis moved to Manhattan Beach in 1985, and might be the tournament’s most enthusiastic participant. Desantis, just 5-foot-6, has played the Dinosaur seven times.
“For me, this is my Olympics. I love the tournament,” Desantis said. “I start training for the Dinosaur in December. December through March is my intense training time for the Dino. I tell people that this tournament is for retired volleyball pros and volleyball zealots.”
Previously Desantis played with 2000 Olympic gold-medalist Eric Fonoimoana, with their best finish a fourth place.
“This is my chance to live the dream of playing with someone like a Taylor Crabb or Eric Fonoi, and challenging myself against some of the best old-time guys and some of the best young bucks, and last year Eric and I lost to Taylor and his dad Chris 15-12, but that whole experience was fantastic. That was super-exciting.”
Desantis helped found Ariba, one of the early B2B companies that automated the online purchase process. He now actively invests in startups, and is participating in a dozen start-ups now.
“I’m fortunate that I can do a lot of this remotely so I can maintain my family and volleyball lifestyle.”
Desantis assists the beach pros in business, and they assist him in volleyball.
“I could mention them in business, and they could mention me in volleyball. And that’s what happened, and now I play several days a week with all of these gold- and silver-medal athletes.”
Crabb and Desantis tied for fifth. Crabb never enjoys losing, but loves the tournament.
“Just being in Hawai’i, and the people that fly out, everyone has the Aloha spirit,” Crabb said. “You can feel it here, everyone’s happy, having a good time, it’s unlike any other tournament.”
The second strategy is for two partners of similar but lower ages to get together to minimize the weak link, a horse-horse strategy.
The women’s event has a lower combined entry age at 70, so players can compete closer to their prime. Sheila Shaw, 35, and Crystal Meadows, 37, are one such example.
Shaw, a 6-1 blocker, has third-place finishes on both the NVL, Cuervo, and Corona Wide Open tours. Meadows has been seeking main draws actively, with her best finish in 2018 a 33rd.
They finished seventh in Shaw’s first Dinosaur.
“My first Dinosaur has been awesome,” Shaw said. “The people are super-friendly, it’s a laid-back vibe, and it’s honestly like no other tournament that I’ve been to. It’s a beautiful place.”
It was also Shaw’s first trip to Kaua’i, but her biggest regret is that she wasn’t able to secure more time off and enjoy the island, flying home on a Sunday-night red-eye.
“It’s so fun. I’ve never played big court before, it’s a totally different game, it’s really fun. I’m having a blast,” she said. “There’s a lot more court to cover, and my partner keeps getting served, so I keep shifting over, and it’s a totally different mentality. You’re baiting people into serving your side, and there’s a lot more offensive space to work with as well, it’s not just going up and trying to hammer, to be smart and work your space and use the court. It’s a good experience.
“Yesterday I was standing in the middle of the court, and it went over my head, and I called ‘Out, out.’ It was way in. It takes a second to get your mind right, and just go for everything.”
John Simpson and Neil Hokanson, both from North County in San Diego, used an unconventional Dinosaur strategy, using the buggy-buggy strategy. They have a combined age of over 125 years, giving them the maximum advantage of five points per game, plus choice of side or serve. They were the oldest team in the tournament by 10 years.
“It helps us,” said Simpson. “I like having the starting advantage. On the other hand, it doesn’t take long for that lead to diminish, and then you’re on a level playing field playing against teams that are a lot younger, and typically stronger and faster.
“What we come here for is typically not to try and come to win the tournament, we know better, but we like the camaraderie, we like the sport, and this location especially. It’s not all about how well we do, it’s about being part of this and watching some of the best players play their best.”
“The location is fabulous,” Hokanson added. “Kalapaki Beach, the islands, there’s an aloha feel, it doesn’t have the edginess of some of the mainland tournaments. There’s people that have been coming for a long time, families come, we’ve met a lot of people here, we’ve made a lot of friends here, and we see that across the tournament.”
This year they went 0-2, following a 2-2 finish in 2018. Would they consider picking up younger players and going horse-buggy?
“We just talked about that,” Hokanson said. “Last year we did pretty well, we went 2-2, and we thought, ‘Gee, the age worked for us, we won some games, and maybe we can do it again.’ But we’re realizing that we’ve lost a step. It happens with aging, as our wives remind us, so if you’re trying to do better, it probably makes some sense.
“Youth is great, they can jump a little higher, cover a little more court, provide more of a block, it’s something to think about it. But like John said earlier, it’s the joy of the game. That’s what we love. We’ll probably be playing in wheelchairs.”
Women’s winner Paaluhi, of course, has a younger perspective.
“We love this tournament and it was our plan to come to this tournament every year anyway, and when we got married here it just made it that much more special,” Paaluhi, said. “And to win the day that we got married last year just made it such a perfect weekend, and when I came back here, I just try to stay humble and just appreciate every game, and when we were back in the winner’s bracket finals, I was just so excited. It makes it even more special.”
Damasco, 38, is a diminutive 5-2, making up for lack of size with tenacious defense. After two tries, she’s now won three Dinos in a row.
“I love this big court,” Damasco said. “We knew each other back in Santa Cruz in 2006, and we teamed up in 2017 when our normal partners bailed out, and it’s been magic ever since.”
Damasco, a transplanted Californian, recently moved to Hilo, Hawai’i.
“Big court is my jam. Once they made it short court I have to work really hard to get up and get it inside the court. I’ll love it every year as long as I’m still moving.”
Ortega and Urton formed their men’s-winning team late after Urton’s original partner got sick. The 2019 event was Urton’s third and Ortega’s first.
“We made it happen last minute,” said Urton, “We had no idea that we added up to 80. I always thought that he was younger than me. Then I found out that he was 45, who would have thunk it?”
They brought impressive firepower both at the net and the service line for an 80s team. Ortega, who brought his wife and three kids, enjoyed the volleyball as much as the vacation. He knows the island well, having previously visited his mother here during college breaks.
“The tournament is well run, it’s such a cool vibe here, it’s a great setting, right in front of the Marriott, I don’t think there’s anything better,” Ortega said. “I’ve played in a lot of tournaments around the world, and this is one of the coolest ones I’ve played in.
“It’s a perfect family vacation, play volleyball and have fun with the family. I’m going to come back year after year for sure, it’s so fun.”