Eric Zaun is all in on beach volleyball.
How much so? In January 2016, packed up his belongings in a Sprinter van and moved from New Jersey to Southern California with the goal of making it in professional beach volleyball.
The story of a player from the Midwest/East/Florida heading to California is nothing new, but in Zaun’s case, he continues to live in the van and pays no rent so he can afford to dedicate himself to beach volleyball full time. Friday he will play in AVP Seattle with new partner Marty Lorenz.
And the AVP Seattle schedule made it interesting from the get-go: They play Zaun’s former partner in their first match at noon Pacific. Ed Ratledge is now with former indoor Olympian Reid Priddy and they are seeded ninth, while Zaun and Lorenz are seeded eighth.
“I drove out here (to California) after spending the holidays with my family and friends in New Jersey. I didn’t know that many people, was living alone in the van for the first time, and was rehabbing an injury and not playing very well. It was not the best of times. But then I started to get used to it, and played a bit better, and won some tournaments (AVP Next Huntington Beach with Skyler McCoy and AVP Next Wilmington NC with Piotr Marciniak). I was becoming more comfortable living here. Ed ran the tournament that Skyler and I won. Ed and I started to train together and were holding our own against some of the better players on tour.
The team of Zaun and Ratledge surprised many as they finished ninth in the 2017 AVP season opener at Huntington Beach and then fifths at AVP Austin and AVP New York.
”Playing with Ed has been an invaluable experience for me,” said Zaun, who turns 24 next week. “I’ve been very fortunate to have the opportunity to play with such a knowledgeable and experienced veteran player. It’s like having a partner and coach at the same time, and I’m grateful for all that he has taught me.”
But now Zaun has partnered with the 26-year-old Lorenz, the 6-foot-5 former Cal State Northridge player. Lorenz finished ninth in the last three AVP events, twice with Adam Roberts and once with Ty Loomis. Lorenz has finished third two times in the AVP, both with Loomis, at Cincinnati in 2015 and last year in San Francisco.
It’s a controversial and risky move, breaking up one of the hottest teams of 2017.
“The intent here is looking toward the future and starting to play internationally”, the 6-3 Zaun said. “My overall goal is to represent my country while playing this great sport. Marty has international experience and he’s one of the better young blockers on the tour.”
It’s the next step in doing what he loves.
“I love the culture and the lifestyle associated with beach volleyball,” Zaun said. “It’s great to be able to travel around the country to different beaches and locations doing what you love. I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of great people in the sport and a lot of great fans. All the people involved make it awesome.”
Zaun began playing volleyball as a 14-year-old freshman at Cherry Hill (N.J.) East High School and was an all-state selection for the Cougars.
He also competed in baseball, soccer, basketball, and swimming until his junior year of high school when he elected to focus on volleyball.
“I wanted to be really good,” Zaun said. “I had goals in volleyball that I really didn’t have in the other sports that I was playing.
“Volleyball was something different. I liked the culture of the sport, and I’ve met so many great people. We were in high school playing in leagues with 30-year-olds who would treat us as equals and help improve our game.”
While in high school Zaun discovered beach volleyball at the Quandomania club in New Jersey and trained with Quan Nguyen.
“He pretty much taught me everything I know about beach volleyball, and got me playing tournaments and training specifically for beach volleyball,” Zaun said. “I have a great relationship with him still. Beach volleyball is not part of the culture in New Jersey like it is in California, and it was fortunate that I developed a relationship with one of the few coaches on the East coast who really knows the beach game.”
That led to playing men’s volleyball in college at Limestone College, a school in South Carolina that competes in Conference Carolinas. He was an outside hitter, but after three years gave up the indoor game.
“After playing 3 collegiate seasons of indoor volleyball I decided to focus on the beach game. I was named the Conference Scholar Athlete of the Year my Junior season, but there was no comparison for me, I just had the itch to play and focus on beach volleyball.”
Zaun competed on the NVL tour from 2013-16 and won three times, pulling down $21,975 in 2015, his last full year.
“The NVL was great for me in my situation as a young player. I was trying to get as much experience as I could. It was great to be able to travel and play in front of paid referees, get tournament experience against established professionals, and make some money doing it to help with some travel expenses.”
Right after college he moved to Florida, but …
“All the best players in America are here in Southern California, and if you really want to improve you need to train with, compete against, and learn from the best. I really only had one option.”
So he packed up the Sprinter van. He found his parents surprising supportive.
“They’ve been pretty cool with it, once they understood my career plan and that I would be safe. They know that I’ve always been driven to meet my goals, and that this is where I needed to be. I’m pretty lucky, because a lot of parents definitely would not be supportive of their kid living in a van.”
His next move was to purchase that van for $4,500, and with the help of Quandomania player Dan Clower, retrofitted it for his purposes for $1,000.
“This was another fortunate break for me. Every dollar counts when you’re a recent college graduate, and Dan generously donated his time and didn’t charge anything for labor. I helped him every minute, but many of my efforts just included handing him tools. His skills and efforts made the van much more comfortable for me to live in. The Quandomania Volleyball community on the East coast is a tight-knit group, and I’ll always be thankful to Dan for helping to make the move to LA possible.”
Living near where you work has its advantages.
“It just feels normal now. We set up practices and scrimmages at various beaches in the morning, and I’m never late. If I’m practicing at Manhattan Beach or Huntington I just park at the beach the night before. The traffic in LA can be avoided if I leave for my next destination at 9 or 10 at night.”
Living in the van allows Zaun plenty of time for one of his favorite hobbies, reading autobiographies of famous athletes. His most recent include “Beneath the Surface,” about the life of swimmer Michael Phelps, and “Bad as I Want to Be,” about former basketball star Dennis Rodman. And like most players, he’s always seeking sponsors, but one organization he plays for is called “I Love,” a charity that donates a pair of sunglasses in Third World countries for every pair sold.
The transition from the NVL to the AVP was both mental and physical, Zaun said.
“Many of the best US players are 35 and older and have been playing on the AVP tour for years. They have the experience, knowledge, confidence, and mental toughness that is a big part of this sport, so I need to work extra hard to catch up. The physical part is important as well, as the level of competition is a lot higher.”
And for now, it’s all volleyball all the time.
“Living in a van is not the ideal situation or in my long term plans, but not having rental or mortgage payments has taken away a large burden, and I can be more dedicated to volleyball training. I still need to work part time, but my focus now is to train, exercise, stay healthy, compete and continue to improve at volleyball.”
“I know how lucky I am to be in this position and I’m so grateful to everyone who has supported me. I’m working hard to achieve my goals and am looking forward to the future.”