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.
“When I first got out here (to California), I injured my quad, and took three months off for rehab and I wasn’t in the sand at all. And then I started playing and I was playing really terrible volleyball because I had to get my sand legs back and get the reps. But I don’t have expenses. It’s not as tough as you would think,” Zaun said.
“I had no idea what tour I was going to play for, and was starting to see what it was like to live in the van, and I thought, ‘This is horrible, I hate this.’ 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 AVPNext Wilmington NC with Piotr Marciniak) and started to train with some of the better players on the AVP, and do well against them, and started playing with Ed. Ed ran the tournament that Skyler and I won, and we started training together.”
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.
“I learned a lot from Ed,” said Zaun, who turns 24 next week. “I learned a lot of little things here and there, on passing and setting and form. It’s like having another coach at times. He has a ton of experience, he’s been around the tour a long time, and seen a lot of things.”
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.
“I was thinking about the future and starting to play internationally,” the 6-3 Zaun said. “Marty’s got some points and he’s one of the top young blockers on the tour. I’m one of the youngest defenders, so I thought it made a lot of sense. We’re really looking at the future.
“We’re not really looking at the tour this year, we’re looking at that last NorCECA qualifier and just getting better as a team. It doesn’t happen overnight, all the best teams have partnered together for a while, so we’re looking to build our partnership as soon as we can and see what we can do. It was very mutual, we had been talking about it for a while, and we decided that we’re just going to go for it.
It’s the next step in doing what he loves.
“I love the culture and the lifestyle,” Zaun said. “Traveling around the country to different beaches, it’s great to be able to travel doing what you love. There’s a lot of great people in the sport, 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. It’s a tight-knit community. We were in high school playing with 30-year-olds and they were our good friends and you had someone to look up to.”
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, got me playing tournaments and training,” Zaun said. “I have a great relationship with him still.”
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.
“I lost the passion for indoor and I just loved playing beach so much. The beach season was coming up, everyone was training in February and March, and I couldn’t stand it. I had the beach itch. So I quit indoor and focused on beach.”
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 or 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 and make money doing it.
“It was awesome. It was the greatest thing for me, an up-and-coming player, great for any young players today that are looking to get started in professional beach volleyball. It was great to have, and I’ve never taken that for granted. It’s great that the sport has two tours. It’s a great way to get experience as a younger player.”
Right after college he moved to Florida, but …
“All the best players in America are here in Southern California, and you have to have the best competition. I wanted to train with the best. I only really had one option.”
So he packed up the Sprinter van. He found his parents surprising supportive.
“They’re pretty cool with it. They were pretty supportive. They thought it was pretty smart. They also know me pretty well, they knew that if they tried to talk me out of it it wouldn’t get them anywhere. They were for it, and think it’s pretty cool. They’re happy for me. 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.
“Dan has a great tool shop, and he didn’t charge me anything for labor. That’s one of the great things about the Quandomania club. I didn’t really know Dan very well, but he wanted to help me out because I was a part of the Quandomania family.”
Living near where you work has its advantages.
“It just feels normal now. It’s great, I don’t have any traffic, if I’m practicing at Huntington or Hermosa I’m never late, I just park at the beach the night before. There’s no traffic if I leave at 9 or 10 at night. It’s the greatest thing.”
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.
“ … but the mental part is a huge part of it, because the AVP guys have been playing so long and have so much experience and a lot of the NVL guys are newer. Having 10-15 years of experience playing at a high level is huge.
“The physical part is important as well, the level of competition is a lot higher. I had to step up my game, and a big part of that is training with the best players and Olympians. It elevates your game so much.”
And for now, it’s all volleyball all the time.
“If I weren’t playing volleyball, I’d be a mess,” he admitted. “I don’t know what I would do. I really don’t want a job. That’s my worst nightmare, having a 9-to-5 job. The only job I could really see myself doing would be an intramural coordinator at a college, running sports for kids. That’s one thing I would like to do after playing volleyball, giving kids a platform to play the sports they love. That would be a pretty cool job.
“Coaching would something I might consider, but not right now, because I want to play volleyball for a long time. I feel like coaching is so many added hours around the sport that could definitely lead to burn-out. Right now, I’m just focusing on playing volleyball, taking care of my body, and staying healthy.”