We did things a little differently this year for the Eric Zaun Scholarship, though isn’t that the story of 2020?
Adapting. Changing. Figuring it out.
Good adversity, as our good friend, and eponym of that scholarship, Eric Zaun, would say. He’d have loved this year, in all its unprecedented madness and upheaval. Where he would have gone, what he would have done, nobody can know or even guess. But it would have been memorable, there is no doubt.
We did memorable things, too. Stafford Slick pitched the idea to hold a fundraising tournament. So, in a week and a half after his initial call, we put on the first professional level tournament of the year, a King of the Court style, totally winged event we dubbed King of the Road Dogs.
More than $6,000 raised later, it proved to be a success.
Last year, the first of the Zaun Scholarship, we based our candidates solely off of the applications, of which we had nearly 100. We opened it up to applications this year as well, but we wanted to be more proactive about our applicant pool, to find and nominate a handful of players we felt fit the archetype of Zaun’s best qualities: Hard worker, excellent character off the court, fiery competitor on the court, talented to the point that they could be one of the best players in the country, in a position where a little extra money would be a fairly big help.
Three names jumped out. Three names, it turns out, were all we needed.
For two of them — Reeves and Benesh — it helped that they knew, and were friends with, Zaun. Reeves more than most, actually. She posted one of the funniest videos I’ve ever seen about Zaun, something that is about as easy as beating Phil Dalhausser on a Sunday. In the video — Kelly, please let the universe see this again — Eric was going off about a hat party, then bowling, but everyone needs to be wearing hats, because it’s a hat party. I don’t know. It’s Eric. Can’t explain that guy. But it was funny as all get out.
What sold us on Reeves, more than her AVP Rookie of the Year Award — something that Eric also won — more than her friendly competitiveness, the type that had her and Geena Urango cracking up mid-match after Reeves blocked and stared down her good friend, more than her unconditional love for this sport, was her podcast with Tri and I. There, she exuded everything we seek in a candidate.
She spoke about the sport in an almost reverent manner. A few times, she mentioned her bank account, and made a face that seemed to say “What bank account?” but then laughed, because isn’t she living a lifestyle that people with enormous bank accounts would love to have? She’s a tenacious competitor, yes, but more than that, she’s a tenacious friend.
She was the Road Dog we wanted for this award.
Benesh, whether he or I or anyone really knew it at the time, earned his award last July. Raffe Paulis and I had the misfortune of playing him and Adam Roberts in the semifinals of the AVP Next Gold Series in Chicago. We wound up winning, but it was the way Benesh competed — serious, intense, cold-blooded, but with respect and sportsmanship — and the way he reacted afterwards that made me love the kid. He shook our hands, and then yelled, to anyone who could hear, that he had just tripled his net worth. He might have won 500 bucks.
Two weeks later, he and Roberts took a career-high AVP finish, seventh place in AVP Hermosa. The 6-foot-9 25-year-old from Palos Verdes had potential. Anybody could see that. But he also had character, something hard to define and even harder to find.
Later, in Chicago and Hawai’i, for the AVP’s final events of the season, I had the pleasure of spending a large portion of my non-volleyball time with Benesh. We got lunch, talked about everything aside from volleyball, went cliff jumping with my now-wife, Delaney Mewhirter, and Katie Spieler. I got to see the way he treated waiters and waitresses, fans, people who knew him and people who didn’t. I got to see friends give him the opportunity to rag on Roberts, and he never took the bait. He was a true friend, a true partner, a true human being, through and through.
He was the Road Dog we wanted for this award.
Jones, though she was named a winner on Monday evening, really earned her award this off-season. She, like the rest of us, didn’t know if there was going to be a season this year. She, not like the rest of us, didn’t let it impact her approach to volleyball. She was going to put in the work regardless. A newlywed, she’d either crash in Long Beach with her parents or commute from 29 Palms — three-and-a-half hours from Hermosa Beach — where she lives with her husband, Max, to practice. She went with a coach, Evie Matthews, and her partner, Traci Callahan. She trained against women and she trained against men. She was never shy to ask sharp questions, but in two or three months of training with her, I never heard her complain a single time.
There was no shortage of players courting the 6-foot-2 blocker with a boatload of points and good hands, yet she stuck with Callahan. Committed. It proved prescient, as her and Callahan slugged through the qualifier of the AVP Champions Cup and finished fifth, becoming the only team to qualify and not get sent back to the qualifier for this weekend’s Wilson Cup.
And, of course, she has the full endorsement from The Professor himself, Todd Rogers. She played and coached for Rogers. You get that man’s approval, you get mine.
To those three, $2,500 will be awarded.
In a normal year, this would subsidize a good portion of their travel, maybe help with rent, or allow them to work a few less hours per week, freeing them up for an extra practice or lift or recovery session.
This year, with Covid limiting jobs and opportunities to make some extra money, perhaps it’ll just help them get through some tight times. Maybe it’ll fund their next volleyball trip, wherever that may be: FIVB, Motherlode, future AVPs, doesn’t matter.
It’ll help. And it’s the beach community we must thank, for it was from that community that this money was raised.
If you want to donate to the Eric Zaun Scholarship, you can do so through this link!
Now, where is the rest of the money going? We’ve raised more than $14,000 — how awesome is that? — and I want to be as transparent as possible with where it’s going, since many charities don’t do that, and I abhor most charities because of that lack of transparency.
Eric’s brother, Brian, is discussing building beach volleyball courts in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. In case the city doesn’t pitch in enough, we’ve offered to use some of the scholarship funds to help erect the courts.
Mostly, we’re saving much of it for next year, or later events this year. In a full beach volleyball season, there will be many athletes attempting to make this sport an integral part of their lives. It’s expensive. For the up-and-comers we seek to help, it’s extremely difficult.
Should any more events pop up this year, we love to help athletes get there. But mostly, we’ll be looking towards 2021, and helping as many as we can, whatever that season should look like.
Maybe it’ll be normal. Maybe it won’t. Either way, we’ll adapt. Change. Do whatever is necessary to overcome a little adversity — good adversity.