Laguna Beach Open: High-caliber tourney, higher-caliber atmosphere

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Taylor Crabb-Laguna Beach Open
Taylor Crabb digs at the 64th annual Laguna Beach Open/Jim Wolf photography

LAGUNA BEACH — The up ref called it out. The down ref called it out. Avery Drost put his finger in the air, signaling that yes, Chase Budinger’s swing had indeed hit just outside the lines in Sunday’s Laguna Beach Open finals.

Only one person knew that wasn’t the full story.

And there’s a good chance that only one person on the beach the entire weekend would have called it otherwise.

Chase Frishman knew the ball nicked him on the way out. And just as he knew the ball nicked him, he also knew that there was absolutely, totally, unequivocally no obligation for him to tell the refs otherwise, because the only people in the volunteer-driven event who were paid were the referees.

He looked at the up ref, told him the ball just got him on its way out.

Budinger and Taylor Crabb’s point.

And that, more than anything, may represent what the Laguna Beach Open, eventually won by Crabb and Budinger in the finals, represents.

Nearly every player spoken to throughout the weekend pointed to this as their favorite non-AVP tournament of the year, though few could put a finger on what exactly makes it so special. A number, including Myles Muagututia and Kyle Friend, who finished third, pointed to the intimate vibe, the fans crowding around center court, sitting so the row behind them can kneel, so the row behind them can sit in chairs, so the row behind them can stand.

AVP tournaments are close and intimate, yes. Far more than any other professional sport, where the players walk out of their boxes and directly into the throngs of fans. No locker rooms. No press conferences, for the most part, anyway.

Yet there’s still an added layer of professionalism to AVPs. The players are justifiably more uptight, focused, because this is what they train for. Advertisers and sponsors are everywhere.

Taylor Crabb-Chase Budinger-Laguna Beach Open
Taylor Crabb and Chase Budinger win the 64th annual Laguna Beach Open/Jim Wolf photography

Laguna is a barbeque, a family reunion, a reception where generations of players and fans both past and present congregate for world-class volleyball and no shortage of libations.

Got knocked out? No worries. Someone has a Bud Light at the ready.

Still in it? Even better, for now you’re one round closer to an $8,000 purse, the most Laguna has divvied out –- and much of this comes kudos to the city of Laguna Beach, the rest to a wide variety of sponsors –- since 1988.

What’s funny, and in an odd sense a tad inexplicable, was that Laguna was only a tiny step down from a lighter AVP, yet you’d have never known it by the lax attitudes of the players, who mingled with fans between matches, who may have enjoyed some liquid carbohydrates during timeouts, and yet who were also competing for more prize money than a lower-level FIVB.

More than half of the field has made an AVP or FIVB main draw in the past year, including Crabb and Budinger, Reid Priddy and Billy Kolinske, Drost and Frishman, as well as Olympic gold medalist David Lee. That number does not include a duo who will more than likely soon be in a main draw, Hagen Smith and Lucas Yoder, who pushed Crabb and Budinger to three sets on the first day of competition.

As much as this tournament was a showcase of who is at or near the top of the beach world now – Crabb and Budinger, Priddy and Kolinske, Drost and Frishman – it was also a preview of the next wave to come.

Muagututia and Friend, who made three main draws in 2017, were the ones who put Priddy and Kolinske in the contender’s bracket on day one, taking them in two. Their only losses on the weekend were to Drost and Frishman and Crabb and Budinger, teams they’d typically see only on day two of an AVP main draw.

Smith and Yoder were much of the same, scoring more points than Budinger and Crabb in a match they controlled, only to fall off at the end; pushing Priddy and Kolinske to a 22-20 third set thriller on center court.

And then, like everyone else who didn’t make it to the finals, they hung around, because what more could one ask for a Sunday afternoon than high-level volleyball and perhaps a bit of clandestine day drinking with the beach community, the vast majority of whom, by the end of the weekend, were clad in Slunks apparel, an upstart neon throwback to the volley gear of old.

And as legends of that same era, men with names of Obradovich and Stoklos, watched on, the next wave of talent played before a mobbed beach, because this is what Southern Californians do on Sunday afternoons.

What more could one ask for, anyway?

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