Fun the key word as Rosenthal, Crabb win Laguna Beach Open

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After the finals, from left, Eric Zaun, Ed Ratledge, Sean Rosenthal and Trevor Crabb/Courtesy of Ed Ratledge

For the 63rd year in a row, Laguna Beach played host to the biggest event on the California Beach Volleyball Association (CBVA) schedule, the Laguna Beach Open.

As always, it attracted Olympians and AVP Tour champions, main-draw regulars and legends of years past. After two days, navigating a field of 33 teams, playing in front of a crowd well more than 1,000, two-time Olympian Sean Rosenthal and Trevor Crabb beat Eric Zaun and Ed Ratledge in three sets to win the tournament. 

Mike Brunsting hit a skyball.

It was innocuous, totally meaningless, and also entirely ineffective. It was hardly any higher than a loopy jump serve, so comically futile that his own fans cracked, “We’ll work on that one, Mike.”

Nobody will remember that skyball, yet it also spoke volumes to the atmosphere of the Laguna Beach Open.

Here was Brunsting, in the middle of a tight second set in the quarterfinals against Mike Boag and Mark Burik, hitting a serve he would otherwise never hit. Here was Burik, an ultra-competitor, joking along, chanting “sky-ball, sky-ball” when Frishman approached to serve a few moments later.

There’s something ineluctably fun about watching professional athletes just have plain old … fun.

The Laguna Open is high level and entertaining and, relatively speaking for the California Beach Volleyball Association, high-paying. It’s an excellent volleyball tournament for all of those reasons, but none more than this: It’s just so very human.

You get those tiny moments, an ill-advised skyball, a competitor joking along at a juncture in a match that, were it an AVP tournament, would never be joking.

It breaks down the walls between professional athletes and normal human beings.

You get to see Sean Rosenthal as the doting father more than you do Sean Rosenthal the defender with such an ethereal athleticism he has been nicknamed Superman.

You get to talk dogs with Trevor Crabb and investing with Robbie Page. You get to see Ty Tramblie walk off the court, mid third set in the second round, to go hug a friend who wanted to say hi.

Yes, you get to see phenomenal volleyball players doing what phenomenal volleyball players do, but Laguna is a conduit to far more than that. 

Beach volleyball has, relative to other professional sports, a very low barrier in terms of accessibility to its athletes. The average fan, for example, will not have the opportunity to sit next to Steph Curry for a weekend and pick his brain about, well, anything. But, as accessible as the players are, even beach volleyball has its limits.

When the AVP is in town, the players will trot out their typical bromides and clichés.

“We played hard; the other team played well; we appreciate the fans,” to whatever media happened to travel to the tournament. They sit in the players tent between matches. They take it very seriously, as they should.

They are, of course, professionals.

Laguna dissolves whatever miniscule barrier there may be between beach volleyball fans and the players they admire. It helps that the only “media” in attendance is a spectacularly average volleyball player — I won two matches and lost two, to Avery Drost and Ty Tramblie and Raffe Paulis and Robbie Page, both in three sets — equipped with a journalism degree, and it also helps that the money, while not insignificant, is not enough for anyone to really lose their cool.

Nobody is playing for money — though $5,000 certainly doesn’t hurt — or padding the resume with a win for the BVB profile or whatever other external factor there may be.

It’s just beach volleyball.

There’s something kind of wonderful about that.

Eric Zaun is back as teammate Ed Ratledge, left, jousts with Mike Brunstig and Chase Frishman readies on the right/Courtesy of Ed Ratledge

Rosenthal and Crabb win: Oh, so you’d like to know what happened in the tournament?

Trevor Crabb and Sean Rosenthal are really good at volleyball. Good enough that Crabb at times seemed just plain bored (their matches went very fast, only briefly interrupting long periods of sitting in beach chairs and watching others play). Only Eric Zaun and Ed Ratledge gave them a decent match, which came in an excellent three-set final.

Those outside of Southern California, who could not see the depth and strength of the field, might be thinking “No kidding Rosenthal, an Olympian, and Crabb, a regular in finals and semifinals, won! They should have won!”

But this field was no cakewalk.

Ty Tramblie won an AVP tournament less than two years ago. Avery Drost took a pair of thirds last season and picked up a fifth on the FIVB Tour in China barely a month ago. Ed Ratledge and Eric Zaun, who went undefeated until the finals, took a fifth in Austin and a seventh in Huntington Beach. Chase Frishman and Mike Brunsting are the best sophomores on tour.

Marty Lorenz, who donned a fantastic Sunday mustache, also has a pair of thirds to his name and his partner, Miles Evans, has taken a fifth.

Robbie Page is 7 feet tall, passes well, sets excellent and is, don’t forget, 7 feet tall. Raffe Paulis, who played defense behind the Wall of Page, has made numerous main draws, including Austin.

No, Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena and Casey Patterson and Theo Brunner and Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb and Billy Allen and Stafford Slick were not in attendance, but this tournament was not easy.

Rosenthal and Trevor Crabb just made it look that way, as did Ratledge and Zaun.

That’s what great athletes do.

Rosenthal and Crabb dismissed Frishman and Brunsting in the winners bracket quarterfinals and endured little stress in the semifinals against Lorenz and Evans, who won a tight one over Tramblie and Drost in their quarterfinal.

Ratledge and Zaun, meanwhile, between mini naps on hammocks and inflatable couches and snacking on the ambrosia that is Mahogany Smoked Meats, steadily worked their way through their side of the bracket. They cruised, not quite with the dominance of Rosenthal and Crabb, but enough that they ousted the defending champs and lovable hometown heroes of Brunsting and Frishman in straight sets in the semifinals.

And the finals were perfect.

It featured the two best teams in the tournament, a pair of veterans in Rosenthal and Ratledge and two exceptional and promising young talents in Zaun and Crabb. 

And yet, even in the one match you might think things would get serious and intense, with little room for good humor, the players, of course, made room for exactly that.

At 8-5 in the third set with Rosenthal and Crabb leading, the crowd begged for a skyball and Rosenthal acquiesced, sending a spinning parabola into the pewter sky, only to see it easily passed and put away by Zaun.

Would a jump serve have been more effective? Probably.

Is that the point of Laguna? Most definitely not.

There is certain irony in the fact that both the 2016 and 2017 champions won Laguna sort of on accident. Brunsting and Frishman probably would have preferred to have qualified for Seattle last year and yet it wound up being one of their best weekends of the year.

Rosenthal and Crabb likely would have favored qualifying for the FIVB tournament in Moscow and yet rather than freezing in Russia, they were able to relax, spend time with family, play high quality ball, win a tournament.

They were able to, in essence, enjoy the full Laguna experience. 

We all were.

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