The AVP Pro Series New Orleans Open begins Friday at Coconut Beach in suburban Kenner in a state where beach volleyball has taken off more than anyone could have imagined:
Bruce White loved what the man was doing. Loved the idea. They were kindred spirits, in a way: Two men with the somewhat absurd notion to build sand volleyball courts in a state without so much as a grain of natural sand.
In the entire state of Louisiana before 1985, there were exactly two known — albeit little-known — sand volleyball courts: The ones White built himself on a plot of vacant land at a health club across the street from his house.
The folks at the health club trusted White. He’d been the dive coach there before the Shell Oil Company transferred him out to Denver. But while in Denver, at the bar he and the rest of the oilmen frequented, he saw the most peculiar sight: There, on the second floor deck, adjacent to the restaurant, were two sand volleyball courts.
Sand volleyball? That wasn’t being played on a beach?
“I’m sitting there, and I played college junk ball, but I had a bunch of good athletes in my fraternity, and I said ‘I could play volleyball,’ ” White recalled, laughing. “Well I went out there and I said ‘Nope, I can’t play compared to these guys.’ ”
Tim Walmer, a local pro from Manhattan Beach who would bank more than $300,000 in prize money on the AVP from 1978-1995, would put on clinics on Monday nights for a dollar. Grass tournaments were the thing to do on the weekends, with tournament directors setting up eight nets, and those eight nets being filled from dusk till dawn, most every Saturday and Sunday the weather allowed.
It’s not that White was a stranger to volleyball. He knew the sport well enough. But to see it played in such an enormous volume was quite a sight to a Louisiana boy who had never before seen it played on sand. It didn’t take long for him to discover the source of its popularity: “What’s the only reason we play volleyball?” he asked, rhetorically. “For the girls. Everyone I met in Denver was playing volleyball.”
The start of beach volleyball in Louisiana
In 1982, when Shell transferred him back to Louisiana, he walked right over to the health club he had gone to since he was a boy, took stock of the empty space behind the swimming pool, and pitched his idea to the owner.
“Can I build two sand courts?” White asked.
In that moment, Bruce White was stumbling into the serendipity required of any successful entrepreneur: He was beginning to solve a problem the state of Louisiana never knew it had.
Bruce White was giving them the gift of beach volleyball.
“Anybody who’s done anything in Louisiana beach volleyball, Kristen [Nuss] and Taryn [Kloth] included, it’s because of Bruce White,” said Evan Cory, a 24-year-old from Metairie who is quickly becoming a can’t-miss talent on the AVP.
“I don’t think Louisiana would have a volleyball scene if it wasn’t for him.”
It would have been impossible for White to do it alone. Sure, those two courts at the health club were growing in popularity. Sure, White’s grass tournaments on the weekend were filling up, just as they did in Denver. But for the sport to become vogue in Louisiana, as it since has in an unprecedented and remarkable way, it would require more than a man with limited experience and a wild idea.
It would require two of them.
White had heard the rumors from his indoor league that a man was building sand courts out by a restaurant called Sportsman’s Paradise on Lake Pontchartrain. When he drove over the see it for himself, he asked the worker in the restaurant who was the genius behind the idea.
“That’s my husband,” she said. “He’s just wasting money building the sand courts.”
White introduced himself to the man wasting his time. His name was Mike Drury. He was just as crazy as White was.
“What do you think?” Drury asked White when he gave him a tour of the courts.
“The sand’s beautiful,” White replied. “You just built the courts wrong.”
“What do you mean I built the courts wrong?”
The courts, White informed him, were built with PVC pipe. When the wind blew, it took the sand with it.
“There was nothing to stop it,” White said.
“He and I walked out of his office, we stepped it off, and I said ‘You have enough room to make five courts,’” White recalled.
Five courts? Just a few years before, that land was reserved for the Nippy Curtis Playground, until the city stopped paying for the lawn care. Drury watched the grass grow wild and untamed, and he pitched an idea to the city: What if he adopted it, turned that playground into a baseball field? As far as Drury knows, that was the first cooperative endeavor the city of New Orleans had ever accepted.
But the problem with baseball, you see, is that it attracts men. Men with testosterone. Testosterone that, at the middle-ages of life, typically gets bottled up in an office, only to explode in what most would consider recreational activities. Like, for instance, a men’s baseball league filled with washed up athletes. So many fights broke out that Drury switched the game to co-ed cabbage ball, but that was, well — it was cabbage ball, for crying out loud.
“It stopped the fighting at least,” Drury said with a chuckle. But co-ed cabbage ball, whether peaceful or not, had nothing on what Drury flipped his TV to one day: Beach volleyball. He doesn’t remember the name of the tournament or where it was — “probably Florida or California or something” — but he does recall his first thought: “Wow. That’s interesting.”
Cabbage ball was out.
“Out of the seat of my pants, not even knowing how I was really doing it, I built one sand court there,” Drury said.
Roughly two years later, White took a tour of the place and told Drury everything that he did wrong — and how they could make it right. So very right.
“We got together and started talking, and 35, 40 days later, we had five courts, all lit up,” Drury said. “That was the beginning of Coconut Beach.”
That was the beginning of Louisiana Beach Volleyball.
Beach volleyball is everywhere in Louisiana
If you are coming to Louisiana this weekend for the AVP’s second stop of the 2022 season, a challenge: Find a single local who does not know Bruce White or Mike Drury.
Since the two built Coconut, and White launched his first league, White has had more than 28,000 teams — teams, not individuals — compete in his six-man leagues. He’s directed more than 1,000 tournaments.
“Every time you meet someone,” White said with a laugh, “they say ‘You coached my mom back when she was in high school!’ I went back indoors this year to do an 18U boys team, and one of the boys on the team, I coached his mom when she was 14 in my club.”
Volleyball, and particularly sand volleyball, has exploded in Louisiana in such staggering numbers it’s difficult to wrap your mind around it, with no legitimate way to put a real estimate on it. There have been plenty of indoor stars, like five-time Olympian Danielle Scott, and Olympian Kim Willoughby. But now there are so many beach players.
“We built it, and it just kept getting bigger, and bigger, and more successful, and more popular, and we didn’t know what we were doing,” Drury said.
It didn’t matter.
“Within an hour within almost anywhere you go in Louisiana, there’s a complex, and a nice complex,” Joey Keener said.
Keener, a popular coach at Coconut Beach, the largest man-made beach volleyball facility in the United States, and a fine player in his own right, has seen the sport grow from literally nothing to the sport that people just do on the weekends. In some places, people golf. Surf. Hike. Backpack. Play softball, baseball. Bowl.
In Louisiana, people play beach volleyball.
“We actually love beach volleyball in Louisiana,” Evan Cory said. “It’s a little known thing.”
Raised in Denham Springs, Louisiana, just east of Baton Rouge, Keener has seen volleyball complexes pop up all over the state: Coconut Beach, White Sands, Mango’s, Digs, Volley Beach, the Oasis, LSU’s campus — the list could go on and on and on. It’s stunning.
Yet here’s the rub: Despite the remarkable growth of the sport, despite the sheer volume of players filling these complexes and playing in leagues and tournaments seven days a week, there wasn’t anybody who was any good.
When White first built those two courts outside of the health club, the AVP was still two years from its founding. Professional beach volleyball at the time was being put on by a pair of promoters named David Wilk and Craig Masuoka, who in 1976 founded a promotional company they’d coined Event Concepts. There was a World Championships and everything, although it is important to note that those World Championships were a spectacular misnomer: The only competitors were men from Southern California.
In Louisiana, there was no notion of the sport being played professionally, or even competitively, really. Sand volleyball was akin to evening softball leagues on Friday nights, an excuse for men and women to get together, play some (usually bad) sports, have a drink, flirt a bit, maybe go out for a few more.
“You know how we used to need an excuse to go hang out and drink and party and have fun? A lot of these complexes were built around these beer leagues, so it was just another way to go out, have some fun, sweat, hang out with your friends, and have a drink,” Keener said.
A Texan now firmly in the Louisiana sand
A little more than eight years ago, Drew Hamilton had never stepped foot in Louisiana. He’d driven through it once or twice, as a means of getting to Florida. But the 42-year-old from Pasadena, Texas, now charged with coaching the most exhilarating American team in the precocious Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth, had never played volleyball in the state that has become so crazed about it.
“When I moved here, there was always a big crowd,” said Hamilton, who had enjoyed a successful career touring with the NVL from 2013 until its collapse in 2017. “It was very popular, they were all about the volleyball, but there wasn’t any high caliber volleyball. They just loved the sport. I was amazed at how just popular and big it was while there not being any sort of reasonable caliber of volleyball in tournaments or whatever the case.
“You just have these people camping out overnight trying to get a spot in a quads league on a Wednesday night or something. It blew my mind. I thought it was amazing, just the passion and love for beach volleyball here. Not even Houston or Austin or San Antonio could compare, even though there’s 10 times as many people there. I’d never seen anything like it.”
So it went in Louisiana, for decades: It was the petri dish for the recreational beach volleyball player. Until, in 2009, a landmark decision was made by the NCAA to classify sand volleyball as an emerging collegiate sport.
Five years later, for the first time since 1996, LSU made the decision to add another sport to its lineup: Sand volleyball was coming to Baton Rouge.
Kristen Nuss: LSU had to have her
It took approximately 30 minutes of a single drill for Drew Hamilton to know: LSU needed her.
Kristen Nuss was just a sophomore in high school at the time, a three-sport athlete at Mount Carmel High School who had already won a state championship on the indoor team. She was, by all accounts, an exceptional athlete. She was also 5-foot-6.
At the time, LSU was, in Hamilton’s own words, “horrible. We were just the indoor team they forced to play beach, and they didn’t even get to train. It was — whatever. I saw this chick, and I was like ‘I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen anything like this before.’ After our first water break, I go up to our head coach [Russell Brock], and I go ‘I don’t know what needs to happen, but she absolutely needs to be on our team.’”
Brock actually knew Nuss’ brother, Pete, who had implored the head coach to take a look at his diminutive sister. Brock, of course, wasn’t unfamiliar with these solicitations. He’d get them all the time. Someone’s daughter or sister or niece was the next great Tiger! He wasn’t about to bite on a buddy recommending his kid sister. And besides, Nuss had never even played beach before. Not really, anyway. The clinic at Mango’s, a beautiful facility in Baton Rouge, where Hamilton first laid eyes on her, was an exception to her otherwise packed athletic schedule, filled with basketball, indoor volleyball, and soccer.
She’d competed before, in a tournament at Coconut Beach, against a bunch of old ladies she thought she’d whip in no time.
And then, Nuss recalled, “we got absolutely destroyed. I think we scored four points. We had absolutely no idea what we were doing.”
None of this mattered to Hamilton, then LSU’s volunteer assistant coach.
“Whatever you need to do on your end,” he told Brock, “she has to be on our team.”
“At the time, just her movement on the court, her demeanor, I can’t even name specific things, I just remember her being on the court, and me watching her, and working with her on that drill, and the mentality she carried. Whatever the case, there was something different about her. From 30 minutes of one drill in a camp, I said ‘I’m not sure what’s happening here, but she moved really well, all the interaction was great, I don’t have much to compare her to, but she was the first one I had seen that we needed to get.
“Some people didn’t necessarily agree with me, and people fought and fought and fought, and at one point, I think people — they wound up being like ‘Wow, six or seven years ago, it looks like you wound up being right.’ I’m OK with that.”
Together, Nuss and the LSU program shifted the role of the sport of beach volleyball in the state of Louisiana. Sure, it’s still played by thousands in beer leagues and whimsical tournaments nearly seven days a week and twice on Sundays. Sure, for most in Louisiana, beach volleyball is still nothing more than a sublime excuse to grab a beer and wings and run around and goof off. But in a matter of five years, the script has been flipped for many, a shift almost entirely due to the launch of LSU’s program.
“Everyone wants to go play at LSU in something around here,” Joey Keener said. “Or Tulane, but mostly LSU. Indoor has always been the king of the area, but then these kids start to see that ‘LSU, my favorite school, has beach volleyball. Well, I play volleyball. I know that person who plays volleyball.’ Whenever LSU started their program, that’s when kids started to take it as ‘That’s what I can do.’”
The five years that Nuss attended LSU were seminal ones, each in their own distinct way. The Tigers were the scrappy kids who could, the school who would recruit the diamonds in the rough, the missed-out-on-talents. They’d haul kids from indoor and convert them to the sand in a manner quicker than any other school in the nation. They won 27 matches in 2017, Nuss’ freshman season, in which she played with Claire Coppola. In 2019, they eclipsed the 30-win threshold for the first time. They made the NCAA Championships, beating Pepperdine, making a statement in the process: A school in SEC country — a football school — could now contend and beat the traditional powers in beach volleyball.
In 2020, they climbed to their first No. 1 ranking in school history, outpacing the blue-chippers and schools with Olympians on their roster.
In 2021, Nuss — 5-foot-6 Kristen Nuss, the girl who didn’t have a single other offer to play beach volleyball aside from LSU, the one who needed some convincing from her brother to get the coach’s attention — broke the record for most NCAA wins by a single player. She didn’t lose a single match in that senior season.
She wasn’t alone in setting this new culture of beach volleyball in Louisiana. Nearly a dozen others made enormous impacts on the program and its future: Coppola, Kloth, Kelli Greene-Agnew, Ashlyn Rasnick-Pope, Sydney Moore, Allison Coens, Kahlee York, Olivia Ordonez. But of the homegrown talents, those hailing from Louisiana, who played their first beach volleyball on the sands of one of the many complexes in the area, it is virtually only Nuss and Toni Rodriguez, both of whom are rising stars on the AVP today.
“As soon we started at LSU competing at a national level, and all these volleyball enthusiasts were now getting to see a high level of volleyball, and they’re backing volleyball, they’re backing LSU, and it just blew up even more, just an impossible amount in a short period of time,” Hamilton said. “Next thing you know, there’s juniors everywhere, there’s watch parties for LSU, and obviously when Taryn and Nuss were doing their thing, there was a whole new following and it just took over.
“They’re celebrities around here. Anyone who does anything in the volleyball community, they’re just worshipped.”
Nuss, Kloth, Rodriguez leading the way
The generation of talent we are currently witnessing on the AVP and Volleyball World Beach Pro Tours could loosely be called the “Misty and Kerri generation.” Take inventory of the most promising talents in the United States today, and what you’ll find is a group who were athletes of impressionable ages when Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings were in the midst of their dynastic run through the sport: Nuss and Kloth, Sara Hughes and Kelley Kolinske, Kelly Cheng and Betsi Flint, Megan Kraft and Delaynie Maple, Sarah Sponcil and Terese Cannon.
The next generation will have their choice of role model. Any of the aforementioned names will do.
But in the South? There is no question that it is Nuss and Kloth (who was a graduate transfer to LSU after an All-American indoor career at Creighton) and Rodriguez who are inspiring the current generation of juniors, which is growing at such an exponential rate that it still boggles Joey Keener’s mind.
Before Keener received a call from Brandon Migliore in 2016, he had never asked for a dime when he coached athletes. He just did it because he loved it. So he’d run Evan Cory through some drills, show Jordan Merceron a thing or two, tell JD Hamilton what to do in certain scenarios, put Matt Nelson’s hands in the right spot when he was blocking. He’d run practices because he’s a volleyball junkie, both as a player for some 20 years and a mind with a knack for the coaching and strategical element of the game. When Migliore, the founder of a complex named Digs, called Keener and asked him to run an LSU clinic during a dead period in 2016, Keener balked at the prospect.
He’d never coached more than four people at a time. And now he was supposed to coach – well, how many were supposed to come, anyway?
“Twelve kids showed up: I was like ‘What the hell am I going to do?’ Well, it turned out to be a great thing,” Keener said. “Brandon said ‘Hey, these parents love what you’re doing.’ I said ‘I don’t even know what I’m doing.’ He goes ‘Just keep doing it. They want to start doing privates with you.’ So I set up all these privates, and I’m getting to do this, what I love to do, and they’re paying me money. I felt like a thief. But they said I wasn’t charging enough, and they’d give me more money, and I’m like ‘Oh, my God!’ It gets to the end of the year, and Brandon says ‘Dude, you’re crushing it, let’s start a club.’ I didn’t even know what that meant.”
What that meant was this: Joey Keener had enough potential clients to quit his job and begin coaching beach volleyball full-time, in a state without a beach.
“This first generation of kids, I learned through them that this is my calling. I’m a coach,” Keener said. “I’m not a traditional coach who played college ball. I just played for 20 years, made a lot of mistakes, learned not to do that again and here I am today. I’m coaching six days a week.”
And he’s coaching perhaps the finest male talent to ever come out of Louisiana.
He’s coaching Evan Cory.
The emergence of Evan Cory
Evan Cory was a bit delusional, which isn’t uncommon in the beach volleyball world. Joey Keener is not delusional, which is uncommon in the beach volleyball world. For years, Cory would tell Keener that he wasn’t going to move to California. He could get everything he needed, right there in his backyard at Coconut Beach, on the courts that raised him, just him and Joe.
Keener knew better.
“I can create the scenarios you’ll be in,” Keener told him. “But I cannot duplicate the type of athlete you’ll be playing against.”
Keener knew Cory would soon outgrow the talent in Louisiana. The only place Cory could get the competition he needed, against the biggest blocks and fastest defenders in the United States, was in California. He nudged Cory along, pushing him to make the move. Now, to be clear, it didn’t take a whole lot of nudging. Cory had competed in California before, training for weeks at a time during the summer months. His girlfriend, Savvy Simo, lives in Hermosa Beach. He had a partner, Bill Kolinske, who lives in Redondo Beach. He knew it was time just as much as Keener did. It just took a small nudge. So in March, following what might be his last Mardi Gras at home in quite a while, Cory packed up his bags and made the life-altering move to California, much of which is a credit to the trust he places in Keener.
Already, Keener had nudged the 6-foot-3 Cory in a career-altering direction, telling him that he wasn’t going to make it far as a blocker. His highest ceiling would be as a defender, a position Cory had never even practiced prior to 2020. Cory never doubted a word.
“One day, Joey told me ‘You’re not going to be a blocker anymore.’ I said ‘Ok, whatever you say,’” Cory said. “People still say it ‘Why did you make the switch?’ Because I have a higher ceiling as a defender. People can say what they want, but I already have a ninth after playing defense for one year and that’s higher than most people can say they’ve ever done. Most people who are saying that are people who haven’t taken ninths. But Joey, every day, said ‘You have the traits for this, we’re going to keep molding this.’”
In 2021, what could be labeled as his first true season as a defender, Cory made two main draws, the first of his career. He won AVPNext Golds in New Orleans, Waupaca, and Seaside. He finished a career-high ninth at the Manhattan Beach Open.
“I love this kid so much,” Keener said. “You get a guy with that kind of talent and you flip his world upside down, and he could look at you and go ‘No, we’re not doing that. That’s the dumbest thing ever.’ That dude bought in 100 percent and we’ve never looked back. We’ve not looked back.”
Already in 2022, his second season as a defender, he landed the No. 1 partner on his list in Kolinske. He won his first international medal, a silver in Aguascalientes, Mexico, then he won his second, a gold in La Paz. He set a new career-high on the AVP with a seventh in Austin, Texas.
And, as Keener puts it, “he’s not the best defender, but he’s doing some cool stuff.”
Cory is entering this weekend’s New Orleans Open seeded eighth, the highest he’s ever been seeded at an AVP. Meanwhile, Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth are seeded third, on the heels of their second AVP win in Austin, and their second — but biggest — victory on the Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour, where last weekend in Turkey they stunned Australian Olympic silver medalists Mariafe Artacho and Taliqua Clancy, 21-12, 17-21, 17-15. Rodriguez, who has already won her first international medal this season as well, again qualified for the main draw, finishing third in the San Antonio qualifier with Simo.
Nuss and Cory will be playing at Coconut Beach, the courts that raised them, the courts where they learned to play, toddling around while their parents played in those beer leagues for which Louisiana has become so famous.
“It’s a pretty nice bonus seeing Evan and Kristen doing this well,” White said. “Having the ones that the first time they walked on sand, they were probably still in diapers, and they were at my courts. Both of them, it’s fun to talk about.”
I played beach VB at Coconut back in the 90’s. That place was great. Played in many tournaments that Bruce put on. My partner (Barry) and I would leave Jackson 5:30 am to make it to Coconut for the tournament start time. We played all day our pool play then into the playoffs. Then have to drive home 3 hours! We did this regularly for years. We watched Coconut Beach grow and grow. More and more people would enter those tournaments. I’m glad to see it is bigger than ever! I do remember Bruce being a very hard worker and very organized. Those tournaments very usually very well run and kept you coming back!
You’re right Stevey! Coconut Beach was a great place to play and although leaving Jackson at 5:30 a.m. wasn’t much fun, the drive home was brutal after playing all day! I never played against you and Barry there (although quite often back in Jackson) since I didn’t compete in coed until years later, but the men’s competition was really good. I remember days during the summer that were so hot, everyone ran for the outdoor showers between every match. Bruce ran tight tournaments, but he always had time to talk to you.
My fondest memory of Coconut Beach was the Steve Timmons 1/2-day boot camp and 1/2-day tournament where at one point during a challenging setting drill, Steve called out, “Sweet!” after one of my sets and then sitting at the bar afterwards chatting with Steve over a beer or two.