I’ve been to 25 Mexico Classics in a row.
The 42nd-annual tournament (more often referred to as either Estero or Rosarito, for the beach that hosts it, or sometimes even the mish-mashed Esterito) was this past weekend about 20 miles south of San Diego at Papas and Beer in Rosarito Beach. And like every year for the past quarter century, the Mexico Classic was something else.
At one time the Mexico Classic was considered the largest beach volleyball tournament of them all. This year Sacha Simoes and Jeff Van Eaton won the men’s division, while Ann Osburn and Kelly Park won the women’s.
I first began hearing about the Estero Beach tournament in the 1990s. It was spoken of with great reverence, accompanied by stories of AVP beach-volleyball professionals playing with amateurs and legendary parties.
One of the middles on my USVBA team, Mark Ott, waxed on and on about the tournament, and even was kind enough to draw me a map to get to it. His map was crafted with unerring precision on a Round Table pizza napkin, and basically contained the instructions: “Turn left at Hussong’s Cantina, and right at Papa’s & Beer (another famous watering hole).”
In retrospect, given the number of pitchers of Miller beer that were consumed that evening, I should have been a bit more suspicious of the accuracy, but this was long before everybody and everything had its own website.
My best friend, Sheryl Boyle, and I decided then that we would attend. Understand that driving in Mexico at that time was no picnic. Maps were difficult to come by, there was no GPS, many of Mexico’s roads were in a state of disrepair, and that’s assuming that they weren’t gravel or dirt to begin with.
We lived in Sacramento, Calif., about eight hours from the Mexican border, about a 10-hour drive to the tournament. Our first mishap occurred when our map failed us utterly, depositing us on a dead-end road in the middle of the Ensenada slums, with nothing but cardboard and sheet-aluminum shanties surrounding us.
Ensenada then was more of a fishing town than a tourist haven, so we had great difficulty finding anyone who could speak more than a smidgen of English, and our grade-school Spanish was of little use. Ultimately, we found a man that pointed us down the road knowingly, and we were able to find the Estero Beach resort without much difficulty.
The tournament was everything I had imagined, and much, much more. It stretched as far as the eye could see, with hundreds of courts. The directors, trying to satisfy demand, as the rising tide not only floats all boats, but submerged courts, forced participants to build sand castles to prevent their courts from flooding.
The tournament is a weighted draw tournament, meaning the organizers assign partners to avoid having rated players partnering together to dominate.
That event featured AVP professionals like Liz Masakayan, Lynda Black, Steve Timmons, Brian Lewis, Scott Friedrichsen and a number of others. Of course, the tournament exhibited the full range of a bell curve, all the way down to rank beginners as well. My volleyball eyeballs were popping out not only with the star quality of the field, but also the extraordinary attractiveness of the group as a whole.
That attractiveness was on full display at the Friday night party. If you’re not familiar with the Estero Beach resort, it is a gated resort in Ensenada, allowing all of us gringos to let loose in Mexico within a safe environment.
With the cerveza and tequila flowing freely, the party was quite a spectacle. DJ Toby Russell was spinning the tunes in an outdoor courtyard converted to a dance floor. I have never felt so short (I’m 6 feet tall) dancing amongst hundreds of my volleyball brethren.
Also at the Friday party, the tournament committee posted the tournament draw, so one of the de rigeur party activities is to inquire if anyone knows your partner, if your partner is any good, and to compare partner notes.
My partner’s name was J. Sillabus, from Foster City. I dutifully inquired of everyone I saw if they knew of Mr. Sillabus, and nobody had any idea who he was. “Great,” I thought, “this guy is a loser.”
Fast-forward through hours of adult beverages and mild debauchery, and on Saturday morning, I went to my assigned court to meet my partner for the weekend. One by one, players came up to the court, introduced themselves, and joined the pool. Finally, only my partner was absent. I saw an unassuming person (read: does NOT look like a volleyball player) approach our court. I stepped forward to greet him. ‘Hi, are you J. Sillabus? I’m your partner, my name is Ed.”
He then looked at me quizzically. “What do you mean?”
I replied, “We’re teammates for the day.”
He looked at me and asked, “You mean … there are only two of us?”
Yes, my partner John Sillabus thought he had signed up for a six-man tournament. And no, he had no organized volleyball skills to speak of.
As we were off during the first match, I asked him if he wanted to pepper. I tossed the ball to him and he grabbed the ball and threw it with two hands somewhere, and then I picked it up. We repeated the “throwing” process a few times. His volleyball “skills” resembled that of a random generating ball machine.
Finally, the previous match was finished and we were up. I asked John if he would like to hit, and I set up in the hitting position with John in the setting position. I tossed the ball for him to set and he threw the ball into the open court on the other side, much to my surprise. After a few reps of that, I declared that we were ready to play in a mixture of amusement, confusion, and frustration.
My pool-mates were sympathetic to my plight, so much so that they hit roll shots directly to me so that there might be some chance, however slight, of a rally breaking out. John’s throw-overs, however illegal, weren’t called because there was virtually zero chance of us winning any games. We did, however win a surprising number of points, perhaps because John’s throws were virtually unreadable.
After our second game, I couldn’t find John.
At that point, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to find him just to play a pointless third pool-play match, but off I went to search for him. After about 15 minutes of trudging down the beach, I found him about 60 courts away, two-thirds of the way down the beach.
John was sitting on an 80-gallon ice chest, at this point so inebriated that his right eye barely opened.
“John”, I said, “We’re up, buddy! Ready to play?”
After a long pause, he responded, slurring his words, “Thass all right.”
So ended the volleyball portion of my first Estero. Despite spending $25 to go o-fer, I have a great volleyball story and the ability to shame anyone that complains about his or her partner. More than that, I had an utterly amazing time at the tournament and parties reconnecting with friends around the country. At the end of the tournament, I thought to myself, “I’m going back to this tournament every year of my life”.
And yes, I have gone back every year since 1992, except for in 2007, when it was canceled due to cartel violence at the time. I even managed to get back to the tournament last year after fulfilling NVL Virginia Beach obligations, arriving at the tournament in time for Sunday’s quarterfinal action. I even played four of those years, finishing as high as ninth with Ronnie Villanueva before Ben Brockman and Danny Neiman put us out of the tournament abruptly 15-2.
I think that the reason that the tournament has been so successful all of these years is that it is not about the very top players, it’s an everyman’s volleyball tournament in which only two players win, but all the attendees are winners if not in volleyball in fun and camaraderie.
I’m already looking forward to 2018.
Have a good Esterito story? Love to hear it in the comments!