A quarter-century of Mexico Classic beach-volleyball memories

6
5733
Sacha Simoes and Jeff Van Eaton, Ann Osburn and Kelly Park, 2017 Rosarito champions/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

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.

At its peak, the Estero tournament occupied the entire beach at the Estero beach resort near Ensenada/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

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.

Olympic indoor and AVP star Steve Timmons was one of the stalwarts at Estero Beach in the 1990’s/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

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.

The party at the Estero Beach tournaments were legendary/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

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.

None.

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.

Anywhere.

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!

6 COMMENTS

  1. I have great memories of my first Estero Beach tournament. It was back in 2004 I believe, and I was paired with a good partner, but don’t remember his name. We both signed up as ‘3’s because I think it was 1-5 back then. My Houston group brought about 15 and had my best friend in my pool, he was playing with an older guy similar to you first partner in skill. My buddy was really good so it was nice to finally beat him. We went easy on the bad teams, and one particular team that we were beating pretty bad served me the ball and when I went up to swing 3 of their friends came onto the court and I was hitting against a 4-man block, and was rejected. We all laughed and continued on to finish the game. I always tell people that this is a “no attitudes” tournament and you are playing for fun. We won our pool, then “won the party” that Saturday night to show up for playoffs on a couple hours of sleep.

    During playoffs we played well enough to win a few games and then I believe in quarterfinals was when we played against Brian Lewis and his partner Bob who I believe founded Quicksilver. Of course they had an entourage so we got to play in front of a lot of people. They win the toss and of course Brian Lewis chooses to serve, this was big court side-out scoring, and since it was Estero you could even set handset the ball like Monroe Clark on occasion. Brian Lewis bombs a jump serve that I lay out for and make a good pass, my partner gives me a great set and I and looking to crank on a ball hard angle at Bob since Lewis was blocking my line, out of no where I see Lewis jumping sideways and stuff blocks me with his left hand. I was thinking oh %@$#. Second serve was the same, good pass, good set but this time I fake a line swing and hit left hand cutty and tell him “you’re not getting that one”. I don’t think he got my humor, but how often do you get to talk a little dirt to a pro so I went with it. In the end they won 11-7 and it was an awesome experience, and we got the tequila bottle tossed on the court a few times for good plays. The last memory of the tournament was that Bob had to leave after our game and in semifinals Lewis played by himself with a cutout of Bob placed on the court, he lost 11-7 by himself and it was great exhibition for everyone to watch.

    I have met you a couple times with my Houston and San Diego friends, I met Julie last year when we all played golf at Bajamar last year. Thanks for taking all the great photos at the tournaments Ed!

  2. I loved Estero and played 29 years straight! I started playing in high school when we stumbled onto it on a surf trip in Rosarito behind a bar. George and Arlene Stepanoff and Mike Brown were there at registration, took my info, and I was stoked to get an invite the next year. The years at Estero Resort were the best, especially the early years when Jose Cuervo sponsored free margaritas, the parties were just HUGE and Ed’s right when he talks about the beautiful people. Watching Lewy play with whoever was like a rock concert. I’ll never forget playing against one team on Sunday from Hermosa with about 60 day-drinking fans and they all had “heckle books” of lyrics for their synchronized taunts. Rosie’s Raiders probably were conceptualized in Estero. On the side change, they’d all change sides under the net with their team in a long snaking drunken congo line Some of the best heckles they had, 60 voices strong, were while you were serving: “Kirk and Dan, sitting in the tree, K I S S I N G, first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the fighting, then comes divorce, then comes the DAMN DIVORCE LAWYERS”, or “Noonan… NOONAN” while you were serving. Another year we were playing and 10 girls in bikinis and Mex hats rode horses through the courts. And I mean right through the courts, because the darn horses didn’t know to pick up their hooves and dragged the lines along with them. Where else but Mex? The committee would hold a call-in contest on January 2 to get rooms for the next year and they’d sell out in 20 minutes! I”d have all my co-workers calling in for me and we’d usually get a room, which we’d pack with our 20 best friends. It was amazing to arrive, usually after surfing your way down and stopping to play golf at Bajamar and have lobster, and find over 150 courts stretching way down the playa. We’d always go down with a big posse and it was the most fun thing we did all year because volleyball was only part of it. Windsurfing, Hobie sailing, golf, surfing, wakeboarding along the water’s edge while a car pulled you, but most of all the crazy, beautiful people. So many great players and nice people played there like Pat Powers, Steve Timmons, Lynda Black, Liz Burke, Liz Masakayan, Brian Lewis who to this day helps me run the Laguna Open, Val Grady, Toby Russell Jimmy Nichols, Doug Foust, Dave Kamena, Kenny Lentin, Dan Neiman, all the Snows,and so many more. Storms in 1998 destroyed that beach and it didn’t return, so in an amazing feat for Mex, they filled a 5 acre field next to the hotel 2 feet deep with sand and built 60 courts. That year I got a partner named Pepe, and I thought it was a local or a nickname because the year before my partner was named “Skeeter”, he was from Louisiana, 5’5, drunk and those were his good qualities. But I ended up getting 2 of the 4 letters of my first name misspelled on the trophy with the great Pepe de la Hoz. The tradition of throwing the tequila bottle on the court whenever a player makes a great play was in full motion, and the bottles came almost every play. The trick was to hold the bottle like you were taking a shot and blow bubbles. You had to play something like 8 sideout games on Sunday to make it all the way, so everyone was cramping by this time and tequila shots didn’t help! In the semis against the great John Featherstone and Doug Foust, one of them started yetching on the first play from all the agave, and his friends surrounded him with beach umbrellas to give him some privacy. In the finals against the amazing Jimmy Nichols and Bob Brown, Pepe was passing the whole court and Jimmy demanded I get one serve, which I promptly throttled into the net. The crowd of 400 had been chanting “Let Kirk hit” and they switched to “Don’t let Kirk hit”. I’m glad to see this tournament is still alive in Rosarito, but it will always be known as the Estero tournament to legions of us!

  3. I was staying with Lewy and Bob on that trip and I remember a lot of aces. Lewy and cut-out Bob beat a team on Saturday 11-0 and the loosers had to strip and streak to the water. Hahahaaaa. The Federallies were not okay with that but let them go. Good times. There were other stories that were wayyyyy more interesting but had nothing to do with volley……duh.

  4. Great article buddy! I know remember my first Estero tourney because that was when Eric Roberts played his way into the playoffs only to have his partner go back to the US to work on Sunday. Instead of telling the directors, he played with a partner from Sacramento. Made it all the way to the semis send beat Fonoi’s cousin while wearing shoes due to his toes blistering from the hot sand on Saturday all while the 20+ Sac crowd cheered him on. Fonoi found out and told the directors so Eric was DQ’d. Great trip and we ended it following Fonoi to heckle him until he lost, ha ha. Love Estero!

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here