Even at 3 a.m., the heartbeat of beach volleyball lives in Midwest America

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Midwest beach volleyball 8/23/2020-Nicole Sherpensky
Nicole Sherpensky goes 8p against the block of Katie Hogan/courtesy Chaos beach volleyball

LEBANON, Ohio — It’s just shy of 3 in the morning here, and sleep will not be coming. Even if it were to begin to make the eyelids heavy, and the focus waver, there wouldn’t be much point. My flight back to California leaves in four and a half hours, and I have to jet to the airport, which is an hour away, in a little less than two hours.

Before me stands a decadent mountain of late-night/early morning snacks: 20 Chicken McNuggets, one triple-Quarter Pounder, three McChickens, one smoothie, one hot fudge Sunday. I’ll be eating every last crumb, thank you very much. And, for the first time in potentially ever, I’ll be eating that smorgasbord of riches stone cold sober, which is a first at this time of day for me, as it should for most human beings.

You may be wondering why I’m doing this — going at least 24 hours with no sleep, cramming what amounts to basically 3,000 calories of poison into my body, with no shame or second thought, at 3 in the morning, in a sleepy rural town in Ohio.

This, my friends, is a fair question.

At 10:30 this morning, my partner, Kevin Villela, and I, played our first match of the Midwest Beach Volleyball Championships. It was at Grand Sands, a sprawling beach volleyball complex in Loveland, Ohio, complete with seven indoor courts, seven outdoor courts, and, of course, a bar.

Forty-seven other teams were also there at 10:30 this morning, from pretty much every little pocket of beach volleyball you can find in this country: Columbus, Cleveland, California, Annapolis, Florida, New Orleans, Alabama, North Carolina, Indiana. I’d go on but I think you get the point: The beach volleyball world descended upon this map dot, and I finally understand why.

The heart of beach volleyball beats in Midwest America.

I don’t mean to hyperbolize. Promise. I understand that California is the genetic makeup of this sport, the very DNA of it. Florida comprises the skeleton, maybe the flesh. Hawai’i plays a critical role as well.

But the heart of this sport is here.

It’s in guys like Corey Robertson, the founder of Chaos Beach Volleyball, who ran this colossal tournament with nary a hitch or argument. Heck, the guy had people volunteering to ref matches they didn’t need to ref. If you’ve been a country mile within a CBVA, you will know what a feat of charisma that is.

It’s in the droves of folks who approached me about one of a zillion things about this sport: They love SANDCAST (shameless, I know; I’m not sorry), they couldn’t believe Trevor Crabb guaranf******teed the win in the Porsche Cup, and he’s their favorite player because of it; and they loved the fact that we were there.

By “we” I mean those of us who traveled from California. It’s not always such a warm reception, to be honest. Californian beach volleyball players sometimes get a reputation, justifiable in some cases, as arrogant and stuck-up. Some places and people aren’t too happy that we travel to their tournaments with that weird, arrogant vibe and take their prize money and sometimes bids into the Manhattan Beach Open. It’s similar to how some AVP players and fans look at various international players competing on the AVP Tour.

But the people of Ohio genuinely loved it. They loved it because the place is becoming something of a can’t miss stop. They actually began rooting for Kevin and I because, they said, they wanted us to come back. The site is beautiful, one of the best man-made facilities I’ve played at — Mango’s in Louisiana, former home of the LSU Tigers, remains No. 1 for me — and the competition was excellent. The local players, guys like Jon Drake, Joe Ruzick, Alex Storm, Charlie VanRees, Joe Sokol, Will Veverka, Hudson Bates (the Ohio State assistant coach and former AVP pro is local enough now, anyway), David Evans, Matt Baleiko, Max Martin, Adam Gustafson, among others, made the tournament deeper than most would realize at first blush.

Most of the above players have made a main draw. Those who haven’t have excelled elsewhere in volleyball at a high level. Drake and Ruzick have both made AVP main draws, Storm is a phenomenal grass player whom you should watch if you get the chance to catch a Waupaca stream next year, Sokol and Veverka had an excellent NVL run in Virginia Beach and Columbus, Bates’s resume stands on its own without me needing to be a hype man for him, Evans played libero overseas and has a hell of an arm, Baleiko is another expert on grass, Martin made the Waupaca finals on the beach, Gustafson has made multiple AVP main draws.

The tournament was a rare 48-teamer — I think that number, 48, bears repeating several times here — in which the field wasn’t a lopsided, top-heavy affair, as many of these smoker tournaments can be, but quite deep and filled with parity.

Should we have done a 48-team double-elimination tournament in one day? I don’t know. Probably not. My knees would be stoked if it were split into two. And I can’t imagine it would be recommended by any doctor or physical therapist, but there was something wonderfully old school about it. The women’s side had a far more reasonable 23 teams, and it was won by Nicole Sherpensky — who is getting married to Drake this October, so everyone go congratulate them — and Courtney Baleiko. They beat Katie Hogan and Allie Denney in the final.

Still: I can almost see Sinjin Smith and Mike Dodd nodding in approval — “finally, these spoiled kids had to play more than three matches in a day; we’d play at Marine Street from 9 a.m. till sunset every day!”

Kevin and I won every match until Evan Cory and JD Hamilton smacked us around pretty good in the final — and we still had to play six matches and 14 sets in a single day, which are both records for me, as is the 8,753 calories my Whoop has informed me that I burned. You can’t find that kind of grind it out slugfest of a tournament much anymore.

Only here. In the Midwest. Where much of the heart and soul of this beautiful game has been preserved.

Not a single one of the players I mentioned above play this game for money, or notoriety, nor are any really trying to “make it,” whatever that means. They do it because they love it, and it’s obvious both in the way they carry themselves and treat the game. They’re relaxed but talk trash, as they are mostly all great friends, and many have met their wives playing this game. Most of their games are crisp but not flashy. They get the job done. They’re still competitors, they just don’t tether their lives to the game.

Most of them don’t travel far and wide. It’s why you’ll typically see an influx of names you don’t recognize populating the AVP Chicago qualifier, and many of those new names breaking into their main draw — sometimes their one and only. The guys and gals in the Midwest are kings of the upsets that really aren’t upsets at all.

A name, however, you should know, is the one who beat me in the finals: Evan Cory. Evan was maybe 17 when I first met him. I had just begun playing, and knew little about the sport, but even then, there was no questioning the fact that the kid was precocious, wildly talented, genetically gifted, with a strong body that would fill out (it has) and a good head on his shoulders.

He’s played a handful of qualifiers and hasn’t made it through yet, but he will. For some, these things are simply a matter of time. Evan falls into that category. This year, the 6-foot-3 Louisiana native has won tournaments blocking and defending. He’s won tournaments in category I hurricanes — welcome to Coconut Beach, everyone — and through marathon days in Ohio. He’s played well on the right and on the left.

His playing style is similar to that of Troy Field, only he’s left-handed, younger, and has an excellent team of mentors and players, like Joey Keener and his partner, Hamilton, around him to polish the rough edges begat from a successful indoor career at Lincoln Memorial. Field had to mostly polish his on his own until he climbed the ladder and now has a good team building him up.

Cory will be an AVP main draw regular. It’s why these tournaments are so valuable: They help to uncover the next wave of talent, of which Cory will be at the forefront, though I couldn’t tell you what position that’ll be for him.

Maybe you’ve heard of his partner, JD Hamilton. Maybe you haven’t. He once had the dream Cory is getting close to realizing: AVP main draws, living in California, doing the beach rat thing. He came out to California for a month two summers ago, lost a lot, won a little, ran a fun little shoot-and-pull offense with Christian Honer, then went back to Mobile, Alabama, to finish his engineering degree. He married his longtime girlfriend, Summer, had a son, Maverick, and became the first in his family to graduate from college.

That’ll open your eyes to how much more there is to life than road-dogging and couch crashing. So he moved to St. Petersburg, Fla., got a great job he enjoys — and suddenly he was freed from the crushing pressure so many qualifier players put on themselves to qualify. He’ll come home from tournaments he’s won and tournaments he’s lost, and his son won’t know the difference, only that dad’s home, and that life is better now that dad’s home.

It’s funny, too: Unburdened from those pressures we so often shackle ourselves with, JD is now possibly playing the best volleyball of his life.

They won this tournament without dropping a single match. There is no asterisk on this win. I don’t care if it was in Ohio or California or gosh darn Bangladesh. There was no shortage of talent they took down, what with the gathering of local talent mixed in with teams like Pete Connole and John Schwengel, Bruno Amorim and Angel Dache, Chris Luers and Logan Webber traveling in (I consider Logan a Californian now, in spite of his midwest roots). What Hamilton and Cory did was far more difficult than making it through a qualifier, and I do believe I’m qualified to make that statement.

It was 1:30 or so when our final finished. We hugged our goodbyes, collapsed into our cars, and attempted to make it to the closest 24-hour drive-thru without cramping.

So here I am, with what is now a graveyard of McDonald’s boxes, cinderblocks for legs, and a pile of foul clothes in the wash next to me. I’m sitting at the kitchen table of Chris Luers as I write this, and if there is a single reason the heart of beach volleyball is in the Midwest, it is here, in the House of Luers.

He is, in my mind, the personification of what it is to be an unconditional lover of the game. It’ll grind you up and spit you out if you let it.

Luers has had more chances than anyone I know — and he’s always come back. He’s 46 now, a father of four adorable and delightful children, a husband to a beautiful former college basketball player. He’s been playing qualifiers since 2005, and he’s made his share of main draws. If there’s a tournament to compete in, he’ll be there, no matter the prize money. He doesn’t do this at the expense of his family, or work — he has his priorities in line just fine. He just does it because he is, like so many of us are, enamored with this game.

It was wonderful, truly, to finally come to Ohio to see what this place was all about. I’ll be back.

You can’t stay away from the heartbeat for long.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Travis,
    Thanks for putting Cincinnati back on the map (after the AVP dumped us)! Cinti is a great VB town with our share and more of amazing VB players – Bryn and Steve Kehoe, Rachel Adams and Max Holt immediately come to mind – and the city is almost paved over with sand VB courts. And yes Chris Luers is kind of a living legend, getting better with age, part of a 3-generation family of VB players who are all great folks. Best of all, our specialties are Cinti chili and no-attitude VB, so, guys and gals, come on down for a great time!

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