There he was, on the verge of breaking through, finally, after 18 years.
In his 140th career pro event.
Ed Ratledge, 41 years old, and partner Robert “Rafu” Rodriguez were a point away from winning AVP San Francisco.
“Just being in that moment. It occurred to me just now that none of the storylines really were in my head at that time,” Ratledge said last week. “I was just thinking about how to get the ball where it needed to go.
“I wasn’t in tune with any of the thinking stuff, I was just going out there and being. Being a good volleyball player and doing things that I do as a good volleyball player in that moment. The nerves were there a little bit at times.”
Rodriguez, a 31-year-old Puerto Rican also going for his first AVP win, was also calm.
“I mean, we’re playing with house money at that point,” said Ratledge, the former UCLA indoor player.
“Any finish better than seventh for me is like, ‘All right, cool.’ It’s just one more tournament that I’m going to be in the main draw.
“When you’re playing with house money, and things are just flowing, and you’re in the moment, you just wake up, and it’s 20-18. The whistle is blowing because they didn’t make a good set on that ball, and you’re finally getting a call to go your way. Someone’s handing you a bottle of champagne.”
For the first time in a career that began in 2000. The 6-foot-8 Ratledge had never finished higher than third in an AVP event, in San Francisco last year.
But, as William Edward Hickson is credited as saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.”
The 6-foot-8 resident of Huntington Beach, Calif., kept on trying.
And when the final whistle blew in that 21-15, 21-18 victory over Chase Budinger and Sean Rosenthal in just Ratledge’s and Rodriguez’s third tournament together, Ratledge was stunned.
For that matter, he still is.
“It happened. I’m still trying to come to grips with that. Rafu and I gelled as a team. He served 17 aces in five matches, which is commendable, and it seemed like most of them were right when we needed one.
“I put that on my Facebook status, I’m still in the denial phase of the 12 steps. I guess it did happen, there are a bunch of photos in my download folder of me spraying champagne.”
In AVP San Francisco, they were seeded sixth. They opened with a two-set win over Marty Lorenz and Raffe Paulis before stunning third-seeded Trevor Crabb and John Mayer in three, 15-13 in the third. That set up a two-set win over Tim Bomgren and Chaim Schalk that propelled them into the semifinals, where they knocked out top-seeded Billy Allen and Ryan Doherty 21-12, 21-17.
Things couldn’t have gone better in the July 8 final.
“I blocked a few balls and both of us sided out at an incredible rate,” Ratledge recalled. “Neither of us were really servable.
“It just seemed like every set of every match we got to about 12-8, and the other team just started pressing. You could just see it in their body language, you could see it in their serves, all of a sudden they’re missing serves, missing shots, they were just trying to do things that were outside of them, and we just kept doing the things that we could control.”
He couldn’t control the reaction.
“Including texts, Facebook messages, and Instagram comments, I probably had around 400 people congratulate me that day, maybe more, I don’t know.
“My phone had at least 100 text messages within 10 minutes of the end of the match. It just goes to show what a big deal the (AVP’s) Amazon Prime deal is, because 10 years ago, I could have done this, and nobody would have known. Everybody knows now.”
They also know about Team Skateboard.
“Ed saw that I brought my skateboard (to San Francisco), and said that he would have brought his if he had known,” Rodriguez said. “So he went and bought a skateboard on Craigslist for $20, and made up the name ‘Team Skateboard.’
“Our hotel was up the hill from the site, and we looked forward to that skateboard ride down to the site every day. We also had a lot of fun skateboarding around the city.”
Since Rodriguez lives in Temecula, Calif., they had practiced together just six times together before AVP San Francisco.
Ratledge and Rodriguez ended up together after Ratledge was dumped by then-partner Eric Zaun.
“We were just practicing to get reps and he wasn’t sure who he was playing with and the only way I would play New York was if I was playing with Ed, because his points would get us in the main draw,” Rodriguez admitted. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have spent the travel money.
“Last minute, he called me, said, ‘Hey, let’s go.’ So I went, and we started playing, just like that.”
They found it was easy playing together.
“When you’ve played as many events as each of us has, and played this long, you just have to tune your game to your partner’s needs,” Ratledge said. “Just getting into good habits about where you put the ball.”
“Playing with Ed is like going out on a Saturday just to play fun games,” Rodriguez said. “There’s no pressure, we’re relaxed, we do it for fun. If we break even, it’s good enough, we travel and play because we love it. We’re on the same page that way.”
Taking things in stride is Ratledge’s way.
His volleyball career could have ended in 2005. Ratledge originally wanted to be a commercial airline pilot and earned his private pilot’s license and instrument rating that year, but an engine failure altered his life course.
Ratledge was practicing instrument approaches the day before Thanksgiving with plans to fly solo to Northern California the next day in a single-engined Cessna 172. On his third approach to the Long Beach airport, the engine failed.
“We got to about 2,000 feet, over the airfield, and all of a sudden there was a sudden, loud pop from the engine. The engine stopped running.
“It’s not producing any power, we’re losing altitude, I looked over at my instructor and said, ‘Your airplane.’ “
Ratledge laughed at the memory.
“An altitude of 2,000 feet over an airfield, that’s the exact place that you would want to lose your engine. You wouldn’t want to lose it coming into the airfield, you’d want to lose it right over the airfield.
“You want to gauge what you’re doing and go away from the airfield just enough so you can circle back and land. We reported to the tower that we had engine problems.
“I think we declared an emergency, they cleared the runway for us, and we came in as a glider. Luckily, our landing was uneventful. We pulled the plane off to the side and my instructor had one of the later students come and get us into another airplane to return us to the field.”
No wonder he can keep calm at match point.
“Needless to say, we drove up to Northern California the next day.”
For the next decade, while grinding on the sand, Ratledge did plenty to make ends meet. He started a camp in 2002, began running youth tournaments in 2004, and has even been a substitute teacher.
Accordingly, Ratledge also briefly considered retiring during the 2015 and 2016 seasons, at time in which his best finish was ninth.
“I’ve always felt like when there’s not a partner that you want to play with, that wants to play with you, the tour is kicking you off of it,” Ratledge said. “I felt like I was getting kicked off, because I just didn’t have that partner.
“But the rational part of me said, ‘Look. There is a tiny, tiny pool of left-side defenders. No one is playing defense and left side. You are a pigeon-holed player, you cannot do any of those things. You need a super-specific player, and all of a sudden, there are a whole bunch of left-side defenders, and look who I get to play with.
“Somebody capable of winning a tournament. I was rational about it to be like, ‘Look, there’s a few more left-side players that want to play defense, and if I get one, I’m going to be good. And I was right, I bet on myself there.”
Ratledge said his understanding of the game is significantly better than it was in his 30s.
“I feel like I’ve been a veteran for 10 years,” said Ratledge, who has played with, among others, Ty Loomis, Al-B Hannemann, Ryan Mariano, Will Montgomery, Eric Zaun and David Fischer, with whom he won two NORCECA events in 2008, the only other times he took gold.
“Now I know even more, and have a more thorough concept of the game after that many years more of playing,” Ratledge said. “I say it to a lot of people that I want to coach, this game is awesome, because you can keep playing it for decades and it doesn’t wear on your body.
“Largely, my body is better than it was 10 years ago because I know how to treat it and what I need to do to keep it functioning at a high level. I’ve learned some dietary stuff that’s really important for me personally and I’ve learned how to nip all the chronic little issues in the bud.
For example, “I’m kind of allergic to dairy. Not ‘break out in hives’ allergic, but it creates issues in my mid-section, gas and bloating. That changes the way that I breathe. If you’re not breathing with the right parts of your body, you’re engaging other muscles that aren’t really designed to do that, and that tires you out very quickly.”
Ratledge said he had a shoulder issue that was related to dairy.
“The dairy would bloat me in my lower right quadrant, my breath would go more to my chest, not into my belly, because my belly would bump up against the bloating, so the body would naturally avoid that area, because of the bloating and pain that was there, and then my left shoulder had all kinds of issues because of secondary breathing muscles in my neck and up here,” he said, pointing to his shoulder.
He gave credit to his strength-and-conditioning coach, Susan Stanley, and physical therapist Derk Sueki.
“Those two people kind of came together and really assessed what was going on in my body. We only really pieced all of it together this year, and boy, I felt the differences late in matches. Matches that I didn’t used to win, because my body was fatigued and unable to keep playing at the highest level, I was able to finish. “
Ratledge said he actually trains less.
I’m older. My body just can’t take 30 hours a week of training, it can’t recover from that,” he said.
He can ratchet up his workouts when needed and also said that cryotherapy is one “short cut” that allows him to train harder for short periods of time.
“Cryotherapy helps me recover really quickly in a holistic, whole body way. I went two, three, four times in a week, that was really helpful for me to be able to train that hard that week. I don’t know that I can sustain that for weeks and months at a time, even from a practical standpoint. I’m running a business, I have two kids, the time constraints on my life are numerous.
“I put in as much time as I can to be a professional athlete, I wish I had more hours in a day to devote to it, and I wish my body healed as quickly as it used to, it’s the hand that I’m dealt.”
Ratledge and his wife, the former Jessica Graham, met in 2002 when she was a lifeguard at Huntington Beach. They married in 2005 and have two children, 8-year-old William and Adeline, 3.
They watched him win AVP San Francisco from their home in Huntington Beach.
“I was just over the moon excited for him,” Jessica said. “My son and I, we were screaming at the TV, it was like the Super Bowl. I’ve never understood how people could scream and yell at the TV, the entire neighborhood could hear us. We were screaming, yelling, and high-fiving, doing the monster block, and when he won, we were screaming and clapping.”
That set off a week of celebrations, at Ratledge’s gym, his adult classes, and even a pizza party at Zubie’s in Huntington Beach for friends and family.
Ratledge is a volleyball entrepreneur. He began running beach camps for juniors in 2002, and CBVA youth tournaments in 2004. He runs VolleyOC, an umbrella for all kinds of volleyball events within Orange County. He is also looking into running a few beach clinics across the nation.
“We run a lot of youth tournaments,” Ratledge said. “We run adult classes, for recreational players, low amateur players, summer camps, We’re growing a beach club in Irvine this year, we’re starting some leagues in Bolsa Chica.
“So it is what it claims to be, it’s volleyball in Orange County. I don’t really have any designs on over-extending myself to San Diego, or the South Bay, or anywhere, even inland Orange County. I just want to be on the beach in Orange County providing volleyball programming for people that want to come out and play what I think is the greatest game on earth.“
Ratledge’s wife Jessica, a stay-at-home mother, marvels at Ratledge’s activity level.
“That’s one of the most amazing things, just seeing him grow his business,” Jessica said. “He works seven days a week, 12 hours a day, and he still has time for his family and his kids and his wife. We still have dates.
“He’s coaching all over the county, he’s running tournaments for adults, AVPNext, and AVPFirst, AAU, he’s always supposed to be at three places at once, and he somehow manages to get it all covered.”
In the meantime, Team Skateboard’s focus has to be on AVP Hermosa Beach, the tour’s next stop July 27-29.
“You have to have patience in both a long- and a short-term respect. This is an extremely hard game to learn,” Ratledge said. “Unless you’re learning the game as a young kid, and your brain is plastic, I love to say this, and nobody really vibes with this as hard as I do, but none of our ancestors did this.
“Not one caveman ever bounced a sphere off their forearms and tried to control it. It just didn’t happen. So what we do is completely learned behavior.”
And he’s learned a lot in his 41 years.
“This whole volleyball thing is completely learned behavior,” Ratledge said. “It’s foreign.
“That’s one of the beautiful parts about it, to learn it so thoroughly that you can do it well.”