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SANDCAST: Andy Benesh: Playing with the GOATs and winning AVPs

Andy Benesh wondered if this was some kind of movie. Maybe a prank. Was Phil Dalhausser — the Phil Dalhausser, the Thin Beast, the greatest American to ever play beach volleyball — actually going to show up to Austin, Texas?

Was he actually going to play an AVP tournament with Andy Benesh?

“It felt like I was in a movie, to be honest,” Benesh said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “I thought ‘Maybe he won’t show up or something or maybe he won’t be able to play.’ Until he showed up, I was like ‘Oh, this is actually going to happen.’”

What happened next is certainly worthy of the big screens. In his first tournament split-blocking, playing with another 6-foot-9 giant in a team many figured would be fun to watch but had little to no chance of actually winning the darn thing, Benesh did just that: He won the darn thing. Won every single match. Beat three Olympians, and six AVP champions. He won it while receiving no less than 80 percent of the serves over a scorching hot Texas weekend — indeed, Benesh finished the weekend with a tournament-leading 168 attacks, 70 more than his 42-year-old partner. At the age of 27, in just his 21st AVP event, Benesh joined Dalhausser among the hallowed list of individuals who can claim the title of AVP champion.

“We weren’t supposed to do that well. I was like ‘Alright I’m playing with one of the best in the world, if we lose, it’s not Phil’s fault,’” Benesh said, laughing. “I feel like I’ve gotten past putting people on a pedestal, either people you’re playing with or people you’re playing against, and I think playing with Billy [Allen, in 2021] really helped me with that. The better you are, it’s harder to stay on top of the mountain. You have more pressure. You’re the one seed, playing the 16, I feel like you’re getting nervous. You have nothing to gain.”

It’s possible that no individual male player in the United States has gained more in the past two years than Andy Benesh. His eventual breakout became imminent the moment he and Adam Roberts stunned Allen and Stafford Slick in the second round of AVP Hermosa Beach in 2019. That type of performance proved to be no fluke when the two proceeded to upset seventh-seeded Chase Frishman and Avery Drost, then push top-seeded Tim Bomgren and Troy Field to three, finishing a career-high seventh.

It was, it seemed, only a matter of time until Benesh established himself as a potential heir to the United States’ blocking throne, the one so long held by Jake Gibb and Dalhausser that remains somewhat vacated. But when he got the call from Allen, asking him to partner for the 2021 season, he felt everything he had worked for — all of those qualifier struggles, all of those tournaments in Florida and CBVAs, all of those months down in St. Petersburg, Fla. — disappear in a matter of 33 minutes. That’s how long it took Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb to dust him and Allen in their first match as a team, in a country quota in Cancun, Mexico.

“I played horrible,” Benesh said of the 13-21, 13-21 loss. “I thought he was going to drop me.”

Allen’s been around the block long enough. He knew better than to dismiss a 6-foot-9 gem of a talent when he saw one. Even when they flopped again, at a two-star in Rwanda, failing to break pool, Allen stuck with his guy. The dividends for that patience soon came pouring in.

A month later, Benesh set a new career-high finish on the AVP, taking fifth in Atlanta. The next weekend, he and Allen claimed third, knocking off a who’s who of American legends on the way: Nick Lucena, Gibb and Taylor Crabb, John Hyden and Ricardo Santos. Two weeks after that, another third, in Chicago, which was very nearly a finals appearance.

“When we played Casey [Patterson] and Chase [Budinger] in the semis, we blew them out in the first set, and I was like ‘Oh, we’re going to walk into these finals,’” Benesh said. “They beat us in the second set, and then they took it to us in the third, and I was thinking about where we were in the tournament.”

Andy Benesh
A happy Andy Benesh/Michael Gomez photo

Nine months later, he arrived at the same scenario in Austin. He did so as a different player, a different man. He took all of what he had learned in his brief season with Allen and internalized it, turning to a new partner and mentor in Lucena for the 2022 season.

“Partnering with Nick has been huge. Obviously there’s so much you can do to get yourself in a position to compete, but until you have a teammate that’s doing it all, it’s like ‘Shit I need to get on my game,’” Benesh said. “I think Nick and Tri are the two hardest workers in the U.S. on the men’s side. Just seeing the lifting and his diet, the way he times his meals, his rest and recovery, he’ll roll out for an hour then stretch then do an ice bath and sauna back and forth for like an hour.

“His preparation to the game was eye-opening. It’s stuff that we all know, but until you see it, it’s like ‘Wow, he’s really committed.’ That’s been a really positive influence on my game, and getting in the U.S. gym has helped a lot. Their staff has helped me. For the first four years I was on the beach, I was scared to lift heavy, because I knew my form was bad and I got injured in college, and I had a lot of bad habits in the weight room that I needed somebody to watch me to fix my form. All those things coming together, then partnering with Nick, all of those things kind of aligned.”

Look at Benesh now, and then compare that image to photos of, say, 2019 or 2022. He’s 15 pounds heavier but leaner and stronger. His diet, thanks to both Lucena and Canada’s Sam Pedlow, is revamped, with more fruit and lean meat and less wasteful carbs and In N Out burgers, which, Benesh kids you not, he once thought were healthy. While others melted in the Austin heat, Benesh was unbothered, despite getting the heaviest workload of the entire field in serve receive.

But mentally, too, he’s grown, evolved. He didn’t allow his mind to wander a full round, or even a full point, ahead. He simply stayed in the moment, taking one serve after the next, a sideout machine.

“I really wasn’t’ focused on what round we were in. I was just focused on the match, which really helped,” he said. “Last year, I felt ‘Oh I’m in the semis, if we win this we’re in the finals.’ In this one, I was more focused on the actual game than where I was at in the actual tournament.”

In New Orleans this weekend, Benesh is looking to make it two straight AVP wins, and three total when you include the AVPNext in San Antonio that he recently won with Tim Brewster. Here is where you might imagine the head would get big, the ego would swell, the arrogance would creep. Not so with Andy Benesh.

“I still think I’m three or four years from putting everything together, but I know I just have to be patient and not get super mad in practice if I’m not executing,” he said. “The success wasn’t expected. I think everyone would say they’re growth mindset, whether they actually are or not. Even after the Austin tournament, I could have played a lot better. I made too many hitting errors, I served with pressure but I wasn’t getting what John Mayer calls a knockout, getting teams fully out of system. I think having that approach to every tournament, whether I win a tournament, I’m still the same player I was, I’m still going to have things to work on. Using that as an experience to go back to the lab, this is what I need to work on, adding things.”

Just more material for what’s becoming an awfully good script for a movie.

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(All times Eastern unless otherwise noted)