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Hagen Smith is only just beginning “to dial in my volleyball”

HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — There’s a story Hagen Smith loves about his father. There are many of them, really, but one in particular stands out. His father, Sinjin Smith, was in Brazil, competing for yet another World Championship alongside Randy Stoklos, the man with whom he’d win 114 tournaments, a record that will take a Herculean effort to ever be broken.

“It’s 140 degrees,” Hagen Smith recalled on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “One of those days where you drink it and you feel the water sweat out. You’re sitting in the box and you can’t help yourself. You drink your water and it’s coming out.

“Randy says ‘I can’t go anymore.’ And [Sinjin] is like ‘Just get on the court, play the next point. That’s all you have to do.’ They play the next point and Randy says he can’t go anymore. ‘Just play the next point.’ Then the Brazilian team cramps and they’re done. Everyone’s going through it. You’re in the dog house, they’re in the dog house.”

When you see son and father stand side by side, there is little about their build that suggests a familial lineage. Hagen stands 6-feet or 6-1, depending on which listing you choose to use; Sinjin is 6-foot-3. Hagen is built like a middle linebacker, to the point that when the AVP was being broadcast by Amazon Prime, and Hagen was playing alongside Lucas Yoder, their nickname amongst the announcers was “Team Roids.” When Sinjin was competing, he was lean and wiry, smooth and graceful where Hagen is all power and strength.

Yet to hear that story from Sinjin, relayed by his son, is to see a mindset that has very much been passed down from one generation to the next. Sinjin is still known to his peers, even to his fiercest rivals — Tim Hovland, Mike Dodd, Karch Kiraly, Kent Steffes — as one of the toughest competitors they’d ever met. Those who have played against Hagen can, and do, say the same.

There is no ball that goes down on Hagen that isn’t met with full pursuit. The line shot with little to no chance of a touch, much less a successful dig? Hagen is still chasing it down, taking a face full of sand in the process. A 14-10 third-set lead against Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb in the first round of the 2022 Hermosa Beach Open gone, suddenly, somehow, tied at 14-14? No problem. A side out and a seam ace — “I just closed my eyes and hit it,” Hagen said — capped the stunning upset, a 16 seed lopping off the 1. An ugly, first-round loss in Chicago a year ago, sentencing Hagen and Jake Dietrich to the long and unenviable road of the contender’s bracket? Totally fine. Four wins later, they were back into the semifinals, securing career-high finishes each.

“There’s so many different elements that are involved with this that there’s no one event or one thing that is going to go perfect for you every time,” Hagen said. “It’s just managing chaos.”

He’s managed chaos, all right. Managed it — sort of — out of UCLA, where he had offers from indoor clubs in Germany, Cyprus, Estonia, and Greece. But he also had a business idea with a buddy — “TikTok before TikTok,” as Hagen described it — that he was looking forward to building. Two weeks after spurning his final offer from the club in Cyprus, his buddy also ditched the TikTok before TikTok idea, and Hagen was left without a business or an indoor team. So he turned to the beach, where he always figured he’d wind up anyway, and qualified for his first main draw, at an NVL in Long Beach, where he and Cole Fiers finished ninth. The following season, he qualified for his first AVP, in San Francisco with Lucas Yoder, then in Hermosa Beach with me, a p1440 in San Jose with Steve Irvin and another in Huntington Beach. Injuries and COVID derailed a 2020 season, a year in which he underwent surgery on his adductor and lower abs, rendering 2021 mostly a recovery season.

Throughout, he shot a pilot for a TV show, started a dating app called Blinda, and ran an indoor club in Pacific Palisades, all of which preceded his breakout 2022 season with Dietrich, where he’d finish ranked in the top-15 players on the AVP.

“The biggest thing for me was re-learning the motor patterns. I was, and still am, super quad dominant and pigeon-toed,” Hagen said. “Everything was the front side of the leg or front side of the body. That year with Robbie Page [2021] was learning how to do everything better. And then it all was clicking with Jake [Dietrich] last year.”

Hagen Smith
Hagen Smith gets horizontal to keep the point alive/Jim Wolf photo

Now it is mostly clicking with Bill Kolinske. They played two tournaments in 10 days in March, competing well at the King of the Court in Miami, jetting to Mexico for the La Paz Challenge, then hopping on a red-eye back to South Beach and somehow taking seventh in AVP Miami despite arriving on the beach just 30 minutes prior to their first match.

“It’s still very early on and there’s so much that has already happened,” Hagen said. “We’ve executed on a lot of things we really like. We’ve improved on those things we were lacking in the King of the Court and brought those in AVP Miami. Bill picks up on a lot of the things I want to implement really fast.”

They’re signed up for virtually every event possible: A Futures in Madrid, Spain, in two weeks, AVP Huntington Beach, another Futures in Cervia, Italy. He’s fully healthy, finally. He has a full-time partner with similar aspirations, to play anything and everything they can, be it international or domestic. He’s long had the mindset to give beach volleyball the full-time attention it deserves. In 2023, he’s alas doing it.

“I know I can do a better job of setting up my road map. It’s taken a little with injuries and understanding the FIVB and the USA system,” Hagen said. “Getting a better grasp of that and pushing my volleyball as best I can. I feel like I have the athletic but now it’s time to really dial in my volleyball. I haven’t felt bad out of system in a long time. If that ball’s in the air I can make it work. You need to be as consistent as possible. Grinding, working on the volleyball, being consistent as possible, and hitting the crap out of my serve.”