For four years now — four years! — Tri Bourne and I have been hosting SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. What began as an off-the-wall idea at a breakfast meeting at the Ocean Diner in Hermosa Beach has become my biggest storytelling passion, and, strangely, one of the points of Bourne’s beach volleyball career for which the Olympian and Manhattan Beach Open champ is now most well-known.
Technically speaking, our four-year SANDCAST-aversary is next Wednesday, but seeing as our schedules aligned to do a fan question episode for this Wednesday, including that of our newest addition, Savvy Simo, we figured we’d just have it a week early.
We’ve winged this thing from day one. Why stop now?
And this year, more than any, we winged.
It was the most I’ve ever traveled in my life. Seeing as Bourne is the one who plays this game for a living, it’s usually me, not him, who stays home and holds down the show while he’s traveling the world winning tournaments. This year, our roles weren’t flipped, exactly, but they were certainly blurred. Every week was a scramble. We bought miniature Shure microphones that plug into the lightning ports of our iPhones to take on the road, and took SANDCAST all over the world.
Bourne recorded an episode in Cancun with Evie Matthews. I recorded four from Bulgaria and one from Sochi. The audio quality may have suffered, and there was no video to accompany it, but the stories, I feel, were only enhanced: Here we were, capturing the stories of the athletes in the midst of some of the most stressful moments on tour.
What better way is there to tap into the minds of beach volleyball players?
Now we’re back, thank goodness. Briefly, anyway. Able to devote more time to the show, upgrading where we’ve long wanted to upgrade. Bourne and his outstandingly handy wife, Gabby, renovated a studio that will double as an office and our new podcast studio, where we recently hosted Michael Gervais. We added a merchandise line. We’re growing our YouTube presence and exploring more of the video elements of the podcast. McKibbin Brothers we are not, but still: Fans have requested video. We’ll do our best to provide it.
Above all, that has always been, and will continue to be, our main goal with SANDCAST: Give the beach volleyball fans the beach volleyball stories and content they want.
For our four-year anniversary, then, what better way to celebrate than by answering questions from the fans who keep this show moving?
Who are the new partnerships for the Paris Olympic quad?
At least half of the questions we received for this week’s episode revolved around partnerships for the upcoming Olympic quad, which will not begin until the 2023 season (or late fall of 2022, technically).
It is, of course, easy to see why everyone is so curious: This will be the first Olympic quad since the Beijing Olympics that Jake Gibb and Phil Dalhausser will not be the No. 1 and No. 2 American blockers.
The shuffle will be real.
But nothing can really happen until Taylor Crabb makes his move. The former partner of Gibb, Crabb is without a doubt the best defender in the United States and probably one of the top five in the world. He essentially has his pick of whomever he wants for his partner. At the moment, he seems intent on playing with Taylor Sander, an indoor Olympian who grew up in Huntington Beach and, while he hasn’t been competing on the sand, is certainly no stranger to the beach.
“It’s hard to say it’s a risk to go with Taylor Sander,” Bourne said. “He’s probably the best athlete we have in USA Volleyball. But it’s always nerve-wracking taking someone with no points or experience but I can’t say it’s a terrible idea.”
The points, as Bourne mentioned, are the biggest factor. Sander has long been one of the top outside hitters in the world; he’ll figure out the skills of beach just fine, even if he’ll enter as a vastly undersized 6-foot-3 blocker. But with the FIVB reorganizing its system — including being renamed to Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour — to three tiers, in which the top tier only has 16 teams, Crabb would voluntarily be taking himself out of the Elite 16 and putting himself potentially into qualifiers for the 24-team Challenger events.
It’s a risk, and of course it’s worth noting that this exact risk worked out quite well when April Ross did the same thing in picking up Alix Klineman, a blocker with zero points with whom Ross dropped back into country quotas and qualifiers on their path to an Olympic gold medal. But that is an exceptional result; Klineman’s learning curve is astounding and one-of-a-kind when compared to that of other indoor players who have transitioned to beach.
So, until Crabb officially announces he’s going to be making Sander his next full-time partner, there won’t be any movement elsewhere.
This is now where things get fun.
Does Nick Lucena, then, grab, Chase Budinger? It makes sense. Budinger’s a strong left-side blocker who put together a phenomenal AVP season and has an argument as the third best blocker in the U.S., behind Brunner and Bourne. Lucena’s still playing excellent volleyball and wouldn’t have to switch sides. Together, they’d be the No. 3 team. Crabb and Sander would likely be the fourth, and it would make sense for Troy Field and Miles Evans to resume playing together after winning a silver and gold in Italy and the Netherlands, respectively, to end the 2021 season.
In that scenario, where Crabb chooses Sander, there really isn’t anything all that surprising. There is the possibility that Lucena might not want to continue the World Tour grind, in which case Budinger could partner with Field, with whom he won a silver medal in Rwanda and is set to play the upcoming Itapema four-star. That would leave Evans as a free agent, and from there more dominoes would fall.
“So,” Bourne said, “basically we have no answers for you guys.”
And that’s only for the guys!
The women’s side is going to see a wild shuffle in the coming months. April Ross and Alix Klineman said a few weeks ago that, while they’re not committing to another Olympic quad just yet, “what we have decided at the moment is to continue playing together. We don’t know necessarily what the future is going to hold. We’re waiting to make that decision but we want to continue playing together. Our immediate plan is to continue playing together, and if Paris is in the cards, we will let everybody know when we decide that.”
That said: It’s safe to take Ross and Klineman off the free agent board.
The next team down, Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil, appear to be finished playing together. This presents intriguing opportunities everywhere, and the ripple effect will go all the way down to the qualifier level.
Claes, being a 6-foot-3 hand-setting blocker coming off an Olympics, finds herself in maybe the best position of anyone in the United States. She’ll be able to choose virtually any player she wants. The most attractive defenders for Claes to reach out to would be, in no particular order, Zana Muno, Emily Stockman, Betsi Flint, Delaney Mewhirter, Brooke Sweat, or — this could be fun — a reunion with Sara Hughes. All have at least a handful of FIVB points, all have proven the ability to compete on the World Tour, and all have their various upsides.
Before we go further, I’d like to address the question you’re likely wondering: Why isn’t Kristen Nuss on that list? Honestly, Nuss should probably be one of Claes’ first phone calls, but I have a hunch that Nuss and Taryn Kloth are in this thing together. It’s going to make the journey exponentially more difficult for them, as neither of them have points, but clearly they have something special in Louisiana, and I’d be surprised if one of them flees for greener pastures.
Then again, I could be wrong.
Either way, Claes has an embarrassment of riches from which to choose. Sponcil, on the other hand, is a bit more limited, though it might make it easier to come to a decision. Kelley Kolinske is the best available blocker, although we cannot ignore that there is 6 Feet of Sunshine living in Lake Tahoe who hasn’t announced any retirement plans. Nobody should be surprised to see Kerri Walsh Jennings making another run at the Olympics. She’s still a world-class beach volleyball player, and 43 years old or not, it’s unwise to bet against players who are the best all-time at what they do (See: Brady, Tom).
Sponcil, then, could at least have a conversation with Kolinske, Walsh Jennings, or fish from the younger pool in developing talents like Terese Cannon or Crissy Jones, both of whom have a world of potential and are primed for breakout seasons.
As it goes with the men’s side, however, it starts at the top, with Claes and Sponcil. Once they announce whomever it is they’re playing with, the trickle-down effect will begin.
Will the new FIVB format pull players from the AVP?
A week ago, the FIVB announced the reorganization of the World Tour, which is being renamed to the Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour. Gone is the five-tiered star system, in is a three-level tour comprised of The Elite 16, Challengers, and Futures.
Both much and hardly anything will change. So long as the World Tour is pumping out dozens of events every year, “for anyone who’s trying to play full time,” Bourne said, “the World Tour is the priority. It has to be.”
It’s a simple way of saying that if there’s an Elite 16 event on the same weekend as an AVP, the best players in the U.S. will be on flights headed overseas. The prize money is better, competition higher, and the points allow players to work their way onto the USA Volleyball stipend.
No matter what the system is, it’s a no-brainer.
For those outside of the Elite 16 — which is everyone aside from Bourne and Trevor Crabb at the moment — the decision is as tricky as the decision to play an AVP when it conflicts with a four- or three-star. Nobody wants to skip an AVP for a World Tour event — literally nobody. So when it makes more sense for finances, health, and time, players stay home. When it makes more sense to grab some points overseas and maybe string together a few events abroad, they’ll be gone.
For anyone but Bourne and Crabb, each decision will be heavily weighed on the pros and cons of international points vs. playing at home on the AVP, in front of great crowds and in events that are, frankly, superior in every way. But once you’re in the Elite 16, you’re just not going to miss one; whether we like it or not, it’s far too valuable to compete in the highest World Tour event than to stay home and play an AVP.
How epic is the Myrtle Beach Open?
There is an unofficial beach volleyball tour in America that I’d like to dub The Bucket List Tour. This includes gargantuan, tradition-rich events such as Fuds, Six Man, Seaside, Waupaca, and The Motherlode (if I missed one you think should be included, please let me know), all tournaments which feature massive fields and leave players with indelible experiences.
Disclaimer: Pottstown is not included because it’s not a beach volleyball tournament; that said, it’s a fine tournament and you should absolutely play it if you don’t mind the risk of playing grass in the middle of the beach season.
If you’re a beach volleyball player, you simply have to play them.
The Myrtle Beach Open, hosted by the greatest host of them all, Adam Roberts, is making its way into that territory. The tournament has been held annually for some time now, but only recently has it begun edging into Bucket List status. This is namely because players such as Taylor Crabb, Phil Dalhausser, Nick Lucena, Trevor Crabb, and Tri Bourne, among others, have been competing, but not in the manner they would in, say, an AVP or FIVB. They have fun. Goof off. Chop it up with the crowd. Just pros being bros, so to speak.
Lucena has played with Joe Keller and Taylor Crabb, where they didn’t block a single time. Dalhausser played with John Sutton, as did Taylor Crabb. Bourne played with Roberts, Trevor Crabb with Matt Heath.
It’s an insanely talented field but without the cutthroat vibe. Losses are quickly salved by a smorgasbord of Kevin Knight’s barbecue and many, many cocktails.
“It was cool,” Bourne said of playing in this year’s tournament. “It was one of those I’d been hearing the stories about — Phil and Nick, A Rob, Matt Heath learning the sport in A Rob’s house so I had to go experience it. I had the opportunity to play with Adam. It was awesome. He’s the ultimate host. The house is gorgeous, epic. Beach volleyball court, pool, waves — little waves — nice town. The people are super into hosting the event, and they go all out. You can tell they’re super passionate about it. It was cool. It was good vibes. They weren’t die hard about winning the tournament.”