Eight words. That is exactly how much interaction TJ DeFalco had with Nick Lucena before getting the most random, but also most welcome, of invitations from the two-time Olympic defender.
“I asked him how the match went in Tokyo, and I said good luck,” DeFalco recalled on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “That was it.”
Those eight words proved to be more than enough. When Phil Dalhausser pulled out of AVP Atlanta, and subsequently AVP Manhattan a week later, Lucena was left without a blocker. With only a few days before the onset of Manhattan, unable to pluck anyone who had already signed up for the tournament, he had to either dig deep into the reserves of beach players, or explore new ground. So he contacted someone whose aptitude for judging talent is strong and whose network is vast: Matt Fuerbringer.
DeFalco was the first name he mentioned. It made sense enough: DeFalco had already qualified for an AVP, even if it was as far back as 2016. He had been a beach player since he was 11 years old, cleaning up CBVAs and junior tournaments with Josh Tuaniga. He had an arm no coach can teach, the kind of talent many refer to as God-blessed, and an uncanny knack for learning that several of DeFalco’s previous coaches have described as genius.
DeFalco, Fuerbringer said, was Lucena’s guy.
“He texted me Monday morning and said ‘Hey, you want to play?’” DeFalco recalled. “‘What? Who is this?’
” ‘Nick Lucena.’
” ‘Of course!’ ”
Lucena just thought he was taller.
“I thought he was 6-6!” Lucena joked to Bourne in the USA Volleyball gym after his first practice with DeFalco. Indeed, DeFalco is the recipient of some generous listings, courtesy of USA Volleyball. On the roster, he’s a 6-foot-6 outside hitter who can hit a back row quick as well as anyone on Earth. In reality, he isn’t a hair over 6-foot-4 — but he can still hit a back row quick as well as anyone on Earth.
In beach, of course, one doesn’t run the BIC route. And in beach, DeFalco didn’t need one. He’d bounce balls out of the stadium, leaving Lucena standing there, hands on his hips, watching the ball sail, sail, sail away. He didn’t need to be 6-foot-6. He has abilities that far exceed height.
DeFalco, despite not having blocked on the beach since his days with Tuaniga as a kid, matched up with 6-foot-9 Andy Benesh and took Benesh and Billy Allen to three. He outplayed 6-foot-5 Lev Priima, winning his first career AVP main draw match. He’d finish with a ninth, while players much more well-versed in the beach game of late took finishes far worse.
“Unbelievable talent,” said Jason Lochhead, who coached Lucena and DeFalco in Manhattan. “He’s got a crazy fast arm, really nice touch, and he’s fast in the sand. If he wanted to play beach full time he could be a top player in the world for sure.”
Not so fast.
DeFalco loves beach. He knows he has a career waiting on the beach. While COVID kept him locked in his hotel in Italy, he even debated returning to the beach.
“One of the biggest things I’ve had to fight with over the last 18 months was: Why am I doing this, sacrificing all this time, playing the game of volleyball, but I lost nine months of my nieces’ and nephews’ lives, nine months of my parents’ lives, not getting to experience all that stuff, I’m sitting in the room, can’t leave, reading books, eating non-stop: At what point do I just go play beach?” DeFalco said. “One hundred percent, beach is in my future. I just don’t know when, where, or how just yet.”
For now, it’s indoors where DeFalco will continue his career, indoors where that preternaturally smooth and fast arm belongs, indoors where he will make oodles of money and enjoy a sustainable living.
It’s eerie, how similar his career track is projected to be when compared with Reid Priddy’s. Like DeFalco, Priddy proved, early, that he could excel on the beach. Like DeFalco, Priddy was an undersized outside hitter who used his volleyball IQ and a powerful arm to overcome a lack in height.
So maybe it was that Priddy saw a little something of himself in DeFalco, when DeFalco, only a senior in high school, was called into the USA gym, for it was Priddy who took the teenager under his wing.
“Reid was one of the best, because for me, coming out of high school into that gym, there’s no way I’m going to be like ‘Hey, show me how to do this!’ No shot I’m going to do that,” DeFalco said. “But he was very cordial with the young guy. He saw that I was nervous and he said ‘dude it’s all good. We’re all in this building for a reason. Just take a couple deep breaths.’ I said ‘I want to be like that guy.’
“If I ever get to the point where I’m one of the oldest guys or the veteran, that’s how I want to treat the younger generations. That was so much better and developmental for my path than if he said no or just shoved me away. The way he handled it was one of the stepping stones for me to get where I am now.”
DeFalco is now, at just 24 years old, an Olympian. He has already played in the Italian SuperLega, the highest indoor league in the world. He’s signed an ensuing contract with Indykpol AZS Olsztyn, in Poland. He’s a young guy, but make no mistake, he’s no rookie.
“There’s a difference between being a rookie and a young guy,” he said. “I’m very much the youngest guy on the team but I’m not the rookie on the team. One of the things I’ve always taken with the drink of volleyball is: My only thought is my next endeavor. I’m not thinking about Paris. Things can hit the fan real fast. I’m just worried about my next pro season in Poland. Anything can happen after that.
“If I continue to grow my work, and my stock, and continue to improve at the game of volleyball, I’ll put myself in a good position for Paris. That’ll happen when it comes, but until then, we got another mission.”