Seaside, the mad dash to a beach volleyball tournament that will always be worth it

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Seaside beach volleyball 8/17//2021-Garrett Wessberg
Garrett Wessberg jousts with Mikhail Butler while David Lee and JM Plummer stay ready/Stephen Burns, PNV photography

SEASIDE, Oregon — You could find them bobbing and weaving and impatiently tap-tap-tapping their toes, fidgeting with their bags and craning their necks to see if there was a sliver, any crack of an opening in the security line at the Atlanta International Airport. If that wasn’t an identifier enough, you could simply point them out as the sweaty, sandy, gritty, and, honestly, just kind of gross individuals cutting it far too close to comfort to missing their flights from Atlanta to Portland, Oregon.

Among these individuals were Carly Kan and Jess Gaffney, Evan Cory and Logan Webber, Spencer Loch and Alex Ukkelberg, Cody Caldwell and Mark Burik, Cici Agraz and Katie Lindstrom, and Adam Roberts and me.

We had all missed the cut at AVP Atlanta. The mad dash to Seaside was on.

Seaside beach volleyball 8/17//2021-Megan Nash
Megan Nash passes while Emily Hartong awaits on the other side of the net

The Seaside Open is a special beach volleyball tournament. It’s a 39-year-old colossus that has turned the sleepiest of towns — population, 6,737 — where half the stores don’t even have names; they’re simply called whatever it is they sell: “Food, drink, snacks.” They’re written in red, neon lights, many of which are out.

It’s a winding, two-hour drive from the Portland Airport through the foggy and stunning Pacific Northwest backwoods, a meditative sort of drive that, on this weekend, dumps you straight into a rollicking weekend-long festival in which dinky little Quality Inns can fleece you for $500 a night and get away with it.

It touts itself as the largest beach volleyball tournament in the world, which might sound like the type of claims made by crappy cafes in New York City — “best coffee in the world!” — only this is the believable sort of self-hype. Courts by the hundreds stretch for well over half a mile, and at no point between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. will there be a break on any one of them, with competitors ranging from BB to AVP professionals.

But the center court: The center court is the main attraction. It’s one of the wonders of the beach volleyball world, a well-attended pit at the base of gigantic dunes bulldozered into place for this event. Upon those dunes are chairs and couches and kegs and a howling few thousand fans who are tipping back White Claws by 10 a.m. they’re just getting started.

“A turntament,” Eric Zaun called Seaside, and that’s the central reason this event has become so special to me, in just two years playing it. Three of the people I love most in this sandy life of mine are tied intimately close with this event. It was one of Eric’s favorites, an event he won with Avery Drost — known to the Seaside community as Hot Malfoy — in 2018, and his celebration after winning match point still makes me smile. Because it was one of Eric’s favorites, it became a sentimental event for Katie Spieler, who won in 2019 with my wife, Delaney, despite playing through shingles while sleeping on a garage floor propped up on a pair of couch cushions alongside Delaney, me, and Myles Muagututia.

The love I have for Eric and Katie is the familial type, the kind where you don’t have to see one another for a week or month or even a year — or in the next life, EZ — but when you do, everything may have changed yet nothing has changed. You simply pick up wherever it was you left off.

The entire place reminds me of those two, from the stage, where Katie got into a dance battle with Dave Shaw, the indefatigable announcer who brings so much contagious energy to this event, to the ocean, where Katie, Delaney, and I took an ice plunge celebrating their win, to the stadium court itself, where I watched Eric run that victory lap so many times.

All weekend, I thought of them. And because Eric was top of mind, I did things I wouldn’t do but Eric invariably did. I chopped it up with the crowd almost every point, even when we were down 8-3 in the second set of our first match. I did this because this is Seaside, and Seaside is the crowd, and the crowd, the people, is what make this event so dang special. I’d sprint right into that crowd after all five of our wins, accepting all of the Trulys and Bud Lights they could offer (they offered many).

“I didn’t realize you were part Brazilian,” my good friend, Joey Keener, who coaches Evan Cory, told me after the finals. “With all the passion and swag you play with.”

Call it The Seaside Effect.

This tournament will way to be special for everyone, in some way or another, if you make the trip. It will now be special for Brittany Tiegs and Megan Nash, who won on the women’s side, beating Seaside rookies Emily Hartong and Macy Jerger in a tremendous final. It’s Nash’s first Seaside, and certainly won’t be her last. Same goes for Evan Cory, the Louisianan who just continues to win with Logan Webber. His first Seaside, too, ended in victory, a spanking in the finals delivered to Adam Roberts and yours truly.

If the fans were paying attention to what was happening on the court, this will be a special one for them, too. While the rest of the country was watching the arrival of the next generation in Atlanta — hello, Kristen Nuss (another Louisianan) and Taryn Kloth, Zana Muno and Crissy Jones, Savvy Simo and Megan Kraft — here in Oregon they could see the arrival of two of the young, up-and-coming stars in person. Winners of now three AVP Next Gold events — New Orleans, Waupaca, and Seaside — Cory and Webber won’t be in a qualifier for the remainder of the season. Waupaca earned them a bid into Manhattan this weekend; Seaside put them straight into Chicago.

They’ve been knocking on the door for a few years now, both of them. Webber has been in and out of main draws, perpetually on the cusp of breaking into the next tier. But the M.O. on him for the past two years or so has been that he falls apart in big matches. I watched him do it here two years ago. He and Raffe Paulis were up 14-11 on Myles and I in the third set of the seventh-place round, and then suddenly they were down, 16-14, and we were moving on. This wasn’t always the case, but it became a conspicuous pattern: Webber fell in the third set of the finals in AVP Next Golds in Colorado and Virginia Beach, and the semifinals of an AVP Next Gold in Chicago.

When, I wondered, was this dude going to begin closing out matches and tournaments?

The only way to learn how to win is to just … win. The past few years, he’s played with anyone who asks, in any state that offers tournaments. New York with Kris Fraser? Sure. He’ll win that. Idaho with Tim Brewster? Sign him up. Waupaca with Cory? Let’s roll, buddy. So long as the prize money covered the cost of his trip, Webber was down to haul across the country in his Jeep and play.

All it takes is one win for the narrative to change, the script to flip. You get a taste of winning and you crave getting that feeling back. Suddenly, this season, Webber has gotten over whatever mental hurdle it was that was holding him back. He and Cory have won three of four AVP Next Golds and nearly qualified in Atlanta, losing in three to Avery Drost and Miles Partain in the final round.

Logan Webber has figured out how to win.

Seaside beach volleyball 8/17/2021-Evan Cory
Evan Cory hits against the block of Travis Mewhirter, while Logan Webber covers/Stephen Burns, PNV photography

Cory, too, is arriving, and anyone watching at Seaside — or Waupaca or New Orleans — bore witness. He walked off his plane from Atlanta, which landed at 9:30 on Friday morning in Portland, hopped in a car with Webber, drove two hours to Seaside, ran onto his court and played the first of seven matches. It’s fun to watch these moments of monumental growth for young players, fun to see Webber delivering one kill shot after the next in the finals, even if it was against me. Fun to see Cory improving as a new defender, even if it was my options he was scooping. Fun to see him improving his shot selection, from the ego-boosting bounce swings to delicate little line shots that look an awful lot like Tri Bourne’s.

I’ve known Evan for as long as I’ve known anyone in beach volleyball. He was the can’t-miss blue-chipper on the Panhandle when I moved to Florida in 2014. He was a kid then, a high school teenager, but still, everyone knew: This was the guy.

I hinted at it when he and JD Hamilton beat Kevin Villela and me in the finals in Cincinnati a year ago, at the end of a six-match day that concluded around 2 in the morning. But now, with two main draws to come — Manhattan will be his first — I can tell you with certainty that he has become the guy everyone knew he’d be, and he still has so much more room to grow.

So there are moments like those, of young players coming into their own, and there are also those on the other side of the spectrum. Take David Lee, for instance. He’s been playing volleyball longer than Cory and Webber and Nash have been alive. Hell, the guy even has a house in Astoria, a town just a few miles up the road. Yet he’d never heard of this tournament before this year. He was supposed to play with Paul Lotman, but Lotman had better plans, making main draw in Atlanta, so Lee swapped in Mikhail Butler instead. His first Seaside, then, was played as a defender, partnered with a fellow middle blocker, at the tail end of a remarkable career.

He had an absolute blast, because how can you not?

Seaside, man.

It’s special. No other way to explain it.

For Adam Roberts, too, this is a special event. He’s played more volleyball tournaments in more countries and random beaches than anyone actively playing right now. Seaside is a can’t-miss event for him. When we lost in the qualifier in Atlanta, with three hours until our flight was scheduled to depart and only a few minutes to decide whether or not we wanted to make the trip or just lick our wounds instead, there wasn’t a moment’s hesitation: “I say we charge it.”

So we, alongside maybe 40 percent of the qualifier athletes who hedged their bets in Atlanta, charged it. It was worth the insanity. More than worth it. A good weekend, even if it did end on a loss — a loss on that center court, in front of that finals crowd, is worth the trip every time.

Seaside will always be worth the mad dash.

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