Proof of concept. That was the phrase on everyone’s lips at The 4-Man by the McKibbin Brothers and SharpeVision in Austin, Texas, this past Saturday.
Powered by the passion, connections, and imagination of Riley and Maddison McKibbin, and made possible by SharpeVision Modern Lasik and its CEO Cory Salter’s support and belief in the value of volleyball as a marketing platform, a new kind of elite beach volleyball competition was born.
Featuring three pro teams and three local Texas teams, the event proved compelling enough to convince 800 or so fans from Texas and beyond to pay $30 a ticket (or $1,000 a table for the VIP experience) to attend. They came for the volleyball — to see April Ross or Casey Patterson or Taylor Crabb, or to cheer on the local Texas players — but they stayed for the atmosphere, the scene-setting commentary of the legendary Chris “Geeter” McGee, the skyball and joust contests, the free flowing drinks, shrimp tacos, and barbecue and that sense of pre-COVID normalcy so hard to come by these days.
“It’s unbelievable how many people were here,” Casey Patterson said. “I knew there would be a lot of people, but this is insane.
“The McKibbins and I have been talking about this for a long time, ever since We. … They’ve proven that they can run an epic event, and we haven’t even seen the content yet, so that’s what I’m excited for.”
Seeing how compelling the fours game is, how it captures the speed and power and long rallies of the indoor game and combines it with the skill and the lifestyle of the beach game, it’s surprising that no one has tried to resurrect pro-level fours competition since the end of the Bud Light tour in the 1990s. The players at the SharpeVision 4-man, many of whom had decorated indoor careers in college and beyond, certainly enjoyed bringing back some of the skills and plays they hadn’t used in years.
“It was fun to go back to running routes because I haven’t done that since indoor at USC,” said Olympic gold-medalist April Ross.
“The big court was fun,” said Team SharpeVision’s Katie Lindelow Dicksen, an Austin resident and former LSU beach and indoor player. “It just opens up so many more offensive opportunities. The rallies are longer, the play-ending swings are more exciting because the rallies are long. So it’s just a total team atmosphere.”
For Adam Johnson, winner of 39 AVP titles from 1991 to 2000 and now the owner and director of Adam Johnson Volleyball Academy in Austin, sees an opportunity in bridging the gap between fans of indoor volleyball and the beach game.
“A lot of people are very knowledgeable about indoors and so this is the next best thing outdoor for an indoor-type of game,” said Adam Johnson, one of the winningest beach players on the AVP tour during the 80s and 90s and a 15-year resident of Austin. “It’s a little bit quicker, sets are going outside a little quicker, and there seems to be a few more rallies than normal, so I think that that’s what people like.”
Back when Johnson played on the AVP, he said, the guys who played on the Bud Light 4-man tour were the ones who couldn’t hang playing doubles. But the concept coming to life from the McKibbins and SharpeVision showcases the top doubles players teaming up to create super-charged 4-man teams.
That said, one of the coolest things about the SharpeVision 4-man was the stage it offered to some new, exciting young local talent.
In particular, Moontower Saloon was abuzz with admiration for 17-year-old setter Thomas Hurst of the Dallas men’s team and 2018 University of Oklahoma grad Alyssa Enneking of the Third Coast women’s team from Houston. Hurst was giving off serious Partain brother vibes as he quarterbacked his Dallas team to victory in the preliminary round and battled against eventual champs Team AVP Hawaii in the semifinals. Plano West, where Hurst attends high school, doesn’t have a men’s team, and he hasn’t committed to play in college (John Speraw? Dan Friend? John Kosty? Anybody looking for a setter for the 2023 season?). But that lack of opportunity doesn’t seem to have slowed his development much. He credits that fact to his parents, who both played volleyball in college at George Mason.
After her decorated four-year career at Oklahoma (first team All-Big 12, honorable-mention All-American, single-season kills leader at OU, 10th all-time at OU with 1,245 career kills, etc.), Enneking disappeared from the volleyball scene for a few years. But this summer, she started playing a little beach, and if Saturday’s performance is any indication, she might just have a future in the sand. Enneking was the offensive weapon that kept the Third Coast team in the semifinal versus Team AVP California, and she quickly became a fan favorite.
Despite ultimately ending their run in the semifinals, the 23-year-old Enneking couldn’t get over what an amazing experience competing in the 4-man had been.
“(Today was) incredible. Absolutely incredible,” Enneking said. “It gave me a taste of what my future could look like if I wanted to keep going in this … I came into today thinking I don’t know if I deserve to be here, and towards the end of the day, hanging with some of these pros and getting the opportunity to play with them and being able to somewhat hang with them felt amazing, and it gave me a lot more confidence in the game knowing that I have a future still in the sport.”
In particular, Enneking will be savoring blocking April Ross and scoring on her down the line for a long time to come. “It was an incredible feeling and I talked to (April) about it after the game, and she was like, ‘yeah it was a good ball.’ Inside I was screaming like a little girl. It felt so good hearing that.”
There was another previously unknown athlete who made her debut on Saturday: a young girl named Claire Canon (Class of 2027) who not only won the women’s skyball contest, but got called in to serve match point in the men’s semifinal match between Team SharpeVision and Team AVP California.
Finally, from the moment they arrived on site at Moontower Saloon to the champagne celebration under the lights following the men’s final, every single player, whether they won or lost their matches, seemed delighted to be there and having the time of their lives. For the pros who traveled to Austin from California and elsewhere, that experience started as early as Thursday when they arrived and settled in at the rental house on Lake Travis, which SharpeVision provided. On Friday, they zipped around the lake in motor boats and gathered with other local players and VIPs at Bouldin Acres for drinks and food and pickleball.
Falyn Fonoimoana, who played for Team AVP Midwest, did not stay in the lake house, but appreciated that the tournament organizers thought to make that option available and give the players more time to bond, particularly for the young players, like her teammates Kristen Nuss, Taryn Kloth, and Corinne Quiggle, who are relatively new to the pro beach volleyball tour.
“On the tour, you’re just with your partner. I think it’s just so important for volleyball players to be able to come together and do something like this because it gets you out of your comfort zone,” Fonoimoana said. “(Kloth and Nuss) got to finally kind of be initiated into the volleyball community out here because people got to know them. They were a mystery, they were just beating everyone at LSU and came up here, won a tournament, and now they’re like, OK, we love the volleyball community, this is cool.”
It’s an important note. A successful tour has to not only appeal to the fans and make sure they have a good time, but also satisfy the desires of the players, without which there would be no competition to speak of. Taking care of these details is how you convince someone like April Ross, just a couple of months off an Olympic gold medal, or Casey Patterson, who has a wife and four kids he would otherwise be spending time with, to agree to play at your event.
Ask anyone in attendance, and they are all, players and fans alike, ready for the one-off SharpeVision 4-man to become to the SharpeVision 4-man tour. And of course, they want Austin to remain a regular stop on the schedule.
“It’s so hard to beat Austin, Texas, for anything volleyball-related,” Cook said. “The fans here are amazing. The crowd here is amazing. This is my first time at Moontower and it’s just a good venue and a good vibe, so I hope we do more.” Cook went on to say that if she doesn’t have to jump and instead can just sign on and set, she will play on a fours tour until she dies.
“This past year, we only got three stops (on the AVP tour) and we really didn’t get to interact with fans, and this is just a whole different vibe,” Fonoimoana said. “There’s heckling, there’s cheering, and that’s what volleyball is known for. In California, in Texas, in Florida. These all are the meccas. It was so refreshing, like, I’m home. I get to talk shit and hear people talk shit to me, and I can get all riled up, I get to scream. It was refreshing to be able to talk to fans and be able to see people who really wanted us to come back to Austin.”
Happy players and fans and energized volleyball community members who are excited to see something new on the scene have three key people to thank for Saturday’s success and potential future opportunities: the McKibbins and Salter, who have become something of a dream team over the past year.
“I think it’s a perfect combination of a really good businessman and then guys that really understand storytelling and the heart of the game,” Patterson said. “We’ve always had one or the other. It’s always been an extreme of people who understand the game but they don’t run the business and then the tour goes under, or you’ve got a business guy that just burns bridges.
“What they are doing together is really good for the sport. It’s really awesome because it’s such an organic, fun environment. It doesn’t feel corporate at all, but there’s professionalism and organization and a lot of prep going into it. I love it.”
“(Salter) just loves volleyball, he’s not in it for himself,” Dicksen said. “He loves the sport and the people that play it, and he’s just a good guy. Does what he says he’s going to do and delivers, and obviously has brought on the McKibbins and some other people that can make it even better.”
April Ross, too, who has pretty much seen it all in beach volleyball over the past 15 years, left the venue Saturday night having nothing but great things to say about the event.
“I think there’s a lot of potential for beach volleyball in any form in the United States and anyone who wants to give it a shot, I say go for it,” April Ross said. “I like this model and I think they did a good job charging entry and for VIP. I’ve heard that it was successful financially, so hopefully there’s more of these, it would be really great.”