MANHATTAN BEACH, California — On the morning of August 20, Taylor Sander was done.

There was nothing left in the tank.

The night before, in fact, he was hungry to the point that he inhaled two burrito bowls from Chipotle without a second thought. When he woke up the following morning, bleary-eyed and exhausted, he glanced at his buddy, Tyson, and told him that was it. His run for the 2023 Manhattan Beach Open title was all but shot.

“I can’t do this today,” he recalled telling his friend.

They’re not ones to make it easy on themselves, are they, Taylor Crabb and Sander? Their first AVP win as a team, at the Phoenix Championships in 2022, required back-to-back 15-13 wins in the third set. Their next, in Miami to open the 2023 season, called for a comeback in the second set of the finals after going down 7-14 at the technical timeout.

Why would the biggest beach volleyball title outside of an Olympic gold medal be any different?

They took, as they seem to so enjoy doing, the long road.

In Saturday afternoon’s quarterfinals of the winners bracket, Crabb and Sander fell to Trevor Crabb and Theo Brunner (17-21, 21-16, 21-23) in what holds a fair case as the match of the year, one that had fans lining up all the way to the Manhattan Beach Strand to catch a glimpse of the action. Losing again to the same team that had their number for the previous two years is difficult enough. But in this case, it also meant a third match on Saturday night, a 19-21, 21-17, 15-10 golden hour belter with Chase Budinger and Miles Evans that ended well after the sun set. An old school type of match where the only viewers were the well-lubricated sort who stuck around long enough to watch in person, where it came down to little more than grit, whoever had the stamina to simply keep the ball off the sand for just a bit longer.

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Victory at the end of a long day for Team Taylor/Rick Atwood photo

But by the time Sander returned to his apartment in Hermosa Beach, wolfed down those burrito bowls, shivered through an ice bath and ached through a series of rollouts to loosen his battered muscles, he figured that was pretty much that. It might have to wait another year — or two or three or four or maybe even never — to get his name on the Manhattan Beach Pier.

“We’ve been known this year as the team that wants to go three all the time, but you can embrace that,” Sander said. “We’ve got some dog in us. You can kick us, but we’re going to stay around and keep pushing back. We’re not going to lay down and give it to anybody.”

They almost did. True enough to Sander’s prediction to his buddy, he was not ready to compete on Sunday morning, especially not against a pair of indefatigable Cinderellas by the names of Logan Webber and Hagen Smith, the 10 seed who had remained in the winner’s bracket up through the semifinals. Webber and Smith led the entirety of the first set, earning a pair of set points when leading 20-18.

On the surface, that is what appeared to trigger a newfound sense of urgency in Crabb and Sander. Two shots at pushing them to the brink of elimination would seem to be urgency enough, anyway. In reality, the score had nothing to do with it. Somewhere towards the end of that first set, a supporter of Webber and Smith made the gravest of mistakes: He opened his mouth.

And he woke up the dog, kicking it while it was down.

“We were both asleep,” Sander said. “Some guy started chirping me, gave me a little bit of fuel. I was thanking him. I said ‘You gotta go apologize to the other team. It’s your fault.’ We pulled it out.”

Crabb actually did approach the fan and thank him for gifting them the 23-21, 21-15 semifinal victory, fueled in large part due to the fan who essentially handed them an IV of espresso. Who knows how it would have gone down had that fan let the sleeping dog lie. But the dog within the Taylors had been sufficiently aroused, enough so that in the following match, a wet and chilly final against Brunner and Trevor Crabb, the man with three consecutive Manhattan Beach crowns and five straight AVP victories against them, they prevailed again. A 27-25, 21-16 win that required every last ounce of focus, Chipotle calories, and margarita-flavored energy gummies.

“To win a tournament like that, it’s hard. Every AVP, every tournament we played in this year is hard to win,” Sander said. “To get it, to have it be Manhattan, under the conditions, playing Trevor and Theo, they’ve had our number all year, and to play not our most perfect game, but everything was grooving, and we were clicking, communication was on point, and we were just going for it. I was dead tired but I looked across the net and I felt like they didn’t want to be there. That made me feel like I want to be there even more. I’m so gassed but I have it in the tank to go to that next level and Taylor matched my energy there and to get a team win, not only that day but the night before and the morning match when we weren’t feeling our best. That’s how we won it.”

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Taylor Crabb and Taylor Sander celebrate winning the 2023 Manhattan Beach Open/Mpu Dinani photo

It was difficult, yes, but all things considered, Sander’s route to getting his name cemented on the Pier is one of the smoothest of any in recent memory. It took him just two attempts to win Manhattan. For Crabb? Seven. And five painstaking years after missing a swing by less than an inch to clinch his first.

“What took you so long?” Sander joked.

“I just needed my guy,” Crabb said, laughing, clapping Sander on the shoulder.

For all the jokes, all the self-deprecation and friendly jabs at one another, that swing hasn’t been lost on Crabb. He can recall his mental state of that 2018 final as readily as he can recall what he ate for breakfast this morning.

“I dug that ball, and I saw Nick [Lucena] back there, and I could have hit a cut shot, but this is what went through my head: ‘This is for the Manhattan Open. I’m going for it,’“ Crabb said. “I’m not getting any younger. Every year that passes, it’s like ‘I only have so much time.’ I don’t want to play until I’m 50. Winning it sooner rather than later is obviously a lot more pressure off my back to finally get it done.”

As much pressure as there was on Crabb to get it done, he felt precisely zero of it during the final.

“There wasn’t one point in the match that I can remember where it was like ‘Uh oh, I don’t know about this.’ We were steady the whole way, the self-talk, to each other, with our coach, our whole team, everything was ‘we’re going to win this, we’re going to win this.’ That was our motto during the whole tournament, and to still feel that during the finals, that’s all you ever want when you’re in the championship moment is believing in yourself, believing you’re going to win,” he said.

“I think that’s the best feeling as athletes, when you have goals and you make them happen. You’re practicing countless hours, your body is feeling like trash but you’re pushing through everything and you finally reach one of your goals, it’s the most satisfactory feeling in the world.”

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Taylor Sander, left, and Taylor Crabb share a moment during their celebration/Will Chu Photography


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