MANHATTAN BEACH, California (July 22, 2019) – The National Beach Tour Junior Championships rolled through its fifth day Monday, and one notable beach volleyball star is impressed with what he’s seen on the sands of Manhattan Beach, California, so far.
“Back when I was playing, there really was nothing like this,” said Kevin Wong, an Olympian in Sydney 2000 and founder/director of Spike and Serve Volleyball Club in Hawaii. “You know, I watch some of these kids playing out here and I swear the 14U kids are further along than we were playing hooky at UCLA and running to the beach. They’re running options, they’re running forward and back, there are 14-year-old girls who are playing block defense. It’s crazy.’
Wong sees a lot of reasons why the growth and talent levels have exploded. The growth of the sport collegiately is one thing he noted, but there’s more to it than just that.
“You see there are some amazing players and students of the game who are now becoming coaches,” said Wong. “Patty Dodd (MBSurf; Manhattan Beach), she’s got a lot of teams, my old partner Matt Olson (Wave Volleyball; Del Mar, California), he’s got a lot of teams out here. There’s just so many people who are sharing their wisdom, it’s creating a lot of really good volleyball players at a young age.”
National tournaments like the NBTJC help develop young players, too, as attested to by one of Wong’s students.
“I think [playing in national tournaments] gets you a different experience since there’s not that many teams in Hawaii,” said Spike and Serve’s Indigo Clark, competing in the Girls 14U Regional Open division with teammate Samantha Okano. “On the mainland, there’s so many different coaches and styles of play that it helps you grow your game more.”
Okano agrees that experiencing that difference pays off. “It’s really fun playing on the mainland, and it’s a different style of play from Hawaii. Teams go over on one and two more.”
And, according to Clark, Wong himself has helped grow the game’s talent level, at least with players in Hawaii.
“He’s had a lot of experience, so it helps us. If we don’t realize something, he’ll tell us that and it helps us play better. He’s very strategic, and he helps us figure our own stuff out sometimes, so it helps us learn.”
Dressed for Success
If you’re on the same court as Thomas Hurst of Plano, Texas, you’ll know it. Some players wear a visor or ballcap for shade, but Hurst? He wears a fedora.
“I just started doing it for fun back in Texas where I play, and it just caught on. Nowadays, everybody knows at least, ‘hey, the fedora kid.’ It helped grow somebody remembering you as a player because of something, and if that will do it, I’ll keep wearing it.”
There’s seemingly no end in sight for the fedora. He’s been wearing it for at least four years – he’s 15 now and first sported it either at 10 or 11 – and has worn it through every match at NBTJC, the entire 16U National Open Division and first two days of 18U National.
Wondering about the hat’s breathability, Hurst has survived the heat back home without much of an issue.
“[The hat] gets hot sometimes in Texas, but here in Manhattan Beach, it’s really nice, so I don’t have any problems with it.”
Hurst also plays indoor, setting for C2 Attack. Does he don the fedora inside?
“If I could, I would, but I think there are rules against it.”
Taking in the Bright Lights
This year, there’s two courts that sit apart from the rest at NBTJC. They’re big, they’re streamed online, they have certified officials, and they’re in the middle of everything. They’re known as center court.
Along with the special court comes special significance, according to Zoe Mitchell (Wentzville, Missouri; P4:13). “We felt more of the pressure because you are on center court. It’s the biggest court here. At the same time, it was more fun to show off.
Her partner, Reese Bates of Overland Park, Kansas, enjoyed the moment, too. “It’s a really fun opportunity, having people walk by and watch you. It’s fun.”
How did they handle the pressures of center court? “I thought we did pretty good,” said Bates. “We made sure we were positive and loud. Whatever happened, we just supported each other the whole time.”
The National Beach Tour Junior Championships wrap up Tuesday, July 23 with the 14U and 18U Division playoffs. Bracket play starts at 8 a.m., once again at Manhattan Beach.