The Road to Rio
Six of the eight U.S. Olympians hope to head to Rio on a high note by winning the prestigious AVP Manhattan Beach Open.
By Randy Angel
Standing at the service line on a sand volleyball court in Manhattan Beach, the scrawny 16-year-old looked around in awe as he noticed many of the greats of the game competing on other courts.
The year was 1975 and the kid was Kevin Cleary, who was playing in his first Manhattan Beach Open in front of a hometown crowd that included many of his friends.
On Thursday, Cleary will be reaching a milestone few can claim by playing in his 40th MB Open.
“It is something I still enjoy doing,” said Cleary, who plays at least twice a week to keep in shape. “Before I started playing, I watched legends like Ron Von Hagen and Henry Bergman. Von Hagen was built like a Greek God with a chiseled body. He was the epitome of a beach volleyball player. I soon became hooked on the game.”
Cleary has witnessed many changes to the MB Open, yet his passion for the game has not wavered. He was inducted into the CBVA Beach Volleyball Hall of Fame in 2010 and continues to run the BarryBob Invitational tournament, in which Cleary’s contemporaries, other legends of the game, and the next generation of beach volleyball stars compete. The event celebrated its 16th anniversary last weekend.
When Cleary began playing in the MB Open and the late Charlie Saikley, known as the “Godfather of Beach Volleyball,” ran the tournament, there was no advertising and little to no prize money, and the scoring was “side-out” – meaning a team had to be serving to score a point.
“I liked it before when there were no bleachers,” Cleary said. “I understand commercialization and the change in scoring, but there used to be a different vibe.”
Cleary’s best finish at the MB Open came in 1982 when he and partner Tim Walmer placed fourth. His favorite memory, however, occurred in 1978.
“I weighed about 110 pounds and was playing with Joel Jones,” Cleary recalled. “There we were, two teenagers in cutoff jeans playing the third seeded team of Steve O’Bradovich and Gary Hooper.”
According to Cleary, O’Bradovich and Hooper were known as the “Bad Boys of Beach Volleyball,” a team many fans loved to hate. Although they ended up finishing third in the tournament, O’Bradovich and Hooper had to fight their way back after being upset by the youngsters.
“When we started the match, the only fans were friends of ours sitting in the corner heckling OB and Hooper,” Cleary said. “By the middle of the second game, there were hundreds of people around the court and standing on the pier watching these unranked teens beat the accomplished veterans. It was a great win, especially in our hometown.”
While Cleary is all for progress, he would like to see the MB Open return to an aspect of the format of yesteryear.
“It used to be such an all-inclusive community event with 120 teams in the Main Draw,” Cleary explained. “All the best players used to play in the MB Open and had to grind through the entire tournament just like every other team. That was special to the MB Open. There should be something today that sets the MB Open apart from other tournaments.”
Cleary said he isn’t expecting to go far but a couple wins would be nice when the 57th AVP Manhattan Beach Open takes place Thursday through Sunday on the south side of the pier. The tournament will feature Rio-bound U.S. Olympic beach volleyball teams Lauren Fendrick/Brooke Sweat, Phil Dalhausser/Nick Lucena and Jake Gibb/Casey Patterson.
The top American women’s team of Kerri Walsh-Jennings (Manhattan Beach) and April Ross has opted not to compete in this year’s MB Open as the duo prepare for Olympic competition when Walsh-Jennings will vie for a fourth consecutive gold medal.
The team is coming off a silver-medal performance in Switzerland at the FIVB Gstaad Major last weekend losing to Brazil’s Larissa/Talita 21-18, 21-14 in the gold-medal match.
Fendrick and Sweat both live in Hermosa Beach and are seeking their first MB Open crown after coming close in recent years including a second-place finish last year losing to Ross and Jen Fopma in the finals.
Sweat was also runner-up in 2013 and 2012 with Fopma while Fendrick placed third in 2013 with partner Brittany Hochevar and in 2012 with Rachel Scott.
Fendrick and Sweat reached the semifinals in Gstaad, dropping a 17-21, 21-16, 15-13 battle with Meppelink/Van Iersel of the Netherlands.
“We’re putting the pieces together and peaking at the right time,” Fendrick said. “We’ve been in almost every match so we’re right there.”
Playing in their last tournament before heading to Rio, Fendrick and Sweat hope winning a championship at the MB Open will help propel them to a spot on the Olympic podium.
“Winning a plaque in Manhattan would be fantastic,” Fendrick said. “The tournament has so much history and there is some great volleyball being played even way before the semifinals. Plus the fans are so knowledgeable about the game. We train in Manhattan Beach but don’t get to play at home very often so it will be nice to have so many friends watch us play.”
Dalhausser and Lucena are defending MB Open champions. Lucena is seeking his second title while Dalhausser is aiming for his third consecutive – and sixth overall – championship, after winning with Todd Rogers from 2006-08 and Sean Rosenthal in 2014. He is three short of AVP Legend Karch Kiraly’s record eight MB Open wins.
Dalhausser and Lucena won the silver medal in Gstaad on Sunday falling to Pedro/Evandro of Brazil 24-22, 21-16 in the finals.
Gibb is looking for his third MB Open crown winning in 2005 with Stein Metzger and in 2009 with Rosenthal.
Patterson, a native of Manhattan Beach now residing in Huntington Beach, seeks his first MB Open title after finishing second in 2012 with partner Ryan Doherty. Gibb and Patterson placed third in 2013.
Competition at the MB Open begins Thursday from 8 a.m. – 6 p.m. with the Qualifying Tournament where eight teams from each gender will advance to the Main Draw.
Also on Thursday, in a ceremony slated for 3 p.m. on the Manhattan Beach Pier, last year’s winners – Dalhausser, Lucena, Ross and Jen Fopma – will be presented the coveted bronze plaques every player aims for. The plaques, which name the winners of each year’s event, will be placed on the pier’s Volleyball Walk of Fame.
Three days of double-elimination Main Draw action begins Friday at 8 a.m. with 32 men’s and women’s teams vying for the prestigious title of MB Open champion. Along with the eight teams from the qualifying round, 14 automatic-entry teams, two discretionary AVP Wild Cards and eight AVPNext Zonal winners will compete.
Zonal play began in February and concluded July 4 weekend and consists mostly of young up-and-coming players. Representing the Pacific Zone will be Mike Brunsting (Poway)/Chase Frishman (Laguna Niguel) in the men’s competition and Bre Moreland (Laguna Niguel)/Jacqui Wood (Santa Ana) in the women’s.
“Manhattan Beach is a special place for beach volleyball fans, and there couldn’t be a better spot for the last pre-Olympic event,” said Donald Sun, Managing Partner of the AVP. “It is a ‘home base’ for many of our athletes, and we expect the kind of spirited, exciting play we’ve seen all year from qualifying all the way through to the finals.”
In addition to the best beach volleyball the nation has to offer, the MB Open celebrates the beach lifestyle with interactive activities, music, food and a celebrity beach volleyball game hosted by Super Bowl winning running back Reggie Bush’s Reggie Bush Charity Foundation and the 619 Charitable Foundation to benefit St. Jude and The Birthday Project.
The celebrity game takes from 3-7 p.m. Friday, July 15 on Stadium Court. Guests and sponsors will be joined by professional athletes and celebrities in the skybox overlooking the tournament.
The MB Open is the seventh of eight tour stops on the AVP’s 2016 schedule, and the last time fans can see the Olympians play before they head to Brazil. General Admission is Free. Premium packages and VIP seating can be purchased at avp.ticketspice.com.
Matches will be streamed live at avp.com, with the finals televised live on NBC on Sunday, July 17, at 12 p.m.