There are a few sports that should only be played under certain conditions: hockey should only be played in areas where there's natural ice (sorry, Ducks fans); football should only be played in the middle of a snowstorm; and horseshoes should only be played with a beer in hand at a barbecue in the middle of July.
Professional beach volleyball is another one of those sports for obvious reasons; it should only be played at Huntington Beach, right next to Surf City's famous pier, close enough to the shoreline so you can feel the spray of the ocean on the back of your neck, and where bikinis, sunglasses, sun hats and flip-flops are the required attire, and where fat, old surfers in Tommy Bahama shirts can ogle the six-foot-tall Amazon women battling it out on the sand.
I'm sure AVP Nivea Tour events like the ones in Chicago and Cincinnati are nice, but nothing beats the atmosphere and the local passion for the game at the Huntington Beach Open of pro beach volleyball.
On Sunday, the final day of the annual tournament, thousands of fans converged on the event site, which was situated right on the beach on the south side of the pier. There, stars such as Misty May-Treanor, Todd Rogers and Phil Dalhausser battled up-and-coming contenders looking to knock them off their AVP pedestals.
Rogers and Dalhausser, who heading into the weekend tournament had won 38 of 68 tour events they've played as a team and ranked fourth on the list of most men's victories ever with 50 to their names, were looking to defend their Huntington Beach Open crowns. Oh yeah, they also won gold in Beijing in 2008. The intimidation factor of these two couldn't be higher.
The men's final pitted the favorites in Rogers and Dalhausser against their principle rivals this season, John Hyden and Sean Scott. Dalhausser lived up to his reputation as the "Beijing Beast," smoking his opponents with four aces and dominating at the net. He and his partner, despite a few minor hiccups in the second set, cruised to a three-set victory, 21-16, 18-21, 15-9.
May-Treanor, the two-time Olympic gold medalist and legendary teammate of the recently pregnant Kerri Walsh, paired up with Nicole Branagh to try to prove she was still the most dominant player on the tour with a win at Huntington Beach.
May-Treanor and Branagh faced April Ross and Jennifer Kessy, both Orange County natives and USC alums, in the women's final. A year or two ago, this match would have been a no-brainer. Most hard-core volleyball fans would have expected May-Treanor to bulldoze over her younger rivals across the net. But these days, the women's field is wide open and any team seems primed for success on a given day.
That said, Ross and Kessy finessed their way to a 14-21, 21-12, 15-11 win, the first Southern California title of their careers.
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Even better than the competition in the largest stadium (but still not better than when the announcer in the main stadium made the crowd do the wave in super-slow motion or all of the free stuff being given out by sponsors in the tent city around it) was the action taking place in the smaller courts off to the side of the bigger competitions.
The intensity of these matches, held right on the sand with mere feet separating the competitors from their fans, makes them just as exciting if not more so than the matches held in the larger stadium. These smaller venues have a more grassroots feel--it won't be uncommon to find yourself sitting next to the families and friends of one of the competitors.
So long as you can handle being packed in like sardines with other fans, getting practically splashed with sweat from the players duking it out in front of you or having to listen to drunken bros screaming stuff like "MAKE IT RAIN BABY! MAKE IT RAIN!" then these smaller competitions are the place to be. They're free, too.
If any of this has piqued your interest, don't worry about missing the Huntington Beach Open; the AVP Nivea Tour is due back in Southern California soon. The tour has stops in Malibu, Manhattan Beach and two in Hermosa Beach, so there will be plenty of opportunities this summer to catch more of the action. Visit www.avp.com for more information on tickets and dates.