Having a ball at the beach

Volleyball: The players can't get enough of the sand, sun and fun in the Association of Volleyball Professionals Tour.

Volleyball

August 12, 2002|By Travis Haney | Travis Haney,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY - Two men stand in a half-crouch with their hands on their knees. They're eye-to-eye, a paper-thin sheet of nylon all that separates them. Another man stands behind one of the hunkered soldiers. He paces, digging his toes into the sand, anxiously kicking the grains around. All goes quiet when a fourth man, on the opposite corner of the sandy rectangle, tosses an object into the air and, with laser-sharp precision, brings his palm to strike it.

The ball's in play.

What the four men are doing is anything but mainstream. Their names are far from household. But there is a defined symphonic harmony, just like the ebb and flow of the adjacent ocean, when it comes to the world of professional beach volleyball.

Chris Makos is the man serving the ball, starting the point in a championship match at a recent Toyota Pro Beach East event in Ocean City. By his own account, volleyball is his calling.

"To me, it's the greatest thing in the world," he said. "I say this, and it sounds kind of corny, but it fills my soul. This is what I was put here to do, just to play."

Heaven forbid Makos ever has to put on a suit and a tie; the 29-year-old Californian gets a little weepy if he has to wear anything that covers his toes.

"One of my goals is to never wear shoes," Makos said. "If I can wear sandals every day, I'm great."

Nearly a decade ago, a friend coaxed him into playing in an amateur tournament, held here, and Makos never looked back. He recalled setting up his friend for a spike with a spectacular sprawling save. Face down in the sand, he realized his life's ambition. He was 19.

"I laid on the ground and I said, `This is what I want to do with my life,' " the Philadelphia native said. "After that, I went home and told my parents what I wanted to do. They were great about it and asked what they could do to help. I know in their minds, they had to have been thinking, `My gosh, our kid's crazy.' "

Makos played in college at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania and then moved to California to pursue his dream on the Association of Volleyball Professionals Tour. He has been on the West Coast five years and plays East Coast events, such as earlier this month at the AVP Next tournament, which could be compared to baseball's Triple-A level.

The tour makes four of its eight regular-season stops in Ocean City, also playing the championship here Aug. 24-25. Each tournament is played just off the boardwalk, near the amusement park pier.

The events are conducted in double-elimination style and typically attract about 10 to 12 two-man teams. Players such as Makos enter the tournaments for the purse (the first-place team divides about $3,000) and to hone skills.

Such as his serve.

Mark Reilly shifts to his right and throws his body at the ground, "digging" to receive, keeping the point alive.

Getting a mouthful of sand is strangely what sparked Reilly's interest in volleyball.

"I figured out that my favorite part of all the other sports that I played growing up was the diving. I loved diving in hockey, in football, in baseball, whatever," he said. "With volleyball, it incorporates diving into every play."

Reilly, 26, a Toronto resident, is half of the Toyota tour's Canadian team, along with British Columbia's Rich Van Huizen. Both players grew up with a different variety of the sport north of the border. After all, it's pro beach - not pro snow - volleyball.

"Kids generally start playing the game indoors because it's cold a lot of the year," Van Huizen said, adding that indoor careers are often short because of the wear and tear that the rubber floor causes on the body's joints. "As you go along, you start watching the AVP Tour and you say, `Oh, that looks fun,' so you just make that transition to the beach."

Playing volleyball made sense for Van Huizen, who works winters remodeling homes in California. He comes from a family with a heavy hand in the sport. It also helped when he shot up to 6 feet 8 during his high school years.

"When I finally grew," said Van Huizen, 27, belting out a thick chuckle with a slight Canadian accent, "I was like, `Whoa, this could work, eh.' "

Van Huizen uses his albatross-like wingspan to zip cross-court, popping Reilly's dig over his head and across the net. The rally is safe.

Not for long, though.

B.J. Soldano, who had been lurking on the play, flashes into the picture and spikes the ball solidly to the sand. Point: Soldano-Makos.

Soldano, 25, in only his second year of playing pro volleyball but No. 1 in this summer's Toyota tour points standings, has made a habit of ending points - and matches. He won four straight events on the "Next" tour playing with three different partners. Makos and Soldano had never played together before this month.

Soldano, who grew up on the New Jersey shore in Belmar, said volleyball was once just a hobby, something his father taught him to pass the time and have fun. Slowly, it evolved into something more.

"I continued to play and play," Soldano said. "There was a Jersey tour, and I played on that, just having a little fun at the beach. It came to a point when I finally said to myself, `I love this game.' I decided that when I graduated college, I would make a little money and travel to qualify to play in tournaments. I wanted to at least try to fulfill a dream because I loved it that much."

Win or lose, Makos speaks for many of the players who engage in hand-to-ball combat on summer weekends.

"I don't have to go to an office 9-to-5. This is our office," Makos said, surveying the beach. "How great is that?"

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