Volleyball In The City: Ain't That A Beach?
By Dave Lomonico
The Mexican beer was flowing, the sun was shining, the sand was warm, the reggae music was pumping and all the while, the volleyball was flying at the Toyota Pro Beach East Tour in Baltimore's Inner Harbor last weekend. It was a little taste of the beach -- smack dab in the middle of the city.
"They bring the beach wherever they want," said Mike DiPierro, who teamed with Matt Heath to win this year's Pro Beach crown.
Matt Heath goes for a spike en route to winning the Pro Beach Tour stop in Baltimore with teammate Mike DiPierro. (Sabina Moran/PressBox)
Sure, the fans reclining in beach chairs at Rash Field may have cared more about the sliced limes and ice-cold Coronas than the volleyball game on center court. But for the pros, there was $8,000 in prize money on the line -- $3,000 for first place -- and that's not chump change for a pro volleyball player. What started out as a Jimmy Buffet and Bob Marley-like Sunday afternoon turned into an intense set of back-and-forth matches among some of pro volleyball's best.
Tim McNichols, who teamed with Ihor Akinshyn, realizes the tours are about the camaraderie and the fun of beach volleyball, but there are also bills and travel expenses to pay, and that means joking and jibing are secondary to winning.
"As 'starving artists' we need to support ourselves," McNichols said. "We're hungry for wins and money out here; that really brings the level of competition up. … It's one of the ways we make some bucks. We're fighting for respect and cash."
McNichols and Akinshyn, a tough Ukranian player who refuses to reveal his true age, started Sunday's action against Heath and DiPierro. The former team won the tourney last year, but found no luck in the 11 a.m. match. However, McNichols and Akinshyn remained alive because it was only their first loss of the double-elimination tournament. They vowed to return.
"I think we found a little rhythm at the end and hopefully [we'll] get some revenge in the finals," McNichols said.
Tim McNichols, who teamed with Ihor Akinshyn, won the event last year. (Sabina Moran/PressBox)
Meanwhile, another set of veteran players, A.J. Milhalic and Justin Phipps, took on the local duo of Jason Hodell (Pasadena) and Jamie Bartholow (Bel Air). Milhalic and Phipps, like most pro players, came to Baltimore hoping to make some extra cash.
"I have an engineering job where I work part time, but it's pretty difficult because in the AVP tour, there's a volleyball tournament every weekend, so I don't work all the time," Milhalic said. "It's tough because you're covering all your travel expenses. … I'm battling just to get enough money to cover the trip and get back home."
So why not just work at a desk job full time, where the money flow is constant? Perhaps Phipps put it best.
"When I was 18, I saw the sport and just got addicted to [volleyball]," Phipps said. "The people, the girls … obviously, I can't get rich, but it's fun. It's like a hobby, [and] a way to make money."
The Marylanders who took on Milhalic and Phipps made an interesting pair. Hodell, 37, whose temper is as fierce as his bright orange hair and badly sunburned body, is a rugged, 6-foot-5 ex-Army Ranger. Bartholow, on the other hand, is a 6-foot, rail thin player whose demeanor resembles more stoic soldier then Zulu warrior.
After a decisive spike in Game 2 of the match, Hodell screamed and pumped his fist -- it was all part of the intimidation factor that the team thrives on.
Unlike other pros on the tour, Hodell and Bartholow only train two days a week and struggle to find qualified practice partners. But they see volleyball as more of a fun, side activity than a way to make money. Despite the disadvantage, they came within three points of beating Milhalic and Phipps and clinching third place for the entire tournament.
The reason for their success? According to Bartholow, part of it is being underestimated, but the other part is out-thinking the competition and "getting fired up."
"We all have the same skill level, but [the other pros] outrank us in experience 10-fold," Bartholow said. "They get to play against the best players in the world on a daily basis.
"The key is to play our game; we don't want to play their style. The trick to this game, because it's so mental, is you want to make your opponents do things they're uncomfortable with doing. A lot of guys like to 'bomb angle' and like to 'roll down the line,' but if you 'block angle' and take away their line shot, then all of a sudden they have to 'cut the ball,' and they're not as good."
In the end, however, the veterans Milhalic and Phipps prevailed by winning the third game of the match, 15-12. They went on to the semifinals for the right to play Heath and DiPierro in the championship.
Unfortunately for Milhalic and Phipps, they were up against McNichols and Akinshyn. The intense pair, seeking a second straight title, wore down their opponents with relentless defense and superb blocking by Akinshyn. The winner's share was on the line, and the defending champs could smell it.
If fatigue was a factor in the championship match, the players ignored it. In Game 1, the defending champs edged out the challengers, 22-20. But Heath, an experienced player with 15 wins on the Toyota Tour, took command of Game 2. Midway through the game, McNichols was set up for a perfect spike, but Heath sent it right back for a five-point lead. The challengers rode the momentum to a 21-17 victory, forcing a rubber match in Game 3.
After a full day of volleyball, Akinshyn looked a step slow and McNichols was helpless against Heath's spikes. In the end, Heath and DiPierro unseated the champs with a 15-9 victory.
"That first game we got a little bit stiff; we didn't have the best warmup and weren't playing too well," DiPierro said. "But after that, we got warmed up and started playing our game."
So that's $3,000 to DiPierro and Heath and $1,500 to McNichols and Akinshyn. It's not a bad sum, but certainly nothing to live on. That's why it's never all about the money; in reality, they've just got to love the beach, love the tan, love the fans and love to play the game.
"If it were $500 or $200, we'd all still be out there," Bartholow said. "We all love the game."
Issue 2.28: July 12, 2007