First, let’s just remember that I am from a mountain town in Arizona. Contrary to the lyrics of the country song, there is no ocean front property in Arizona. It’s a tourist town. A town that many of you only know because you drove through on your way to the Grand Canyon or because you went skiing there. Or perhaps you saw it in Forrest Gump. A town where it snows in the winter, is windy in the spring, and really only has a small window for getting out and playing beach (sand) volleyball. To get to do what I do now still blows my mind literally every day.
What an absolutely insane weekend! I had the honor of coaching the 1 seed in the AVP this past weekend. It was one of those experiences that almost never come along in a lifetime.
Let’s backtrack on how this came to be first.
Hermosa Beach, California is the scene and it’s mid July this year. The beach is jam packed on both sides of the pier with hundreds upon hundreds of juniors teams battling it out for nearly an entire month of National Championship tournaments for different organizations. Back and forth from one side of the pier to the other through the deep sand. Hours upon hours of victories, defeats, career changing moments, and digging deep. Conversation after conversation with college scouts searching for that next player to change their program. As the days piled up and the event neared it’s end I was walking toward the northernmost courts where my last team for the day had it’s match. I was hungry and tired and searching for a little bit more energy to help my team to advance to the last day of the tournament. As I was walking along the strand, I head a familiar voice. Riding up on her brand new white e-bike came Sarah Sponcil.
Since I had zero time until the next match, she followed me down to the court. We chatted about how the tournament was going and how the girls were doing. She’s always been a huge supporter of our club and so gracious with her time when it comes to our girls. Being from Az and a part of the RPM family, she takes a genuine pride in the kids and they take an equally genuine pride in her.
Sarah and her partner Terese had just won the AVP Hermosa Beach Open and as we walked, she turned heads of everyone on the beach. Even the other team as we walked up to the court let out a little shriek. “Oh my gosh, that’s Sarah Sponcil! Why is she watching our court?” In true Sarah fashion she just smiled at them as they smiled at her.
Person after person walked up to Sarah on the strand to congratulate her and chat for a second. She was so gracious with her time and it was awesome that she made her presence felt at a juniors event. She’s totally one of those athletes who is truly trying to grow the game we all love and I admire that.
When she and I finally got a chance to chat, she asked me when I was done coaching for the month. I told her that we would be done in a few days and then she asked me, “Our coach isn’t going to be able to make it out to Ft Lauderdale and I was wondering if you would be available to coach T and I there.” Trying to keep my cool but with a TON of excitement inside, I said, “sure, if you need me, I’m in!” She said she would run it by Therese and Scott and make sure it was cool with the team and then let me know. I didn’t want to get my hopes up. I have coached on the AVP tour with some different teams and players for years. Ryan Mariano and I worked with Sarah and Kelly (Claes) Chang when they first partnered up in Las Vegas a few years ago. Ryan also gave me the opportunity to work with him while he coached Casey Patterson and Chase Budinger. I coached Julia Scoles and Hailey Harward last year as they began their ascension on the pro tour. I also coached Kristen Nuss while she was playing with Claire Coppola. I worked with Charlie Ekstrom and Macy Gordon in a qualifier before Charlie made her first main draw too! Each time someone asks me to coach them in their professional career I genuinely consider it the greatest honor you can have as a coach. The trust someone shows in you to give them your best and to have their best interest at heart all while knowing that you know the game well enough to give them information that can be vital to winning is extremely humbling. The fact that a number of different pros have given me that opportunity is beyond amazing to me!
This was my first time getting to work with the #1 overall seed! 48 hours went by and i finally got a text from Sarah confirming I would be working with them in Ft Lauderdale. I went by their practice with Scott to watch and gather some info. I wanted to make sure that I tried to make it as seamless as possible. I booked my travel and a couple of days later, I headed back to Arizona.
The week was a blur as I tried to catch up on everything I had missed for the last month of being on the road coaching. The never ending mountain of laundry finally crumbled and I packed my bags.
I got into Ft Lauderdale late Thursday night. I was so excited for the next day that I hardly slept. I had done my homework on our first match on the plane ride out and was ready. We rolled through our first match and into the second round.
This event was filled with Olympians and in fact every match we played except our first one was against an Olympian from another country. We played Hailey Harward and Tina Graudina in the second round. It was a really tight match that went 3 games but we just couldn’t pull it off and dropped into the contender’s bracket.
I woke up early on Saturday to go out and scout the next team we played. Brandy Wilkerson and Zana Muno were our opponents. The first set ended in extra points where we relinquished the lead at the end and we just couldn’t find the mojo in the second set. Our tournament was over and it stung for all of us.
If you have watched AVP matches, you know the accolades on Sarah and Terese. Multiple national championships for both players. AVP champions. International medal winners. The list goes on and on and on, and on some more. What you may not know about the two of them, though, is that they are two of the most kind, compassionate, and thoughtful individuals you will ever meet. On the court they are the fiercest competitors and will fight with everything they have for every point. They leave a match that they lost and they take some time to process. They take the things from the match that they need to in order to improve, they leave the rest behind because the past is where it belongs, and they are right back to being themselves. This is something that every young player could learn from these two. There are pieces you need in order to learn and grow but the rest just needs to be left behind. Win or lose, the last match is over and you have to take the right pieces into the next one to continue to be successful.
To say I was honored to get the opportunity to work with them would be the most monumental understatement of my life and I won’t even do it the disservice of trying to put it into words. I will just say that I am incredibly grateful.
With our tournament over, the girls went off and did their thing with their families that were in town and I got to hang out with my brother who had flown across the country on the red eye to support me and cheer for our team. We went to dinner and then came back to the hotel to get some needed sleep from the heat and humidity that had wiped us out.
I woke up on Championship Sunday with a whole lot of gratitude for what I had gotten to experience as a coach.
That morning Hailey Harward was playing in the semifinals. Since I was one of Hailey’s club coaches while she was in high school and had also worked with her on the AVP tour, I wanted to go out and show her some support too since we had to be enemies the day before. In a hard fought semifinal she and Tina Graudina made it through to the final. I went into the hotel to grab some food with my brother and cool off for a bit before the final. I got to chat with Hailey’s mom for a bit and give Hailey a hug to congratulate her before going back to eating. There is a whole story of what went on before the final that I won’t go into but if you are close to the game you may have heard anyway.
In the final Hailey and Tina would have to play Julia Scoles and Geena Urango. Julia is Hailey’s roommate! The final began and Hailey was battling. They dropped the first set but came out in the second and took control. They won the second set and the match went to a deciding 3rd set. I went in and found Hailey’s mom toward the end of the 3rd set to be sure I could get her out onto the court as they ran away with it. I wanted her to get to be there for her daughter’s first AVP victory lap and celebration. Just like I was with Sarah when she won Hermosa a few weeks before, I was so excited for Hailey! I am so so lucky to have gotten to be there on the sand for both Sarah’s first AVP win AND Hailey’s. In fact I was on the sand for Ryan Mariano’s first AVP win as a coach when he coached Chase Budinger to his first AVP win in Hermosa a few years ago when he played with Casey Patterson, so I have been lucky to always get to be there to support RPM fam in their first AVP wins! Maybe I’m a good luck charm? Haha! Anyway, I’m truly living the dream over here and I am so grateful for every opportunity I get. I know how unique this path I am on is and I do NOT take these things for granted.