Reflections on Manhattan Beach Open

Manhattan Beach Open Reflections: The Margin For Error Shrinks at The Top

TRAV RAFFE (2 of 2) (1)

I’ve never wanted to throw something more than the little wooden chair in the player’s box of court No. 3 at the Manhattan Beach Open. Never wanted to channel one of my sporting idols, Bobby Knight, and pick that thing up and wing it across the court. Or to just slam it, though for that, my brain told me better. It recalled what happened to Tri Bourne when he slammed something out of a rush of emotion, and our podcast probably shouldn’t have both of its hosts walking around with broken somethings.

So I didn’t slam it. And when I grabbed it, there was a brief moment where I really did think I was going to hurl it in some direction or other. But there was enough people around that throwing it seemed like an unwise idea, too. So I didn’t throw it. It’s not that the anger of losing a second match of the Manhattan Beach Open subsided after that. Not that it simply simmered after controlling 90 percent of another match – and subsequently blowing it. Not that it just went away, replaced with my usual smile, after Raffe Paulis and I had been eliminated despite playing excellent beach volleyball. It just provided the foundation for Emotion Number Two: Obliterating Sadness.

Even Raffe, who will not have a career as an emotional therapist, put on a consoling hat, as I closed my eyes and banged the back of my head against the umbrella – frustrated, annoyed, pissed, devastated. And then we hopped in the ocean, which off washed Emotion Number Two, and I folded onto the beach off, both sensations replaced with Emotion Number Three: Complete and Total Confusion.

I’d never gotten that one before.

Typically, after tournament-ending losses, I just go from anger to sadness and hang there for a bit, until perspective whacks me in the face and I realize fully how lucky I was to be playing in a beach volleyball tournament at all, as a portion of what I do for a living, no less, and then I smile and put those emotions aside and I’m genuinely happy again.

Manhattan was different. It was different because, as anybody who watched our matches that day, against Avery Drost and Chase Frishman and then Billy Kolinske and Eric Beranek, we had played well. Really well. We won the first sets by a combined 42-23. Against Drost and Frishman, we’d establish a lead late in a back-and-forth third set, only to have it slip away at the last possible moment, despite having control of almost the entire match. Against Kolinske and Beranek, we’d walk all over them in the first and then push a second-set lead to 16-13. Five points to move on.

That one would slip away, too.

When people would ask me afterwards what happened, I legitimately didn’t have an answer. We had it we had it we had it, I’d say… and then we didn’t. And I didn’t really know why, which is unusual, because I’m typically very good at identifying exactly what went wrong, why it went wrong, how the matches flipped on their heads, and how to fix it.

For that reason, it’s taken me a few days to write this one. Taken a bit to dig underneath the surface and fully understand why Manhattan turned out the way it did, with only two matches despite Raffe and I playing objectively well.

I had never played the Manhattan Beach Open before, but I had played in main draw. It seems obvious in retrospect, but the margin for error, narrow enough in qualifiers, is negligible at that level. It makes it difficult to pinpoint why certain things turn out the way they do, because no longer do teams need a glaring hole or error to flip a match, just a microscopic opening here, a tiny flaw there.

So I was completely and totally confused as I sat near the ocean with Delaney, wondering what in the world had just happened, why our Manhattan – mine and Raffe’s, not hers, which would end much later, in a career-high seventh-place finish – had come to an end so early. But as I watched and replayed film from the event, both mine and that of others’, and watched Beranek and Kolinske make one hell of a Cinderella run through a nasty gauntlet of a contender’s bracket all the way into the semifinals, I saw just how little help teams need to win at this level.

Kolinske in particular. He’s 6-foot-6, which is a reasonable size for a blocker. But he doesn’t jump like Tri Bourne. Doesn’t bounce like Troy Field. Doesn’t make the wildly athletic plays of a Chase Budinger. But he’s probably the smartest blocker I’ve ever played against. All he needs is the tiniest neck twitch of a tell to know exactly what you’re doing before you’re doing it.

Wonder why he and Beranek were so good in second and third sets this weekend? I can promise you it’s because Kolinske is drinking in every drop of information the other teams give him.

His numbers only get better as the matches go on, while opposing teams’ do the inverse.

And that is exactly why upper-main draw teams confuse the hell out of qualifier or lower-level main draw teams. They find tendencies you – me in particular, in this case – don’t know you have, and they use them. So while you and your partner think you’re playing great, which maybe you are, the tides of the match are turning so slowly you don’t notice them until it’s too late, and you’re left debating throwing a chair, pounding your head against an umbrella, staring at the ocean, with no clue why you just lost.

The higher you go, the smaller the margin for error becomes.

I knew that to be true, thanks to Any Given Sunday (video above, for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie), but this weekend was the physical manifestation of that lesson, one that I’ve finally been able to sort out and absorb.

Now we’re onto Chicago. Penultimate AVP of the season. And I’m back in the qualifier where, as this weekend proved, is where I still belong. Hopefully not for long. The Complete and Total Confusion has given way to the final, and only helpful, emotion of the cycle:

A lesson learned, and an unsatisfied appetite for winning.  

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