2019 Laguna Beach Open

Mike Brunsting, Rafu Rodriguez: The Underrated One Seed That Won The 65th Laguna Beach Open

Sean Rosenthal-Mark Williams-Mike Brunsting-Rafu Rodriguez-Laguna Open

LAGUNA BEACH – Don’t let them fool you, these Laguna Open champs. Don’t listen when Rafu Rodriguez says he hasn’t been training much, that his conditioning is lacking, that his serve is off. At least Randy Stoklos was on top of it.

“If that’s struggling,” he said of Rodriguez’s constant downplaying of his game, of his serve, of his everything when it comes to beach volleyball, “then the rest of the beach volleyball world is in a whole lot of trouble.”

It already is. Already has been. Ever since he partnered up with Eric Haddock and qualified for World Champs in 2015, representing Puerto Rico. He’ll never be the one to tell you that he pushed Tri Bourne and John Hyden, then at the top of their game, 24-26, 19-21. Nor will he be the one to remind you that he and Haddock came out of a qualifier in an NVL just a few weeks prior and won the whole thing.

No, no, no, for Rafu Rodriguez, everything, including winning the 65th annual Laguna Beach Open, is – or at least he’d have you believe – a monumental surprise to him.

It’s difficult to determine which one of the two is the more understated of beach volleyball players, the guy who flies more under the radar. Brunsting has made 19 AVP main draws since 2016 but somehow didn’t even make the cut for media day. Not that it really seems to be a huge bother. He’s not one for attention. In a sport that revolves around social media and Instagram, he’s posted just three pictures in the past year.

Tangible results, not hashtags, will bring attention enough.

“Knowing it’s been here 65 years,” Brunsting said after he and Rodriguez beat Sean Rosenthal and Mark Williams in the finals. “I already have my name on the plaque once, I’m excited to do it again.”

Stoklos didn’t fully understand the irony of his comment when he told Brunsting that he really made a name for himself this weekend.

“In my head, I’m just like ‘Oh, ok, so I need to win it twice to make a name for myself?’” Brunsting said, laughing. “But that’s just been the story of my career. I keep grinding. It is what it is. That paycheck is the same.”

The paycheck is actually double that of the last time Brunsting won Laguna, in 2016 with Chase Frishman. As the tournament grows every year, in virtually any aspect one could name – quality of field, sponsor involvement, streaming – so, too, does the prize money. And so, too, does the feeling of satisfaction that comes from winning it.

It is no small feat to beat one Olympian, much less two, in Sean Rosenthal and Mark Williams, who combined to compete in three consecutive Olympic Games from 2004-2012. Brunsting and Rodriguez did it twice. It was a far different opponent than he and Frishman faced in the finals three years ago in an up-and-coming Miles Evans and Spencer McLaughlin, now coaching for UCLA’s indoor team.

“The first time, I beat some young guys in the finals,” Brunsting said. “In this one I beat some veterans in the finals, so that felt really good. It just added a little bit more to it. I just feel like I’ve been competing around the younger guy level and to beat guys that have finished and won tournaments and all that jazz, it felt real good.”

What’s funny is that Brunsting and Rodriguez were signed up a year ago, only to pull at the last minute so Rodriguez could rest a a few tender muscles to be fully prepared for AVP New York. Neither, coming into the week, expected to play this year, as Rodriguez’s partner, Ed Ratledge, had work with VolleyOC and Brunsting’s club team had a tournament of its own.

But when Rodriguez texted Brunsting on Monday or Tuesday, asking if he might want to play, it didn’t seem like a bad idea to put together the team that could have been from 2018.

“And then, and you can put this in your article,” Brunsting said, “my boys won, then I won this tournament. I’m on a little bit of a high.”