Kyle Friend wins Silver in La Paz

With Silver in La Paz, Kyle Friend’s International Success is Only Just Beginning

Kyle Friend-Travis MEwhirter-NORCECA

Kyle Friend caught himself daydreaming a few times at work on Tuesday. Hard not to.

It had only been half a day since he returned from La Paz, Mexico, a stunning strip of beach in Baja California Sur, playing the first international beach tournament of his career. He had done so in front of thousands of adoring fans. Won every match but one, an excellent final against Mexico’s top-ranked team in the event. And anyhow, the fact that Friend was playing a final, at sunset, against the home team with a packed stadium court in front of those throngs of fans – even if they weren’t rooting for the United States – made it even better. More poetic.

“Whatever was going to happen in the finals was going to happen,” he said. “Exceeding expectations – not losing a match until the finals. Pretty cool. First time? Not a bad start. Not a bad start.”

NORCECAs have an interesting rap in the United States. You never do know what you’re going to get. Sometimes events have WiFi. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they have excellent sites. Sometimes those sites are constructed the day of. Sometimes fans are present. Sometimes nobody seems to know about it.

Friend heard all of the possibilities, “had only heard nightmare stories from NORCECAs,” he said. But slowly, steadily, when he mentioned that it was La Paz that he was going to, those stories began to shift in tone. Kelley Larsen said it was one of the best stops. Brittany Howard gave it her stamp of approval. Avery Drost, Stafford Slick and Billy Allen, too.

Not that it did much to alleviate the increasing doubt he had over skipping AVP New York, with its Gold Series points and prize money and potential to jump in the domestic rankings.

“As we got closer to New York, the more and more I was second-guessing myself – ‘Ah, double points.’ And everyone was like ‘Oh, you’re not going to New York? You’re not going to New York?’ And I was like ‘Yeah, it’s a really good opportunity for me to compete internationally’ and I think that trumped everything in the sense of I’ve been wanting to do this,” he said. “I’ve been doing AVPs for the last two years and this was the next step. I think sacrifices are part of it and this is just one of them in this process in the international scene. It was a no-brainer three months ago, but as we got closer, it was ‘Oh, shoot, did I make the right decision?’ I wasn’t sure.”

So on a Thursday afternoon in La Paz, Friend and I sat in the lobby or the restaurant or wherever in our hotel we could get a strong WiFi signal, and we hit refreshrefreshrefresh on, on BVBinfo, on Instagram, on wherever one could find volleyball news.

We watched as the qualifier went haywire, and both of our guts were pulled simultaneously in two directions: We wanted to be exactly where we were… But what if we decided wrong?

What if La Paz wasn’t all it was cracked up to be?

We were told that night, at the introductory meeting, that the site could fit roughly 3,000 fans. Not that we believed it. Seemed like a good, round, inflated number. And then came 9:15 p.m. on June 7. Friday night match against the home team. Under the lights. Under, yes, Mr. Tournament Director, 3,000 dancing, clapping, singing, Tecate-swigging, exuberant fans.

“It didn’t feel just like a pool play match,” Friend said. “It felt like something way more, and that was really cool and that was a memorable match even though it was pool play, and that’s because of the venue and the environment they created for the tournament. It felt bigger than a NORCECA in my mind and I think that my expectations were exceeded with how it was going to go in terms of the quality of the tournament.”

With each day, each match, the decision to skip New York became easier, vindicated. Wins over Canada, Mexico and the Virgin Islands put us into the quarterfinals against Belize. A three-set win over Belize pushed us into the semifinals the next morning against a Guatemalan team that had qualified for and competed in the 2017 World Championships in Vienna.

Our fourth three-set win in five matches. We were finals-bound for a rematch with Mexico. Another night match. Even more fans than the first time around.

“I went in expecting us to do well, and I felt like if we got to the finals that would be success for me,” Friend said. “That’s what I thought after seeing the teams, and after beating that Guatemalan team, I didn’t really care what happened in the finals and I felt like we had done what we had come there to do.”

What he had come there to do: Make his first deposit in his personal international points bank. Now he has it. The first step has been made. It’s just 90 points, but it’s 90 more than he had. It’s a start.

More important, perhaps, than the points themselves is what comes with them: The wiping of any possible regret from skipping New York, one of the finest events on the AVP calendar every year.

“Now that I’ve done one I only see myself wanting to do more, especially if it doesn’t overlap with the AVP,” he said. “Now that I have some points it’ll only entice me more.”