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Bump, Set, Spike 

South Bay Volleyball with the Best of ’em

Wednesday, May 24 2000
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While the seductive nature of train travel has taken on mythic proportions for writers and musicians, the romance of it, when it comes to the rest of us, has fallen on deaf ears -- cars are cheaper, planes quicker. Trains aren‘t practical anymore. The thought of playing Cary Grant to some stranger’s Eva Marie Saint isn‘t enough of an incentive. It’s just too much time spent waiting when we could get there so much quicker. But for me, the idea of America‘s endless miles, unknown towns, and maybe even catching a glimpse of a farmer’s daughter, quells those desires for convenience.

For the like-minded, there‘s Amtrak, the nationalized passenger-train service that has been forced to compete with an instant-access world. Its newest rail line, the Pacific Surfliner, replaces the aging San Diegan, and covers the same San Diego--to--San Luis Obispo terrain. The Surfliner appeals to business travelers, who can access the Internet from their seats, and to families, who can avoid the torturous car ride. Among the many stops are the tourist destinations of Santa Barbara, Anaheim and Grover Beach (near Pismo Beach). With eight new trains, the Surfliner offers 11 daily roundtrips from L.A. to San Diego, four to and from Santa Barbara, and one to and from San Luis Obispo.

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The route tends to get busy, with 465,000 passengers on the San Diegan last summer alone. This was confirmed on a recent trip to Santa Barbara, where the rail’s soothing hum was muted occasionally by screaming 12-year-olds and 10 a.m. bloody mary drinkers relishing the journey. However, by the time we reached Ventura, everyone had fallen silent and was gazing out at the sobering image of crashing waves beneath us. The train took an hour longer than would a car, but we arrived at Santa Barbara‘s old mission-style station without the wrecked nerves the 101 typically inspires. The station is in the heart of downtown, on State Street, barely half a mile from the beach.

On the way back, we entered the Valley at night into an amazingly serene Van Nuys. From the Simi Valley Pass, the endless stream of lights gave the city some sense, some peace. The children slept, and the rest of us relaxed without anticipation as we crept toward our final destination.

For reservations, call 1-800-USA-RAIL; roundtrip tickets between L.A. and San Diego cost $44; L.A. and Santa Barbara, $32.

--Michael Gutierrez

Beach Volleyball is a mainstay of Southern California life. Stroll the South Bay seaside on any given day and you’re sure to see swimsuited devotees pounding the ball back and forth over the net. A long-standing legend traces its start to Santa Monica in the early 1920s, when folks hopped the Red Line to the beach for six-on-six matches, sometimes playing for a friendly wager. In the late ‘40s, tournaments were frequently played where the top prize was a case of Pepsi. In 1978, Jose Cuervo Tequila got into the act and signed on as the sport’s first major sponsor, after which beach volleyball gradually expanded into a legitimate, big-money franchise.

Top players nowadays can earn up to $20,000 in a single tournament, with SoCal natives like Karch Kiraly, Sinjin Smith and Randy Stoklos racking up substantial bankrolls and regularly garnering attention from the media. For less talented mortals, beach volleyball is still a great pastime -- inexpensive, easy to learn and a great way to meet people. The anxious newcomer need not fear embarrassment; everyone treads upon that great equalizer -- sand. All players, from the best to the worst, have to trudge through the thick silt, and so what if you get bonked on the head once or twice, or take a fall or two. It‘s all part of the fun.

During the summer, beaches across sunny SoCal teem with V-ball. From Santa Monica and Pacific Palisades’ State Beach down to O.C.‘s Huntington, beachside courts are more crammed than the 405 during rush hour. For the novice, there’s no better place to cut your teeth while enjoying the best of salty, sea-town life than the 40-plus courts at Hermosa Beach. The local merchants are always congenial to visitors, and thirsty weekend warriors can souse themselves after an exhausting game, at places like the divey Mermaid (coined “the Merm” by locals) or la vida loca--esque Sangria. Restaurants are in abundance, and a nearby bike path begs for constant surveillance of all the bikinis that stroll by.

The first day I ventured forth into the world of beach volleyball, I stayed off the courts and asked questions. Luckily, beginners and vets alike were excited to share their knowledge and experience with a greenhorn.

Joe Dicochea, a Hermosa native and veteran player, lazed in a high-backed chair while sipping from his water bottle, waiting his turn on the court. “I come here for the sun, man,” he chuckled. “The sand, the girls and the sport, in no particular order. It‘s a great place to develop friends.”

Though he projected a laid-back attitude, when pressed about life on the volleyball courts he turned all business -- and as territorial as a lion. “It’s pretty much an unwritten rule that these two courts,” he said, pointing to an area just in front of his tired body, “are reserved for people who have been playing here for years.”

This annoying frat-boy, you-can‘t-play-with-the-varsity mentality permeates the courts. Bungalows along the strand house USC and UCLA graduates with school banners flying from their deck tops; needless to say, when the frats hold tournaments, the games are very intense. Like wars.

Keeping Dicochea’s advice in mind, when I went back the next day I tried to find some players who might have a little less to prove. I went south of the pier and hooked up with a foursome who were just my speed. It was obvious from the first serve that they were screaming neophytes. As the game progressed, there was more sand in the air than action, a frenzy of arms and legs trying to bump, set and spike, sometimes all at once.

Afterward, we cooled off with some Evian plucked from Styrofoam containers, and the talk turned to volleyball. My tired, sweaty hosts were carryovers from a class of beginners who met regularly in the springtime. Having some anxiety about the art of challenging and the etiquette behind public-beach volleyball, I asked for some pointers. Artur Hugon, a young athletic kid, responded.

“I wouldn‘t challenge anybody right away,” he said. “The best way to get started is to get involved in a class. You’ll learn the basics and meet people that you can play with on the weekends. It‘s always good to come in a group.”

Being without a partner, I packed it in for the day. But my enthusiasm and interest were stoked, and I found out that the city of Hermosa Beach offers six-week, year-round, coed classes for a measly 38 bucks (with a $3 discount for Hermosa Beach residents). Steve Fillman, who teaches and runs the program, was recruiting me to join the class only five minutes after I met him.

“We have beginner and advancedintermediate classes where you learn proper technique,” he explained, while interrupting himself intermittently to coach his students. Fillman says that the class is a good social gathering of folks who compete at the same level. He started playing 23 years ago and stuck with the sport because of its kindness to his body.

All right, so maybe I haven’t persuaded you to go out there and pound the ball around. But there are other thoroughly enjoyable ways to be a part of the sport while taking in some sun and meeting new people. Pro tournaments abound during the summertime. The Sunkist AVP Manhattan Beach Open (August 25--27), called the Wimbledon of volleyball, is one of the three seminal events on the pro tour, where you just might get a glimpse of last year‘s prestigious Triple Crown winner, David Swatik. This tourney could well be the most widely broadcast of the year, and the crowds are tremendous.

The Hermosa Beach Open (June 8--11) also attracts a lot of big names. The Karch Kiraly Classic (July 7--9) in Santa Barbara promises to be a thriller, and Seal Beach hosts the Paul Mitchell U.S. Open of Beach Volleyball (August 18--20), presented by the Association of Volleyball Professionals, where amateurs can duel with the big boys.

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