4 Aces Share Winning Hands in Pro Volleyball
It used to be that the World Series always came down to the Yankees and Dodgers. In pro basketball, it was the Lakers and Celtics. If it was a major tennis tournament, you could look for McEnroe and Connors in the finals, later McEnroe and Borg.
The latest in the tradition of great rivalries and evenly matched foes is on the pro beach volleyball circuit, where most of the big two-man tournaments seem to come down to Mike Dodd and Tim Hovland on one side of the net and Sinjin Smith and Randy Stoklos on the other.
Last Sunday, Smith and Stoklos beat Dodd and Hovland to win the Hermosa Beach Open. The weekend before, Dodd and Hovland beat Smith and Stoklos to win a Laguna Beach tournament.
This week the scene shifts to Pacific Palisades for the $20,000 Miller Lite Open. Smith, from Santa Monica, and Stoklos, from Palisades, will be defending their home turf.
“It’s really hard to get to the finals,” Hovland said this week from his Playa del Rey home. “We’ve been in so many, I think it psyches some people just playing us. The same thing happens when they play Sinjin and Randy.”
Smith and Stoklos are the glamour team of the rapidly growing beach volleyball tour, having won the most tournaments--and the most prize money--over the last three years, including six of eight this season. Last year they each earned more than $60,000 on the tour.
But Dodd and Hovland can make a case for being the most successful team, at least in major tournaments, in the 1980s. They won the world championship of beach volleyball in 1983, 1985 and 1986, and they’ve been earning their keep on the tour since its early days, when they were among the few supporting themselves from volleyball. Last year they each won more than $35,000 on the tour.
Hovland, 27, also plays in Italy half the year. Dodd, one of the senior members of the tour as he approaches 30, gave up the European circuit to concentrate on his duties as executive director of the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals, a relatively new organization of players attempting to control the sport’s growth.
Hovland returned from Italy after the beach tour started, so he and Dodd say they are just getting their game together now. The head start gives Smith and Stoklos more early exposure, but their South Bay rivals said they don’t begrudge them the pubicity.
“Everything they’re getting, they deserve,” Dodd said from his Manhattan Beach home. “They’re excellent, excellent players. When we win, I really feel like I’ve accomplished something. When they beat us, I hope they do, too.”
Hovland said the tour “needs as much publicity as we can get,” so he doesn’t mind that Smith is becoming the star of the tour. “He’s been doing good. That’s the way it goes,” Hovland said.
As one of the senior teams on the beach these days, Hovland and Dodd win quite a few matches simply because they know the game, and each other, so well.
“This game is so much experience--dealing with the wind, the sun, expenditure of energy,” Hovland said.
Dodd said the two complement each other, physically and psychologically.
“We kind of motivate each other,” he said. “He’s kind of volatile, I’m calmer. Sometimes I calm him down, sometimes he fires me up. We help each other, personality-wise. It’s just the chemistry we have. We play well together.”
The two also win because they are outstanding, multiskilled athletes. Don’t make the mistake, Hovland said, of comparing the pro beach players to weekend players who bring a cooler to the beach and set up a net.
“I dare (people who say that) to come down to the beach and play for five or six hours. Most people can’t even walk in the sand for five hours,” Hovland said. “We work harder than almost anybody on the tour. We’ll take the day off after a tournament, then we’ll practice all week, three or four hours a day, plus some weightlifting.”
Hovland, a 6-4, 200-pounder, was an all-city football and basketball player at Westchester High School as well as a volleyball standout. He turned down scholarship offers in the other sports to play volleyball at USC, where he helped the Trojans win an NCAA championship in 1980.
“I used to be a great athlete. Now I’m a good one,” Hovland said.
Dodd, who will turn 30 in August, played volleyball and basketball at San Diego State--where one of his teammates was baseball star Tony Gwynn--and was drafted by the Clippers, who were then in San Diego. The 6-4, 185-pound Dodd tried out for a guard position but was cut, so he decided to go back to his old favorite, volleyball.
Dodd said for five years, his focus was on making the NBA.
“I got cut, so I took it as far as I could,” he said. “I’d made a pledge to myself that if I got cut I’d try volleyball, which a lot of people thought was my natural sport. So I gave it my shot and I haven’t regretted a minute of it since.”
Dodd and Hovland met when they were members of the national team--along with Smith and Stoklos--preparing for the 1980 Olympics.
“Smith and Stoklos were playing and needed somebody to play (against). Tim and I started playing together and started beating those guys. We figured maybe we ought to keep playing as a team.”
The two, particularly Dodd, have been around since the early days of the tour, when there were few sponsors and little tournament money. But Dodd said he knew even then the sport had crowd appeal.
“Even six, seven years ago you could see it all there--you could see a viable athletic event that seemed to pique the curiosity of the public,” Dodd said. “You’ve got the sand, the sun, the athleticism of the players.”
The tour now has stops in Colorado and Chicago as well as on the East Coast and in Hawaii and will play in Italy and Rio de Janeiro as well. The players foresee and international circuit within the next few years.
Many of the players--like Smith--get modeling jobs, and the tour and players have gotten sponsorship in the last few years from companies and enterprises that want to be associated with a popular beach sport: beer makers, beachwear companies, beach-related businesses.
So the players formed an association to try to oversee their own futures. Dodd spent much of the winter dealing with association matters, selling ads for the tour program, working with sponsors and promoters.
“We just want to make sure we maintain our integrity, get the right sponsors, get the right equipment. Basically we just want to see our sport grow, nationally and internationally,” Dodd said. “Now the International Volleyball Assn. wants to get involved, and you know they only get involved if there’s money.”
To Dodd, that means more good athletes will be joining the tour, new guns challenging the old guard.
“As our sport grows and we continue to produce stars like Sinjin and Tim, the youth will be motivated to get into volleyball,” he said. “That’s the motivation--that pot of gold at the end--and that’s how you get the better athletes.”
Dodd said he hopes to remain on top two or three more years. “If it went on to four or five years, that would be icing,” he said. “I would be really happy to stay at a top level another two or three years. I’d be ecstatic.”
Meanwhile, success begets success in this sport, so the pair will keep playing as long as they keep winning. In volleyball, breaking up isn’t hard to do.
“The biggest factor in our longevity is we do well, like Randy and Sinjin,” Dodd said simply. “The teams that don’t do well, you see them breaking up and looking for new partners all the time.”
So the Dodd-Hovland vs. Smith-Stoklos tag team matches figure to continue to dominate the tour standings.
“This week they won. Next week, we win,” Hovland said. “The week after, it’ll be someplace else. That’s the way I look at it, week to week.”