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Hoping for the Home-Sand Advantage : Volleyball: Cardiff’s Lori Kotas and Carlsbad’s Gail Castro will try to team up for a title on Pacific Beach this weekend.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Customs and currency exchange, travel and frazzle were forgotten in record time.

The welcome that pro beach volleyball players Lori Kotas and Gail Castro received when they were in Japan for a tournament last year brought new meaning to the phrase “rolling out the red carpet.”

“It was unbelievable,” Kotas said. “A girl even stopped me on a train for my autograph. We weren’t even the best players on the tour. Jackie (Silva) got so mad.”

Silva, the leading money-winner on the Flamingo Hilton Women’s Pro Beach Volleyball Tour, is 5-6 with dark hair and a dark complexion.

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But on the subways and sidewalks and in the restaurants and restrooms of Tokyo, there were giant posters of Kotas and Castro plastered everywhere. Japanese promoters even distributed bags of potato chips with their California smiles affixed.

“They wanted the tall blondes,” Kotas said.

They certainly fill the bill. Kotas is 6-1, Castro 5-11, and both are very blonde.

Kotas and Castro, ranked third, will be among 32 of the best two-woman teams when the tour stops in at Pacific Beach this weekend.

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This stop is significant to Cardiff’s Kotas and Carlsbad’s Castro, the only San Diego-area team on the tour.

“This is the first time it’s been in our back yard,” Castro said. “We don’t have to go anywhere.”

It would be a nice place to win. In Phoenix and Santa Barbara, the first two stops on the tour, they took third.

“We’d love to win it here,” Kotas said. “It would be great. We’ve been increasing our training for this, and there’s no reason it can’t happen.”

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On a tour where partners drop each other suddenly and frequently, Kotas and Castro have been a study in longevity. They have been together three years.

“Most teammates aren’t friends,” Castro said. “We’re friends. A lot of people even ask us if we’re sisters.”

Said Kotas: “We complement each other so well. I’m more volatile and negative, and she’s more quiet and easy-going, but we’ve rubbed off on each other. She’s gotten more aggressive, and I’ve gotten more mellow.”

But they re-evaluated their chemistry late last season.

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“We had a little bit of a falling out,” Kotas said. “We decided we needed a new partner or a coach.”

Rather than separate, they hired Hillary Johnson as coach.

“We wanted to win, and we would do anything to do it,” said Castro. “Hillary’s so good. She wants it so bad for us. It’s exactly what we needed.”

Johnson has worked with them on defense, taught them to use more of the court and helped them with their mental game.

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In a scouting report at the beginning of the season, Kathy Gregory, an ESPN commentator, mentioned their inability to win the big points in close matches.

“We’re better now at relaxing and playing smart,” Castro said, “playing better under pressure situations.”

Because they have been together so long, Castro and Kotas have learned the importance of communication. If one is frustrated, they talk about it.

“We air our problems with each other,” Kotas said, laughing. “We’ve had some beach-clearing brawls.

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Said Castro: “We always work it out. If you don’t, it will come back to haunt you. I never feel like she’s given up on me.”

Castro and Kotas are used to hard work. Five years ago, when the tour was beginning and the women played for prizes such as water coolers and T-shirts, Kotas was the first player to get any kind of sponsorship.

“It was a beer company,” said Kotas, “and they only covered lodging and flight.”

This is the first season the women’s tour has had major corporate sponsorship. Tournament purses are a minimum $25,000, compared to the usual $15,000 of a year ago. The world championships are worth $50,000, a $30,000 increase from last year.

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With the value of winning worth so much more this year, players have had to make subtle changes in their life styles.

“You go skiing, and you think, ‘I can’t afford to do this,’ ” said Kotas. “And I go scuba diving and jet skiing after a tournament.”

Said Castro: “My diet’s changed. My focus is so different.”

The first season they were a team, Castro approached 200 companies for sponsorship. Only Big Dogs, now their No. 1 backer, showed interest.

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“It was expenses only in the beginning,” she said, “but all the pounding of the pavement has been worth it.”

Kotas and Castro are also sponsored by Carrera sunglasses. They said they may pick up two or three smaller sponsors.

“At least now we can pick,” Castro said. “We’re not desperate.”

Said Kotas: “We don’t want to get greedy. I won’t represent something I don’t believe in. I would never endorse a sunscreen I didn’t use or a clothing company whose clothes I didn’t wear.”

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Don’t you mean whose clothes you barely wear?

There is no dress code on the beach. Pretty much everything, which often is very little, goes. Kotas admitted that many people unfamiliar with the women’s game come for the skin show but leave with new-found respect.

“People talk about coming out to see the hard bodies,” Kotas said, “but we’re not volley-dollies. People walk away after seeing us, and they can’t say that we aren’t good athletes.”

To help them get the most out of their game, they also hired a weight coach.

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“We used to lift whatever looked good,” Kotas said. “Now we have a purpose.”

Both are nine-year veterans of the beach game, Kotas after playing collegiately at UC Riverside and Castro at Long Beach State.

But even the best indoor players end up with mouthfuls of sand when they first play on the beach.

“The first time I tried it, I was in college, and I got my butt beat,” Castro said.

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The best players on the tour are 28 to 34 years old, Kotas said.

“It takes a good three or four years to gain experience on the beach,” she said. “This is an experience game. If you start right out of college, you don’t get real good until you’re 25 or 26.”

Kotas and Castro said they plan to be a force on the tour for a good five or six years more.

“There’s no reason why we can’t be doing well in five years,” Kotas said. “I feel great.”

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Tournament Notes

Competition for the PCH San Diego Open begins at 8:30 a.m. and continues through 5 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday in Pacific Beach, south of the pier at Grand and Ocean avenues. Semifinal matches begin at noon Sunday, with the championship match scheduled to start at 3. . . . Top-ranked Jackie Silva and Janice Opalinski will try to win their third consecutive tournament, having won on the first two stops of the tour. San Diego’s Angela Rock and Karolyn Kirby are also competing, on separate teams.


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