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BACK TO THE BEACH : Liz Masakayan Had Not Competed on Pro Beach Tour Since 1989, but She Hasn’t Missed a Beat

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After undergoing three knee operations in the past two years, Liz Masakayan’s success on the pro beach volleyball tour has been a pleasant surprise.

Masakayan, an All-American volleyball player at UCLA and a U.S. National team member, quit the national team in 1990 because she lost her starting position and felt she wasn’t at full strength.

“It was hard,” she said. “It was strange to completely rest. My (left) knee started to swell real bad and when it swells like a balloon there’s no range of motion. It was a disappointing way to go out.”

Masakayan, who underwent two operations on her left knee and one on her right, said she originally planned to quit the national team after the 1988 Olympics, but was spurred on to continue playing after the United States finished seventh at Seoul, South Korea.

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“That left a bitter taste with a lot of us,” she said. “So I said, ‘I’ll stay.’ Being on the national team was a great opportunity but it’s a different lifestyle. There’s a lot of highs and a lot of lows. There’s also lots of sacrifices and lots of pleasures. It takes a toll on you.”

Masakayan, 26, has played sporadically on the pro beach tour in recent years, but didn’t compete in 1990 and didn’t plan to this year. Her name isn’t even included in the annual Women’s Professional Volleyball Assn. tour guide.

“I started training in mid-February and I found myself at a disadvantage when I played in my first four tournaments in April,” she said. “The last beach tournament I played in was in August, 1989, and getting back into it has been hard.

“The competition has gotten so much better on the tour now. It’s so much tougher now than in 1989. The women train harder and they train off-season. They got serious a couple of years ago while I did nothing.”

This weekend Masakayan, a Redondo Beach resident, and partner Linda Carrillo are seeded fourth in the U.S. Open at Venice Beach. She teamed with Carrillo, a beach volleyball veteran, prior to the May 18 San Diego Open.

Masakayan started the season with Patty Dodd, another former UCLA All-American who teamed with Jackie Silva to place third at last week’s Myrtle Beach, S.C., Open. Masakayan’s best finish with Dodd was fifth at Clearwater, Fla., on April 21. The two players broke up after placing 17th at Fresno the following week.

Then Masakayan competed in two tournaments with Nancy Reno, a Stanford All-American, in her first full season on the beach circuit. They placed ninth in Phoenix and third at Hermosa Beach.

“I was surprised when (Masakayan) called me because she had done so well in Hermosa, but I was excited that she did,” said Carrillo, a two-time beach World Champion who played on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team that won a silver medal in Los Angeles.

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“Her first question to me was, ‘Isn’t it going to be risky to team up with me?’ I’ve always wanted to play with Liz. She came from the national team program and she has a lot of drive and desire. I’m very comfortable playing with her.”

Masakayan and Carrillo, 33, have reached the finals in three tournaments and placed in the top five in three others. Masakayan believes she has found the perfect partner.

“Right now I’m pretty inconsistent and Linda has been on the tour so long, she’s such a consistent player,” Masakayan said. “Linda’s experienced and she’s been around the block. She expects to always be in the top three and I like that. She knows the game and she’s a great blocker that I can play around.”

At last month’s Manhattan Beach Open, Masakayan and Carrillo went into a double final against the top-ranked team of Angela Rock and Karolyn Kirby. Masakayan served an ace on match point to win the first game, 15-6. Rock-Kirby won the second game, 7-3, but complimented Masakayan on a solid performance.

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“Liz is a gamer,” said Kirby, who has won 10 tournaments with Rock this season. “She’s going to play hard every time. That’s what she’s known for.”

Rock said: “They have a damned good team. Liz is a very competitive and scrappy player and she’s educated about volleyball.”

The 5-foot-8 Masakayan is not a powerful blocker or an explosive hitter. Her strength is defense. She still holds the UCLA career record for most digs (1,142).

In 1984 she helped the Bruins win the NCAA championship. UCLA Coach Andy Banachowski says Masakayan is perhaps the best defensive player he has had in 25 years at the school.

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“I’ll never forget the fact that after she left UCLA to go to the national team, I felt that our defense, our digging ability, was nonexistent,” he said. “I looked back at the stats and saw that Liz had done so much digging for us. Her absence was painfully noticeable.”

Masakayan, twice an All-American outside hitter at UCLA, also holds career school records for most kills (2,044), service aces (259) and attacks (4,667). She was an All-CIF player at Santa Monica High and almost attended Stanford, the school UCLA beat in the 1984 NCAA final.

“We had some good years when we had Liz here,” said Banachowski, who has led the Bruins to five national titles. “She was a very aggressive player. She did everything and she always played hard.”

Masakayan will assist Banachowski next season while finishing her degree in sociology. She says it is unlikely that she will compete indoors again.

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“I don’t think physically I could train indoors as much as I have to to be the player I’d like to be,” she said. “Plus I’d like to walk when I’m 40.”

Now she trains strictly on sand, which is easier on the joints. Masakayan practices at Marine Avenue in Manhattan Beach. Her immediate goal is a simple one for an athlete who has accomplished so much in the sport.

“I just want to win one beach tournament,” she said. “That’s all.”

If she does, perhaps the WPVA will include her name in next year’s tour guide.

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