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Big Man on the Sand : Expectations Are High on the Pro Beach Volleyball Tour for Former Mira Costa High and UCLA Player David Swatik

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The comparisons between David Swatik and Kent Steffes were inevitable.

Like Steffes, Swatik left UCLA early to compete on the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals beach tour. In volleyball circles, the all-around game of Swatik--much like Steffes--gives him an advantage on the beach.

Swatik, 20, a former Mira Costa High standout in his rookie season on the AVP tour, dislikes the comparisons.

“It bugs me,” he said. “I don’t want to be Kent Steffes.”

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Steffes, 24, who won a record 18 tournaments last season, says he is flattered.

“Maybe this means I’ve finally arrived,” Steffes said.

Swatik, who grew up idolizing many of the players he competes against today, thought he might someday earn a living playing on the beach. But attending college was his priority.

Swatik, a 6-foot-4 left-handed hitter, was a two-time Ocean League most valuable player and the Southern Section 4-A Division MVP as a senior in 1990 when the Mustangs finished 22-0 and won the Southern Section championship.

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“I really remember his spiking,” Mira Costa Coach Mike Cook said. “Left-handed spikers are a godsend. He could really bang some balls. He was also a great defensive player.

“I’ll never forget one play during the CIF finals against Edison. The set was too high from Canyon (Ceman) and David made a half jump then a big jump and just smacked it. It was an amazing play and crowd went bananas. I looked at my assistant and just shook my head.”

Swatik says he was never happy at UCLA. In February, he quit the team, withdrew from school, hired an agent and made plans to compete on the AVP tour.

As a freshman, Swatik led the Bruins with 119 digs. He started 19 matches as a sophomore, led the team with 139 digs and had 200 kills. But he lost his starting position to sophomore Kevin Wong early this season.

“There was no real chemistry on the team,” Swatik said. “I felt I wasn’t improving and there was no player-coach relationship. As a result I wasn’t playing as well as I could and I wasn’t having fun.”

Bruin Coach Al Scates thinks the benching played a big role in Swatik’s decision to leave the team.

“He didn’t look real motivated on the practice court after Kevin passed him up,” Scates said. “He has the physical skills, but he never really got totally immersed in the program. I could never get him to really go for it.”

Scates, who has led UCLA to 15 national championships, says Swatik should prosper as a beach player.

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“David is really suited for the beach because he’s not specialized,” Scates said. “Good swing hitters like David are the ones having success on the beach.”

USC Coach Jim McLaughlin, who recruited Swatik out of high school, says it is only a matter of time before Swatik becomes a dominant beach player.

“When he gets stronger and bigger and faster, he will excel at the beach game,” McLaughlin said. “He has good ball control and he’s a player who does a lot of things well. He also knows the beach game real well because he grew up with it.”

Swatik played in three AVP tournaments as an amateur last year. He teamed with Ceman to finish ninth at the U.S. Championships in Hermosa Beach.

This year Swatik is paired with 32-year-old John Hanley, who is in his 12th season on the tour. The team’s best finish was ninth in Phoenix.

“I think David is far better than Kent (Steffes) because he’s a natural,” said Hanley, a former U.S. National team member and All-American at the University of Hawaii. “Kent had to work very hard to get where he is. When you’ve been around the game as long as I have, you can tell immediately when a guy has the fundamentals and ball-control skills. All David needs is to gain experience.”

Swatik says he will enroll at UCLA in the fall to pursue a degree in geography. He is hopeful of placing seventh or higher in the remaining AVP events.

“I have a lot of room for improvement,” he said. “I learn different things every week. But I feel more comfortable on the beach than indoors.”

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