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BEACH VOLLEYBALL : Dodd, Whitmarsh Win at Seal Beach

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Mike Dodd’s soft, arcing dink shot seemed to hang in midair, waiting for Kent Steffes to slide under and put it back into play to keep his team’s championship hopes alive.

With every step toward the ball, however, Steffes seemed to go nowhere.

After what seemed like forever, the ball came to rest in the sand, giving Dodd and partner Mike Whitmarsh a come-from-behind 15-14 victory in overtime at the final of the Miller Lite Open beach volleyball tournament Sunday.

“This is the best Open I’ve ever played in,” Dodd said after defending the title. “It doesn’t get any more exciting than that.”

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Dodd is no stranger to the victory stand. In 14 years playing professionally, he has won 63 times, including five times here.

What made the victory so incredible was how he and Whitmarsh overcame deficits of 11-6 and 14-12 to stage a comeback that came down to the final seconds on the rally clock.

Steffes and partner Karch Kiraly reached game point after Dodd and Whitmarsh seemed to expend the last of their energy chasing down a pair of wayward shots.

Dodd dived toward the back edge of the stands to run down a loose ball, lifted it back over his head, where Whitmarsh had to maneuver around the referee stand and a ball shagger in a hopeless effort to keep the rally alive.

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After a timeout during which Whitmarsh never left his landing site under the referee stand, he was able to gather himself and stuff an errant pass from Steffes to cut the lead to 14-13.

That was quite a feat, but after trading sideouts, only 4 1/2 seconds remained on the rally clock, which meant Dodd and Whitmarsh had to score on their next serve or time would expire.

Dodd lifted his serve to Kiraly, who got the set back and pounded it off Whitmarsh’s block only to see Dodd get it back to Whitmarsh, who made an off-balance spike over the middle.

Kiraly ran down the shot and again was set up to put the game away, but his spike went directly at Dodd, who made the dig, got it back and put the ball right down center to tie the score.

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“Nine out of 10 times, Karch hits that ball right off my nose,” Dodd said.

With the crowd on its feet, Dodd returned to the service line and again made Kiraly receive.

Kiraly tried to get his spike through the arms of the 6-foot-7 Whitmarsh, but Whitmarsh got enough of the ball to enable his partner to make the dig. Whitmarsh then gave Dodd the set and the 36-year-old dinked the ball just in front of Steffes for the winning point.

“I think Kent got stuck in the sand a little bit,” Dodd said.

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The crowd went berserk. So did Dodd, who ran around slapping the hands of spectators and pumping his fists in the air.

Afterward, Kiraly looked back on the last plays of the match as the turning point.

“If we put away any of those two balls, especially the one with four seconds left, we win,” he said.

Dodd and Whitmarsh pointed to a pair of lift calls on sets as a big opportunity to crawl back.

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“I think we were lucky they called a couple throws on Karch,” Dodd said. “Those two were critical.”

“I was having trouble keeping my hands dry,” Kiraly said. “I was using my bump set the whole tournament. I should have stuck with it.”

Whitmarsh said a change in strategy also helped his team because recently he has been having trouble blocking Steffes.

“I had success with Kent earlier in the year, but lately he has had my number,” he said.

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Kiraly said he has noticed the new tactics by Dodd and Whitmarsh since returning from a kidney injury in late July.

“Since I’ve been back from my kidney injury, the five times we’ve played them, they’ve been serving me every time,” Kiraly said.

In the women’s final, Cammy Ciarelli and Holly McPeak came out of the losers’ bracket to defend their title with two straight victories over Brazilians Sandra Pires and Jackie Silva.

The first match was dominated by Ciarelli and McPeak, who shot to a 10-0 lead and won, 15-3.

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The pair had to come back in the double final, which is only played to seven. Pires and Silva jumped to a 3-0 lead before Ciarelli and McPeak battled back for a 7-3 victory.


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