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Manhattan Beach volleyball tests tradition that 'old' players rule

Manhattan Beach volleyball tests tradition that 'old' players rule
John Hyden, 42, knocks the ball over the net toward Casey Patterson during a quarterfinal match at the AVP beach volleyball Manhattan Beach Open. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Even though 25-year-old Trevor Crabb teamed with his younger brother Taylor to upset top-seeded Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson in the Manhattan Beach Open on Saturday, most of the best sand volleyball players are old, and they're fine with that.

"Old," of course, is relative — these elite men and women are up there in age compared to other professional athletes, not the general population. Still, there's a sizable difference in years, and if you ask around, most of the players would say that's not a coincidence.

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"Beach volleyball age is different from basketball or football age," 39-year-old Gibb recently wrote for The Players' Tribune. "You'll see pros playing late into their 30s. For one thing, I think playing on the sand is therapeutic. You're landing on a forgiving surface as opposed to a hard court, so your joints aren't taking the same beating day in and day out. But more than that, it takes a long time for the entire skill set to develop in beach volleyball. It's a sport where you need the full array of skills."

A quick glimpse at other pro sports confirms Gibb's assertion about age on the beach. The average age of an NBA player during the 2014-15 season was 26.7 years (the champion Golden State Warriors hit that mark exactly). For Major League Baseball, the average batter's age is 28.5, while pitchers are 28.6. The Oakland Raiders' 2014 roster averaged out to 27 years per player, the oldest in the NFL. And the New Jersey Devils were the only NHL team past the 30-year mark.

Sand volleyball is entirely different. The top 11 players on the men's side (based on points earned during the AVP tour this season) average 33.63 years. On the women's side, the top 10 players plus Kerri Walsh Jennings, who's recovering from a dislocated shoulder, average 32 years. The youngest player in either top 10 is Trevor Crabb, who's 25.

On Saturday, the Crabb brothers showed there is one advantage to having youth on their side.

"I think it helps a little bit just being in better cardio shape," Trevor Crabb said. "Playing a lot of matches in one day, that can really help the young guys."

He also sees success coming with age.

"I noticed when I first came on to the beach that all the veterans had the experience," Crabb said. "That's what really helps for beach volleyball, because it's a game of shots and smart plays. I think the longer your career is, the more experience you have, the better off you are. There's only a select group of guys that are in that top level that are my age."

Teammates Jen Fopma and April Ross, both 33, also advanced to the semifinals Saturday and agreed that their best days are ahead of them, not behind.

"I would not want to be the player I was when I was in my 20s," Fopma said. "I've learned things like how to eat at a tournament — you don't realize when you're so young that it helps in your recovery and makes you play better and better. I think before, I was stubborn, like 'Oh, I don't need a rest, I can do this all day.' Now, I know if I take a rest, I'm going to play better the next day."

Sunday's semifinal matchups will be a mixture of experience levels, especially when 26-year-old Tri Bourne and his teammate, 42-year-old John Hyden, take on Ryan Doherty and John Mayer, both in their 30s.

Hyden has been on the AVP tour since 2002 after a successful run as an indoor player, and he hasn't shown many signs of slowing down. If Ross has her way, she hopes to follow a similar career path.

"I want to play on the AVP for another 10 years," Ross said. "If I can stay healthy, I feel like I can do that."

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