Amid the thuds of volleyballs cratering into 29 courts in near-90-degree heat, Tanna Aljoe tapped a floater into the back-left corner of the court, where it splashed in the sand.
“Woooo!” she yelled before high-fiving her partner, Brittany Fennell. It marked the duo’s first point of their first match early Thursday afternoon at the Hermosa Beach Open, part of the Association of Volleyball Professionals’ 2018 tour.
The event started Thursday with qualifying and will continue through championship Sunday. The weekend slate will feature tour professionals such as three-time U.S. Olympian Jake Gibb and partner Taylor Crabb, the duo that won the men’s competition last year.
But on Thursday, none of the pros had arrived yet. Day One is about the up-and-comers who hope to qualify and challenge the pros.
“It’s a dream,” Aljoe said of making it this far, “and right now, we’re living it.”
Question is, how long can those dreams stay alive?
Aljoe played indoor volleyball at North Carolina State through the 2015 season; Fennell played at Clemson through her graduation in 2012. They met when Aljoe played a season of beach volleyball for UNC-Wilmington in 2017, when Fennell was the team’s assistant coach.
The two have played together since, traveling the Southeastern U.S. to participate in tournaments and earn points just to qualify for the Hermosa Beach qualifiers.
Fennell is a pharmaceutical rep who specializes in dermatology and lives in Charleston, S.C. . Aljoe moved to San Diego in May, where in addition to being a part-time professional beach volleyball player, she’s also works part time in digital marketing.
“It was a sport I didn’t wanna give up on in my adult life,” Fennell said, “and now it’s something where I can still have a career and have my volleyball career as well.”
The same could be said for Brandon Joyner. He played indoor volleyball at George Mason University and, after graduating, became an assistant coach at his alma mater as well as a professional indoor player in Finland and Sweden.
He eventually grew homesick and became an eighth-grade social studies teacher in Virginia Beach, Va.. He’s spent his summer following the AVP tour and participating in its qualifiers, and has made it to every one — from New York to Seattle — except for the event in Austin, Texas.
“I had a wedding to go to,” he explained, “or I would’ve been there, too.”
For Joyner, advancing past the qualifying rounds has become a minor obsession. After spending years trying to perfect his game, that step would be one of deliverance.
He even corrected himself when he said he wants to make it to that stage. He said it’s more of a need.
“You wake up every morning, and that’s kinda the first thought in your mind,” he said. “It’s, ‘OK, I have two weeks until I have another opportunity to get one step closer to a dream that could possibly make me really, really happy.’ ”
That dream is accessible to few, though, and AVP is trying to change that through AVPFirst, a standalone nonprofit operation headed by Tony Giarla. The program started in 2015 with a focus on youth competition, which this year culminates in Hermosa Beach with the AVPFirst national championship.
The program’s current competitors are kids with means, but Giarla said the next phase of AVPFirst is growing beach volleyball in untapped communities.
For now, though, the youth competition features 270 teams from the U.S., Canada, Australia and Mexico. The main qualifying rounds feature 190 male and female teams, with eight spots available for the final bracket of 24.
The event is expecting crowds of 10,000-15,000 per day (admission is free). Aljoe and Fennell hope to hear those weekend cheers.
The duo finished their first match with a 21-11, 21-14 victory and exited the court dusted in sand. Only two matches left to qualify for the 24-team main draw and a chance to upset the pros.
But right now, just like the pros, it’s one dream at a time.