At 6 feet 9, Phil Dalhausser is one of the tallest players in professional volleyball. When he peered across the net Sunday afternoon, he saw someone taller.
It was 7-footer Ryan Doherty, a player nicknamed "Avatar" for his astounding stature. The giants collided at the net midway through the first set of the AVP Huntington Beach Open, Dalhausser hitting the sand and Doherty and partner John Hyden winning the point in the first of several memorable battles.
"It's just two tall freaks going at each other," said Nick Lucena, Dalhausser's partner. "It's fun."
Most of the pleasure was experienced by third-seeded Dalhausser and Lucena, who powered their way to a 21-16, 21-17 victory that represented their first title together at this tournament and a record fifth one here for Dalhausser, who won the previous four alongside Todd Rogers. Lucena also won here in 2013, with Theo Brunner.
The victory also marked the 50th AVP tournament triumph for Dalhausser, a Redondo Beach resident who has played in his last eight tournaments alongside Lucena after the college friends who opened their careers as partners split for a decade.
"It's pretty cool," said Dalhausser, 37. "It just shows my age."
On the women's side, top-seeded Emily Day and Brittany Hochevar swept their way to the championship, needing only 36 minutes to beat sixth-seeded Betsi Flint and Kelley Larsen 21-13, 21-19 in the final.
Day and Hochevar put a cheery ending on a 17-15 deficit they faced in the second set that had been accompanied by a brief downpour.
"It thickened the plot," Hochevar said. "It was telling the story quite beautifully and so we wanted to make sure we drove the nail in the coffin and not let that linger."
Hochevar, playing as part of a top-seeded team for the first time, credited the sports psychologist who recently met with her and Day for giving them an in-the-moment mind-set that sparked several comebacks in the tournament.
Day and Hochevar knocked out second-seeded April Ross and Whitney Pavlik 23-21, 21-14 in a semifinal earlier in the day. Ross was the defending champion, having won the title last year alongside former partner Kerri Walsh Jennings.
Dalhausser and Lucena won all five of their matches in this tournament one year after they were forced to withdraw when Lucena suffered a shoulder injury. Two of the victories came in a 24-hour span against seventh-seeded Doherty and Hyden, who fought their way back through the contender's bracket to reach the championship by upsetting top-seeded Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb in a semifinal earlier Sunday.
Doherty is the tallest player on the AVP tour, with a backstory that reads like a tall tale. He was an All-American relief pitcher at Notre Dame who spent three years in the minor leagues with the Arizona Diamondbacks before moving to South Carolina. That's where he started playing beach volleyball with his roommate, becoming infatuated with the sport. He relocated to Huntington Beach, playing recreationally and being used by pro players in blocking drills before forming a partnership with Casey Patterson.
"There's not many guys around blocking like this rather than this," Dalhausser said, slightly bending his arms to show how Doherty can reach over the net before straightening his arms upright, "so it's a little frustrating and he knows he can get away just hitting off the top and I think that was most of his sideouts, basically."
Dalhausser said he lost track of the net on his collision with Doherty, who extended a hand to help his counterpart off the sand. Dalhausser and Lucena trailed 11-10 in the first set before winning 11 of the next 16 points. They similarly pulled away in the second set after the score was deadlocked at 12-12, winning the last point when Dalhausser aced his serve inside the back line.
Dalhausser credited the floating serve of his teammate for creating most of their opponents' difficulties.
"It sets up our defense," Dalhausser said. "It's like a chess match. Everything's on purpose and he did get a good job of getting them in trouble on a float serve."