It is beginning again.
In a slow trickle, the AVP’s best are emerging from their winter hideouts. Taylor and Trevor Crabb and Tri Bourne have returned from Hawai’i, a blissful off-season of golfing and surfing and Outrigger Baby Court play at its end. Avery Drost’s month off after a victory alongside Phil Dalhausser at the USA Volleyball Best of the Beach is finished. Jake Gibb’s regimen of lifting, lifting, lifting, pull ups with his kids on his legs, slow squats, fast squats, heavy deadlifts and deadlifts with jumps — that, too, is over. April Ross has returned from drinking coffee and reading in the mountains.
They’re back, now. All of them.
They’re all coming back to 16th street in Hermosa Beach.
The first morning that Greg Delgado moved into his 800-square-foot apartment on the Strand in Hermosa Beach, he awoke to the sounds of beach volleyball. He knew this would happen, of course. This was the South Bay, home of the best beach volleyball in the world, aside from perhaps Rio de Janeiro. He just didn’t realize who would be the ones making those sounds of beach volleyball, just past his porch: Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena.
“Honey!” Delgado called to his wife, Lori, “I think we just moved to the Olympic court!”
16th Street was popular then, with five courts that boasted somewhat level, deep sand, taut nets, lines already down and antennas for the most part ready. But anything that had happened previously at 16th paled in comparison to the nexus that it became in the summer of 2020.
On June 18, the AVP announced the formation of the AVP Champions Cup: A series of three tournaments that would take place in Long Beach, California. It was an incredible feat, for the AVP to pull off three tournaments in one of the most restrictive states in regards to COVID-19.
There was, however, one problem: The players couldn’t train.
The beaches in Los Angeles — Manhattan, Hermosa, Redondo — were closed. A few players had already been ticketed, a surfer slapped with a $1,000 fine. The nets, too, had been cut down. While Orange County, just half an hour south, was far more open, the government had removed the poles at the Huntington Beach Pier. It left the option for pop-up nets, but other than that, with only a month to prepare for the only three events of the season for what would be the source of many players’ primary income, there was nowhere to prepare.
Delgado and a group of locals, one of them being Mark Paaluhi, co-founder of Sand Court Experts, authored a proposal to the city of Hermosa Beach. They informed the city of the players’ plight, and pitched 16th Street as a safe haven of sorts for professional beach volleyball players. The players would train with certain protocols in place: only two teams on a court at a time, coaches must wear masks. It would be for professionals only, since the professionals were being tested every Monday anyway.
The city was on board: No players would get ticketed for playing beach volleyball at 16th Street.
Word spread fast.
In a matter of days, Delgado’s number was on every player’s speed dial. Every night, his phone would light up with texts from players, requesting a court and a practice time. Delgado whipped up an Excel sheet, and every morning, he and Paaluhi would tape index cards onto the poles, designating who was practicing on what court, and when.
“Everyone knew when they were playing, that the courts were set up for them, that the net height was right, the lines were right, and they’d have antennas,” Delgado said. “It really was an exciting, accelerated time.”
Fans may not have been allowed at the AVP Champions Cup, but they didn’t necessarily need to be. Anyone who wanted to watch the best players in the world competing could simply walk out to 16th Street, from 8 a.m. to noon, and watch from, ahem, a distance. On any given morning, there would be Dalhausser and Lucena playing against Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb, Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb against John Hyden and Jeremy Casebeer, Chase Budinger and Chaim Schalk against Casey Patterson and Theo Brunner, Ross and Klineman drilling with a platoon of coaches.
“I thought it was cool how everybody practiced in the same spot,” said Lucena, who won two of the three Champions Cups with Dalhausser. “You never see that. I thought it was the highest level volleyball in just two areas: Long Beach and 16th Street. People were starting to go to practices. It was pretty professional. It was a very unique situation.”
The Amazon Prime crew, Kevin Barnett and Camryn Irwin, filmed and conducted pre-tournament interviews. After practices, players would stop and hang for coffee on Delgado’s porch, chopping it up, chatting, snacking on Brother’s Burritos while recovering or waiting for their court.
A community, in a time when community was most needed, was born. Mornings at 16th Street became the uniting fabric of the AVP Tour.
He says he did this for selfish reasons, Delgado. That he got to sit on his porch, drink coffee, watching the best in the world, every morning. He is an excellent man, a wonderful man, with a ubiquitous, almost cherubic smile, but there are times — like these — when you cannot believe a word he says.
His “selfishness” was the most selfless act of the season, aside from perhaps that time he volunteered to shag balls for nine hours at the AVP Champions Cup, or the time he grabbed a towel and became a ball boy for the final round of a drizzly qualifier in Hawai’i in 2019. And as the summer progressed, the players’ appreciation was shown through mementos, some big, some small. Some brought wine, tequila, flowers. A few brought cookies and snacks. Barnett, a master craftsman, made Delgado a custom cutting board, inscribed with his name and “an undisclosed location,” as he described the 16th Street training center on Amazon Prime. Miles Partain showed his gratitude through disbelief one morning, so astonished was he, the incumbent AVP and VolleyballMag.com Rookie of the Year, to see his name on a pole with all these big-time professionals.
“It made my month,” Delgado says.
And he made the year of many of the players.
One morning, Lucena came walking down the strand, one of his two Champions Cups in hand.
“That’s cool,” Delgado remembers thinking. “I wonder where he’s going with that.”
Where Lucena was going was where every player had gone all summer: To Greg Delgado’s porch, to deliver the trophy to the man who made that summer happen.
“He came to our house and said ‘Greg I got your trophy for you!’” Delgado recalled. “I said ‘No, c’mon.’ He said ‘No, it’s got your name on it!’ He and Phil both signed it and gave me his Championship Cup. I was in tears. It made my whole month. It was awesome.”
Delgado, now retired, was relatively well-known in the South Bay community prior to last summer. His son, Grant, played at Stanford, and the family had become acquaintances with Taylor Crabb. But this summer, he became a pseudo father figure, a fun uncle, to every player who competed in the Champions Cup.
Riley McKibbin calls him the “Shepherd of 16th, because he truly tends to the courts and all the players who play there like they were a part of his flock. Pass by and he’ll not only offer you a warm cup of coffee but he’s always got a smile on his face and a kind word to say.”
Added Troy Field, a regular at 16th, both to train and for a cup of coffee with The Shepherd: “Greg Delgado is the MVP of the beach volleyball community. He has created a place at 16th Street that almost every pro calls home. Greg and Lori have become family now, not only to me but to so many other athletes.”
And so, with pre-season officially underway for the AVP players, it begins again. There’s Greg Delgado, at sunrise, putting down lines, raising the nets just so.
Tending to his flock.