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MIKE DOWNEY

Dig It: UCLA's Steffes Is Turning Sand Into Gold Dust

June 16, 1991

Kent Steffes gets up in the morning, flips open the newspaper to the business pages, checks out the stock-market quotations. He is an economics student at UCLA. Turns 23 next Sunday. Already makes a nice living. Made $116,556 last year.

Playing volleyball.

He plays it on the beaches of Hermosa and Manhattan, in the hotbox of Phoenix and cool sand of Cape Cod, even in the parking lot of the Houston Astrodome. Such is the life of a traveling volleyball player, a man who makes his living wearing nothing more than loose trunks and an occasional pair of Ray-Bans.

"I guess the best part of this business is, you don't have to pack much," Steffes says.

UCLA kicked Kent off its team. Notified him that the NCAA had a rule against even being teamed with anyone accepting prize money. So, when Steffes was 19, he joined the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals tour full-time, wondering about the hypocrisy of it all. UCLA wouldn't let him play, even though his partner at the beach had been UCLA's assistant coach.

Well, it all worked out for the best. Youngest guy on the tour by three or four years, the 6-foot-4, 205-pound Steffes is the third-leading money maker. His current partner, Tim Hovland, is 10 years his senior. And even though the wanna-be from Pacific Palisades is not yet king of the beach--Sinjin Smith and Randy Stoklos aren't ready to abdicate--Kent Steffes is, at the very least, the prince.

He can already imagine Smith and Stoklos spitting into the sand over that one. The prince. What's Steffes doing, bribing newspaper writers now?

That's how competitive this professional volleyball tour is. At times, these guys talk to one another--or about one another--like pro wrestlers. There are a lot of head games played simultaneously with the actual games, a lot of mind-spiking.

For the first couple of years, nobody messed with him much, because he was barely considered enough of a threat to be worth messing with. Later on, though, the pushing and cussing began, and the usual youngblood stuff: "You little punk, you aren't anything." That sort of thing.

Fresh from Pacific Palisades High and having transferred from Stanford after a year, Steffes felt right at home at the beach. There were nights, early on the tour, when he even slept on the beach. He teamed at first with the AVP tour president, Jon Stevenson, with whom he won his first tournament. This was after the hassle with UCLA, which dumped him after Wally Martin, his coach and partner, cashed some prize money.

"It was absurd then and it's absurd now," Steffes says, plopping down for a couple of hours at Patrick's Roadhouse near the Pacific Coast Highway, not far from where he grew up. "It used to be the indoor guys would give the beach players a hard time.

Now, they won't even give the beach players a

chance."

He had to go to court in high school asking to play after transferring from Brentwood, and was rejected. He requested a tryout with the national indoor team, but was rejected.

Back when Karch Kiraly was in college, it was OK for him to be a three-time NCAA champion at UCLA and a two-time Olympic gold medalist and still win a world championship on the beach. Then, the NCAA got picky, and Steffes still hasn't forgiven everybody at UCLA for not fighting harder on his behalf.

The Bruins missed out on the beach's hottest young player. He was voted AVP rookie of the year, then "up and coming player of the year."

In 1990, with various partners, Steffes won five tournaments on the Miller Lite tour (Ft. Lauderdale, New Orleans, San Jose, Cleveland and Santa Monica), another in Italy and took six seconds, becoming the youngest player to earn 100 grand. Steffes is barely old enough to buy Miller Lite, much less make a bundle from that company, whereas Smith, Stoklos, Kiraly, Hovland and other AVP stars all are over 30.

By a year ago February, Kiraly, who had rarely spoken to him, asked Steffes to be his partner. They played well together, but Kiraly dropped him on short notice. More baffled than angry, Steffes sided with Dan Vrebalovich of Culver City and together they upset Kiraly and Brent Frohoff in the final at San Jose, splitting $16,500.

Partnerships come and go, and after 10 years beside Mike Dodd, Hovland hooked up with Steffes. In April, there was a day in Phoenix so oppressive that Hovland collapsed of heat exhaustion and had to be tethered to an IV bottle. But the following week, Steffes-Hovland won the $75,000 Miller Lite Open in San Diego, and two weeks later, they took the $100,000 Cuervo Gold Crown in Clearwater, Fla.

So far this year, Steffes has raked in $76,368 in the sand, hardly halfway into the 24-event season. The main event, Aug. 24-25 at Hermosa Beach, has $750,000 in prize money at stake. This is another reason Kent Steffes studies economics.

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