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U.S. CHAMPIONSHIPS : After Split, Stoklos Tries to Find His Place in the Sun : Volleyball: Architect of breakup with Sinjin Smith is back at Hermosa Beach with a new partner and hopes of kicking sand in opponents' faces.


It's as if something is missing watching Randy Stoklos play beach volleyball. The ability to block a shot or dive for a save is apparent, as always. After a few minutes, you realize it's not Stoklos.

His partner for more than a decade, Sinjin Smith, is gone.

In May, Stoklos and Smith--the most successful team on the pro beach tour--split up. They stayed together for more than a decade and 184 tournaments before Stoklos initiated the breakup.

"It was the hardest thing I've ever done," said Stoklos, who has come back strong from shoulder surgery. "This is the guy I played with from the time I was 21 years old till the time I was 32. Sinjin was a bit of an older brother. I looked to him for advice and to guide me the right way. Making the phone call was like telling your mother or father you were never going to see them again."

Stoklos claims to have been frustrated by an array of injuries that plagued his longtime partner and subsequently their poor record against the top-ranked team of Karch Kiraly and Kent Steffes. The emotions involved with the breakup made it tough.

"The biggest thing was sadness," he said. "People would not see us play the type of defense we once did and the unity we had on the court. We were like pistons in an engine, running as smooth as can be."

Stoklos, a graduate of Palisades High, has picked up the pieces since the breakup. He is ranked fourth on the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals tour and is seeded third with partner Ricci Luyties in the $750,000 Miller Lite U.S. Championships, which begin today and conclude Sunday in Hermosa Beach.

It will mark Stoklos' first tournament with Luyties, a 1988 Olympic gold medalist, in 12 years. After placing fourth in San Antonio on May 9 with Smith, Stoklos teamed with 25-year-old Brian Lewis. They won an event and made the finals of two others.

Stoklos ranks second to Smith with 116 AVP career open victories, including three at Manhattan Beach and two U.S. Opens. Smith has 134 career wins. All except two of Stoklos' titles, including the second tournament of the season at Ft. Myers, Fla., came with Smith, 36, at his side.

"Sinjin is one of the greatest players of all time," Stoklos said. "His name is synonymous with the game. The first time without Sinjin I was nervous. I found myself a number of times calling Sinjin's name out."

Smith says the same happened to him. He remains confused at Stoklos' decision to break up beach volleyball's most successful partnership.

"It did not make sense for us to split up," Smith said. "I really didn't expect it. It's difficult because I still think we could have done well. Randy possesses all the talent. He's been known through the years as a strong blocker and powerful hitter, but one of his biggest assets is the desire to win. He has been able to maintain that intensity after all these years."

Last season Stoklos became the first beach player to reach $1 million in career earnings. He leads the AVP with $1,293,373 in career prize money. Three other players--Smith, Kiraly and Steffes--have since broken the $1-million mark.

"I started in the days when you played for a handshake and a trophy," Stoklos said. "Then suddenly there was $5,000 and now there's $4 million. It's like night and day. Kent just broke the $1-million mark in four years and it took me 10 years."

The 6-foot-4, 215-pound Stoklos ranks among the game's best blockers and hitters. He's also a good setter, a position he played for a season at Santa Monica College before attending UCLA.

Academic problems prevented Stoklos from attending a big-name college out of high school and also forced him to leave UCLA after a season. So he joined the beach tour full time.

"He was a forerunner to the modern beach volleyball player," AVP President Jon Stevenson said. "He's a big guy who is powerful at the net but can also set the ball."

Tim Hovland, a winner of 60 tournaments, thinks Stoklos may never find a perfect fit like Smith, who is one of the game's best defensive players. He says it was a great combination that should have stayed intact.

"I don't know why they broke up," said Hovland, a former USC All-American. "I think they would have done a lot better if they stayed together. Randy is a very headstrong player and Sinjin could read him well."

But Stoklos, who missed two events this year because of a back injury, is excited to have a partner such as Luyties who can help him at the net.

"For more than 10 years I did all the blocking," Stoklos said. "That's taken 10 years off my life. This is the first time I'll play with a good blocker. Trading off those duties will take pressure off of each one of us."

But he acknowledges that something will be missing when he competes in his first U.S. Championships without Smith at his side.

Championships at a Glance

Site: Courts adjacent to Hermosa Beach Pier.

When: Event begins at 9 a.m. today until about 5 p.m. Matches go from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. The final is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday and will be televised by NBC.

Parking: In public lots around the site. Shuttle bus service from Mira Costa High to the site is available from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Admission: Free.

Top-seeded teams: 1. Karch Kiraly-Kent Steffes; 2. Mike Dodd-Mike Whitmarsh; 3. Randy Stoklos-Ricci Luyties.

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