The idea of Randy Stoklos playing beach volleyball without Sinjin Smith still seems strange, even though they haven't competed as a team in the last 13 tournaments.
The sport's winningest duo played together for more than a decade and 184 opens before Stoklos initiated the breakup earlier this season.
"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 said that he was frustrated by injuries that dogged his longtime partner and led to their poor record against the top-ranked team of Karch Kiraly and Kent Steffes. He adds, though, that playing without Smith is 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 Pacific Palisades High, has picked up the pieces since making the decision in May. He is ranked fourth in the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals and seeded third with partner Ricci Luyties in the $750,000 Miller Lite U.S. Championships, which began Friday and end Sunday at Hermosa Beach.
This, however, is Stoklos' first tournament with Luyties, a 1988 Olympic gold medalist, in 12 years. After placing fourth at San Antonio on May 9 with Smith, Stoklos teamed up with 25-year-old Brian Lewis. They won an event and advanced to the finals of two others. Stoklos also won the second tournament of the season, at Ft. Myers, Fla., with Smith, 36.
He ranks second to Smith in the AVP with 116 open victories, including three at Manhattan Beach and two U.S. Opens. Smith has 134 victories, and all but two of Stoklos' titles were won with Smith 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, who teamed with Luyties for most of the season, has Bruk Vandeweghe as a partner this weekend, for the second consecutive tournament. He said that he is still 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 player to reach the $1-million mark in earnings on the beach. He leads the AVP with $1,293,373 in prize money. Three other players--Smith, Kiraly and Steffes--have also 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."
At 6 feet 4 and 215 pounds, Stoklos ranks among the best blockers on the beach and is one of the most powerful hitters. He's also a good setter, the position he played for one season at Santa Monica College and later at UCLA.
Academic problems prevented Stoklos from attending a big college out of high school and also forced him to leave UCLA after one season. So he joined the beach tour full time.
"He was a forerunner to the modern beach volleyball player," said AVP President Jon Stevenson, a former player. "He's a big guy who is powerful at the net but can also set the ball."
Tim Hovland, a longtime pro and winner of 60 opens, believes Stoklos might never find a perfect fit like Smith, one of the game's best defensive players. Hovland said that it was a great combination that should have stayed intact.
"I don't know why they broke up," said the 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 finally have a partner that 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 acknowledged, it seems strange playing in his first U.S. Championships without Smith by his side.
The top-seeded team of Karch Kiraly and Kent Steffes cruised through two rounds Friday. Kiraly and Steffes will play eighth-seeded Brent Frohoff and Steve Timmons at 10 a.m. today. "That's going to be a tough game for us," Kiraly said. "We really need to fire up for it."
Others advancing included No. 2-seeded Mike Dodd and Mike Whitmarsh and No. 3 Randy Stoklos and Ricci Luyties. Stoklos and Luyties beat No. 35 Kevin Cleary and Joel Jones, 15-7, and No. 19 Andy Fishburn and John Hanley, 12-9. Stoklos and Luyties will play No. 11 Eric Fonoimoana and Dan Vrebalovich today at 10 a.m. Fonoimoana and Vrebalovich upset No. 6 Sinjin Smith and Bruk Vandeweghe, 15-6, in the second round. Smith and Vandeweghe will play a consolation match today at 11 a.m.