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THE GREAT OUTDOORS: A GUIDE TO ORANGE COUNTY RECREATION
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Players of All Skill Levels Can be Found at Popular Beach Volleyball Courts at Huntington Beach, Laguna Beach and Capistrano Beach

May 28, 1999|MICHAEL ITAGAKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The sun, surf and sand are all synonymous with the Southern California beach scene. There's the surfing, swimming and barbecuing, too.

And don't forget volleyball.

For an example of how volleyball has become a vital part of beach culture, just look inland.

Nestled in the northern foothills of Anaheim, some 20 miles from the coastline, sits Esperanza High. The Aztecs made their first Southern Section boys' volleyball championship run in 1993, and the players made T-shirts that said it all.

"The shirts had picture of a guy asking, 'Where's Esperanza beach?' " Esperanza Coach Kurt Kersten said, laughing.

A laid-back attitude has always been associated with the sport. And that's where it started.

San Clemente resident Rod Cutting, 53, remembers those simpler times.

"Back in the '60s, a community would host a weekend tournament and there would be a party with all the players," Cutting said. "You would barbecue together, drink together, pass out together, then wake up and go play each other the next morning."

Cutting, who organizes tournaments for the California Beach Volleyball Assn., said the approach to the game has changed. It was an official medal sport at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and there were four different pro tours as recently as 1997.

"Before, it was just go to the beach, play a few games, jump in the water, have a few beers," Cutting said. "When Karch Kiraly started playing on the beach tours, he would come to the beach, bring 30-40 balls out and guys would practice with each other.

"And when they saw how much money he was winning, everybody began playing more seriously."

Although the domestic men's, women's and four-player tours have all folded because of financial troubles and the game has a lower public profile, people are still playing and the pros are still practicing.

Here's a look at three major beach volleyball spots in the county. Players of all skill levels are found at each site, but each has its own character.

Huntington Beach

Surf City is home to a relatively new set of courts, giving the players in the area a gathering place.

There are smaller areas to play, like Corona del Mar, and single courts dot the coastline. But Huntington has the most courts.

"There used to be a pecking order and all the top guys would play each other on challenge courts," said Huntington Beach native Rocky Ciarelli, who coaches volleyball at Huntington Beach High. "Now, if the pros come out, they usually practice or play against themselves."

Although pros are less likely to frequent the Huntington Beach courts, there are still plenty of good players at Huntington.

"You'll get everyone from the triple-A and double-A rated players down to the picnic player," said Ciarelli, whose wife, Cammy, played on the women's professional beach tour. "You can always find a game. It's good for the kids."

Laguna Beach

This artsy, coastline city is full of volleyball history. Although one of the county's smallest cities, it has produced some of the country's finest players, including U.S. Olympians Dusty Dvorak, Scott Fortune and Adam Johnson.

Main Beach in Laguna is still a hub of activity for beach volleyball, although it doesn't have as many courts as Huntington or Capistrano. And the top guns still play occasionally in the area.

"It's just a part of life here," said Miles McGann, a Laguna Beach High senior who will attend USC on a volleyball scholarship next year.

Although Main Beach is the only major gathering place, there are courts all over the city, like the single court at the Three Arch Bay private community.

"I grew up watching Adam Johnson play there," McGann said. "I still play there, and A.J. still comes out to play too."

Capistrano Beach

In the '90s, Capo grew into a beach volleyball hub for Southern California's finest players.

With the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals men's tour, the Women's Professional Volleyball Assn. and four-player tours at the height of their popularity, Capo was bustling.

"It was a perfect meeting place between San Diego and Los Angeles," Cutting said. "With the three tours going on, there were pros practicing there all the time. Now, it's suddenly vacant."

Relatively speaking, of course. Capo Beach is still one of the biggest beach volleyball venues in the county, and Kiraly and Johnson are among those who practice there.

But with the demise of all three tours for financial reasons and only the FIVB international tour in full swing, Cutting said participation is down.

"It will come back," Cutting said. "It used to be the in-thing to do with the kids, but over the past five years, with the growing popularity of skateboarding and the extreme sports, interests have changed."

But lots of people are still playing, including Cutting, who coaches with the Saddleback club volleyball program and works as a game official.

"I just want to have fun and get some exercise," Cutting said. "And the worst thing that can happen is if you lose a game, then you can just go jump in the ocean."

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