Ryan Doherty, a 7 foot 1 inch volleyball player, goes up for a jump serve. (Jose Cuervo )
Ryan Doherty's head soars 7 feet 1 inch above the earth and sits about 10 inches below the peak of a beach volleyball net. And when he leaps and extends his 7-foot-4 wingspan, his forearms easily stretch to the other side.
These physical measurements come in handy for Doherty, who's competing in the Hermosa Beach Open this weekend with his partner, Casey Patterson. The No. 9-seeded duo out of 32 men's teams opens play during Saturday's main draw, which begins at 9 a.m.
Doherty and Patterson have won two straight Jose Cuervo Pro Beach Volleyball Series events and three overall events this year, but for all his success in the sport, Doherty is new to it: He calls this his first full year as a pro.
He's been a pro before, just at something else: Baseball.
A relief pitcher, Doherty spent three years in the Arizona Diamondbacks' farm system, becoming the first 7-footer in minor league history, following his career at Notre Dame, where he was then the tallest player in NCAA history.
His fastball topped out in the mid-90s, but his career petered out. He never reached higher than Class-A ball, was released in 2007 and soon moved to South Carolina, where he began playing volleyball for fun with a friend.
"Eventually, I was like, I'm going to move to California and try this for real," Doherty said.
In Huntington Beach, Doherty played pickup games, earned the nickname "Avatar" for his size — he was known as "Unit" in baseball, a nod to his favorite player, Randy Johnson — and worked to make up for his lack of experience.
"He's so far behind every player that's out here," Patterson said, "but because he's got such a high-level background in baseball, the work ethic is there, and the mental game is stronger than most players I've played with, actually."
Yet, Doherty is more than just tall. He's also a fierce competitor, said Brian O'Connor, the former Irish pitching coach who recruited Doherty. "He'd get on the mound, pull his hat down and go right after guys," O'Connor said.
He's also quite an athlete, said Paul Mainieri, Notre Dame's head coach during Doherty's tenure. "
This is a guy who's a very skilled, very agile athlete who just happens to be 7-1," Mainieri said.
Pitcher Cody Evans, one of Doherty's teammates in the minors, said if anyone else tried to make the career switch Doherty did, he'd call that person crazy.
"But with his mentality and his athleticism," Evans said, "it seems like a perfect fit."
Doherty sees it that way.
"If I only got to play one pro sport in my life, I'd consider myself lucky," Doherty said. "But to get to play two? That's pretty awesome."