The locals defended home turf, along with their first-place position.
Charles VanRees grew up in Muskegon, attending Western Michigan Christian High School and learning the beautiful beach game in the backyard of WMVB organizer Stevo VanderWerp.
VanRees now lives in Grand Rapids with his playing partner Jordan Drake — hailing from Lowell. Together, they lead the Midwest zone of AVPNext, hoping to close out the season on top for a bid into the Manhattan Beach AVP tournament. They came one step closer with a win Saturday.
“It feels good. Any victory at your hometown beach feels good,” VanRees said after the win. “It is super fun playing here. We are usually the guys from out of town and no one wants us to win. Here, we get a bit of a cheering section.”
A finals matchup against a familiar foe proved to be a tough last hurdle for the local pair. After taking a hard-fought Set 1, VanRees and Drake built a sizable lead in Set 2 before a tremendous run by the opposition, complete with some scoring controversy, forced a contested and extended match point.
“They just dug everything,” VanRees said. “They were playing scrappy and really put the serving pressure on. We will go home now and watch the film and break it down, nit-pick it and figure out what was happening.”
Saturday’s victory marks the pair’s fifth since getting together in January and committing to a run at the Midwest AVPNext bid. Two titles in Fort Wayne, one in Bedford and one in Nashville, along with four more top-three finishes, have placed them tied atop the standings.
The success is no surprise to the pair. VanRees won the Midwest AVP bid in 2015 and joining forces with Drake, a relative newcomer to the circuit was an easy decision.
“Our communication is the biggest thing we have going,” VanRees said. “We aren’t afraid to step on each other’s toes. If something has to change, we tell each other and change it.”
“When he asked me to play, I said yes right away,” Drake said. “He sees the game really well and we know each other well enough to kick each other in the butt if we need to get fired up. He’s helped me tremendously.”
“This is Jordan’s first year really going for it,” VanRees said. “He got into playing tournaments every weekend last summer for the first time. We’ve only been playing together since January. At the time, we figured we were one of the few pairs that could commit to doing most of the tournaments and that we had a pretty good shot at the bid.”
The decision to commit to the bid was a life-changer for both competitors. Weekly travel, practice, film study and training makes a full-time endeavor.
“We travel every weekend. Neither of us have families or girlfriends, so we just travel around and play volleyball,” VanRees said. “We practice Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and are usually driving somewhere Friday, playing Saturday and driving back Sunday.”
“It is a completely different level,” Drake added. “It is super fun. Traveling around the Midwest with your best friend, playing volleyball, you can’t beat it.”
All that dedicated time and clandestine communication has done wonders for the pair as they wrestle with an unconventional lineup. Both Drake and VanRees stand over 6 foot 5, throwing off the typical “big guy, short guy” makeup of a beach volleyball pair with one player focusing on blocking and the other on defending the field.
“We make it work trying to be agile,” VanRees said. “We are kind of different being two tall guys.
“We started the season split blocking, but eventually decided for me to just play defense, which I have never done before.”
“We split blocked for six or seven tournaments,” Drake said. “Then, in St. Joe, it just wasn’t working. So, I said I’m just going to focus on blocking from now on. It helps us find a rhythm and if something happens, we can both block if we need to.
“It is awesome having a tall defender. Wherever I set it, he can get there. It is like two strides to cross the court for him.”
Now firing on all cylinders, it is time to finish off the season and realize the Manhattan Beach dream.
Easier said than done.
“We’re neck and neck with Kyle (Radde) and Adam (Gustafson),” VanRees added. “We are going to have to beat them head-to-head. There are six tournaments left and we are only playing in four of them.”
“Now, we just have to clean everything up. It is an amazing feeling getting the bid. People compare Manhattan Beach to Wimbledon. It is an awesome experience. Getting a taste of it motivates you all the more.”
WMVB seeking scholarship applicants
West Michigan Beach Volleyball will be awarding four $500 scholarships during their 2018 season to graduating seniors pursuing higher education in the fall. Application is open to boys and girls graduating from high school in 2018 who are planning to enroll in an accredited higher education institution in the fall and who participate in one WMVB event in 2018.
Applications are due no later than July 15. The four scholarships will be awarded based on application and will be notified via email. Applications can be found at wmbeachvolleyball.com under the scholarships tab.