SAN FRANCISCO — The estimated 22,000 fans who attended the AVP San Francisco Open this past weekend at Pier 30/32 on the Embarcadero were offered an opportunity to leap into action.
The Jumpman Zone allowed anyone interested to plummet either 20 or 24 feet off stadium court onto an inflated bed.
Alix Klineman, a 6-foot-5 outside hitter out of Stanford, never fathomed this as an option.
“I’m afraid of heights, which I know is really ironic considering how tall I am,” she said.
Besides, the 27-year-old was too busy trying to earn her first AVP title alongside partner Lane Carico.
Teammates at Mira Costa High in Manhattan Beach back in the day, the duo reunited for the first time on the beach at the San Francisco Open, with only one practice to get ready.
“It’s a lot of learning as we go,” Klineman said. “We’ve been talking a lot just about strategy and patience and all these different aspects. We’re not going to be perfect and we know that.”
Carico joined the AVP Tour in 2013, while Klineman remained committed to playing overseas until this summer.
“She’s not a rookie in my eyes,” Carico said. “I really like playing with her and she’s got a lot of wisdom, too. It’s a matter of transferring it over from a slightly different indoor game to the beach.”
After dropping the opening set in a first-round match of the main draw, Carico and Klineman found their groove.
That included a 21-11, 30-28 upset of top-seeded Betsi Flint and Kelley Larsen in Saturday’s quarterfinals.
“I think I’m getting better and I can feel it,” Klineman said. “It’s a confirmation to get some wins out here and feel like, ‘OK, I’m taking a step in the right direction.’ It’s going to be a long, long process. Sports is constantly improving, constantly learning — and I’m just at the very beginning of it.”
Sunday’s rematch with the No. 1 seed in front of an overflowing crowd on stadium court confirmed Klineman’s inclination that she’s far from a finished product on the beach.
Flint and Larsen avenged the earlier loss in the championship match with a 21-13, 21-8 rout that lasted 39 minutes.
“Alix and Lane played great all tournament,” Flint said. “And we were ready for some payback.”
“We watched some film and tried to figure out what we can do — how to best our game,” said Larsen, with the tandem directing a majority of serves at Carico to wear her out. “We had a good game plan going in and I think we executed it well.”
It’s the second AVP title for the duo, which also won in 2015 at Cincinnati.
“It feels awesome,” Flint said. “We’ve been grinding and we’ve been in a couple of finals and lost a couple of times, so we’ve been just on a mission ready to win.”
The atmosphere only added to the moment.
“The crowd is awesome,” Flint said. “It was packed. There’s just a lot of energy, so it made it a lot of fun.”
“There’s just a lot of people out here,” Larsen added. “Everyone seems to really love volleyball. I heard some smack talking, which I like. People are getting engaged, so it was a fun crowd.”
Meanwhile, Carico and Klineman were denied a shot at becoming the fifth partners since 2010 to claim a women’s title on the AVP Tour during their first outing together.
“It’s hard to talk about it right now, so quick after we lost, but overall it was an incredible experience,” Klineman said. “I mean, I can’t say anything negative about the weekend, really, because I surpassed my expectations so much. … But it’s a weekend of highs and lows. We did really, really, really well, but it’s hard to finish on a note like that. And just for it not to have been a little bit closer, I think that’s the hardest part.”
Only two beach volleyball players with ties to Stanford, including Klineman, were guaranteed spots in the main draw.
The rest needed to fight through Thursday’s qualifiers.
“The qualifying is never easy,” said Brian Cook, a 6-5 outside hitter. “We had to win three tough matches to get in and yesterday we took care of business.”
Cook was a senior in 2014, when Cole Fiers redshirted as a 6-4 freshman setter.
As fate would have it, they clashed in the second round of the qualifying, which for the men took place at The Foundry in Redwood City.
“I couldn’t have picked a better place to have my first qualifier,” said Cook, who grew up in Santa Cruz and for the past three years played overseas. “So it’s really cool to do it kind of at home.”
Cook and his partner Adam Roberts didn’t drop a set en route to the main draw, but fell 21-19, 17-21, 15-13 in the opening round Friday afternoon.
“I liked our draw, but I think we came out a little bit nervous,” Cook said. “Legs were definitely a little tired from yesterday, but we’re going to battle.”
Karissa Cook, his older sister, was a No. 1 seed in the women’s qualifiers, which took place on the Embarcadero.
“Any time you can wake up, drive an hour and play the best competition in the area and in California, it’s unbelievable,” said Cook, 26, an assistant coach on the Stanford beach volleyball team. “L.A. is not too far, either. It’s only an hour flight, but this feels like home.”
Brittany Howard, 23, was a freshman on The Farm in 2012, with her senior setter none other than Cook.
“The last time I played Karissa on the beach was my sophomore year and Carly Wopat was my partner and she was doing her fifth year at Hawaii,” said Howard, a graduate of Mountain View High. “They beat us pretty badly, but I do remember I blocked her once in that game, so that was my claim to fame.”
“I’m sure she’s stuffed me more than anybody,” said Cook, who prevailed in that match 21-16, 21-10, when the sport was referred to as sand volleyball at the NCAA level. “Her block is awesome. You always think you have a little room, and then it’s gone.”
Howard spent this past spring at Pepperdine as a graduate student, following in the path of her former teammate.
“She copied me,” Cook joked.
The Waves finished as the NCAA runner-up, with Howard and partner Corinne Quiggle claiming bronze at USAV Collegiate Beach Pairs tournament.
They were back in action at the San Francisco Open, triumphant in their first qualifying match 21-19, 21-12 — a dream come true for Howard.
“Whenever, since I was little, every summer it was my favorite thing that I’d do with my mom and a family friend,” Howard said of attending the AVP event in San Francisco. “It was so cool for me just to grow up and watch the legends play — you know, Kerri (Walsh Jennings), obviously. … And then just to be out here playing and get a win today was really, really a cool experience.”
Just like with Klineman, it’s a matter of constantly improving, constantly learning on the beach for Howard.
“It’s just there are things that playing indoors I just knew,” she said. “And out here I just don’t have that instinct. It’s just a completely different game. And I just love the opportunity to challenge myself and get better every day when I’m playing beach.”
The qualifying bracket set Cook and Howard on a collision course, with their match on Court 3 elapsing 33 minutes.
It was the end of the road for Howard, who was eliminated 21-18, 21-17.
“It was fun to play against each other,” Cook said. “And I think the better way to look at it is no matter what a Stanford person is moving on to the next round.”
“Karissa and I are buds and she’s coaching at Stanford and doing great things,” Howard said. “I really look up to her. It would’ve like to have maybe met her a little bit later down the line, but to get to the main draw, you have to beat everyone.”
Or at least most of the qualifiers for the four coveted spots into the main draw.
On the cusp of making it through, Cook and partner Katie Spieler fell agonizingly short 16-21, 21-18, 15-12 on a gusty afternoon on Pier 30/32.
“I just play because it’s fun, still,” Cook said. “Even tough ones like that, they’re still fun. It’s such a good game.”
Not to be dismissed, incoming freshman Kate Formico, a defensive specialist out of Mitty in San Jose and cousin of Walsh Jennings, was sent home Thursday morning after a 22-20, 21-13 loss in the opening round.
On the men’s side, Myles Muagututia — a special teams contributor as a walk-on on the football team during his time on The Farm and a freshman outside hitter in 2010, when the Cardinal was crowned NCAA men’s volleyball champion — finished one victory shy of reaching the main draw after prevailing in a pair of three-set matches.
That left Brian Cook as the only qualifier to join Klineman in the main draw along with Curt Toppel, a three-time All-American at Stanford at the turn of the century.
“It’s almost like my second home up here,” said Toppel, who took a 45-minute flight to compete at the San Francisco Open. “So I want to represent the best I can.”
A towering figure a 6 feet, 9 inches tall, Toppel lost in the opening round.
But a score change rule on the AVP Tour — at match point, only the team on serve is allowed to score — helped Toppel and partner David McKienzie survive an extra round in the double-elimination bracket by erasing a 14-11 deficit in the third set.
“It’s one of those things when it switches to that side-out scoring, it really gives a team a chance to get in their groove and get in their rhythm again,” Toppel said.
“I actually like it,” he added. “I think for the most part it creates some end-game fun for the fans and for the players. A little bit more pressure and it really forces you to push through the end rather than kind of let up a little if you have a big lead.”
Upset-minded Ty Loomis and Maddison McKibbin, a No. 5 seed just like Carico and Klineman, nearly fell victim to the rule change before knocking off the No. 1 seed for the men’s title on the seventh championship point.
“San Francisco is my absolute favorite spot on the planet,” said Loomis, a semifinalist at the same event last year. “You can write that down, you can quote me. And Hawaii next to that, because I’m going to go there next.”
The only other AVP title for Loomis came in 2009, while this was a first for McKibbin, who had no words to describe how it felt.
“Honestly, you’re going to have to ask me that in question like in an hour,” McKibbin said. “I’m just kind of so overjoyed that it hasn’t really hit me, yet. After that last point went down, I didn’t think it actually happened. I’m just so incredibly stoked.”