Laid back style suits Metzger in beach return

Former UCLA Bruin and AVP star Stein Metzger’s performance was one of several stories at the Manhattan Beach Open.

A three-time NCAA champion at UCLA, a 2004 Olympian in beach volleyball and a dominant figure on the AVP tour the last decade, Metzger opened the Manhattan Beach Open last weekend with a “16” next to his name and the name of his teammate, Mark Williams.

They weren’t seeded anywhere near the favorites in the 32-team tournament, nor should they have been.

Family life and gravitation away from the FIVB and the re-organizing AVP characterized Metzger’s three previous years in beach volleyball, in which he appeared in only one tournament — the Men’s $10,000 AVP Championships in Huntington Beach last October. Twenty-nine months had elapsed between then and his previous AVP experience.

His workload has increased incrementally in 2012 as part of the Jose Cuervo Professional Beach Volleyball Series, and despite his relatively light schedule, he and Williams have proven that they are still capable of venturing deep into tournaments. Their seventh-place finish last weekend was the highest finish by any team with a two-digit seeding.

He and Williams also finished in third place in Chicago and a fifth-place finish in Hermosa Beach.

“Mark and I have been able to kind of play ourselves into shape. We had a couple tournaments already,” Metzger said. “We’ve played enough volleyball, and we’ve played together before, so it’s kind of like riding a bike.”

Even though he’ll turn 40 in November and serves as a volunteer assistant coach with the UCLA Women’s Volleyball team, there are still sights to be set on the sand, goals to be reached — and a family he can still support by virtue of his still-present beach volleyball acumen.

“Maybe make some diaper money,” Metzger joked when asked about his goals for the Manhattan Beach Open. “I’ve got a kid and one on the way. Time to pad the bank account a little bit.”

He was also able to add a small trophy to his mental mantelpiece on Saturday, as he and Williams defeated 2012 Olympic fifth-place finishers Jake Gibb and Sean Rosenthal in a second-round matchup, 21-19, 21-19. Metzger had a game-high 15 kills and articulated what allowed them to defeat the top-ranked team in the double-elimination tournament.

“I think just not having very high expectations,” he said. “We just went out there really loose and really aggressively, and figured if we could keep it close, we might have a chance. I know there’s a lot of pressure with those guys coming back, and all the eyes on them. It’s not an easy situation to be in. I felt that we had the psychological edge, and we just kind of went for it.

“I don’t imagine we could do it on a consistent basis, but it’s nice to kind of nab one there.”

They didn’t win the tournament, but a seventh-place finish in an event that had the best competition to date on the 2012 Cuervo Series is reason for optimism, though, of course, the need to win isn’t as great as it was six years ago.

“It’s really enjoyable, because I don’t have as much focus on making it my career anymore, so I can just go out there and have fun and relax, and it’s really enjoyable, to be honest,” Metzger said. “We don’t practice that much — like once every two weeks.”

The infrequent training schedule provided enough backing to knock off a pair of Olympians, though Gibb and Rosenthal eventually rallied in the double-elimination tournament before falling to fifth-seeded Billy Allen and Matt Prosser in the quarterfinals. They finished in fifth place.

Though challenged by the crowded field, third-seeded Sean Scott and John Hyden were still able to defend their title and for the second straight year will have their plaques engraved on the Manhattan Beach Pier. It was the fourth win in six Cuervo tournaments for the duo in 2012, clearly the series’ top male team this season. They defeated eighth-seeded Ryan Doherty and Casey Patterson with relative ease, 21-13, 21-17.

“You want to win the Manhattan Beach Open, just because so many great players have won it. You want to get your name here on the Manhattan Beach Pier with all the other players. It’s something special,” Scott said.

Former UCI Anteater Whitney Pavlik and Jenny Kropp, a fast-rising team whose experience in the Cuervo Series is building the bridge towards a budding international career, continued their dominating 2012 run by winning their fifth Cuervo event of the season.

As with all Jose Cuervo Series tour stops, a party atmosphere prevailed, the line between spectators and participants was often breached, and several knowledgeable hecklers had beachfront access to players they’d grown up following at tournaments up and down the South Bay.

“It’s kind of ironic, because I used to play with Rosenthal back in 2002, our first year on the beach, and Stein used to play with Gibb,” Williams said. “So those guys heckling me, I kind of know them pretty well, because they used to be heckling for me, about eight years ago. But I give them a joke. There’s probably a high school diploma if you add up all their credits. And please print that, so I know that, so I can get texts from them.”

Though Metzger is an 18-time open winner — a list that includes 16 domestic tournaments — and was among the most dominating in his sport during the height of his reign on the AVP and in the lead-up to the 2004 Athens Games, winning a tournament match against Gibb, his former teammate, and Rosenthal, two players fresh off the Olympic Games, is a terrific late-career accomplishment for someone three months shy of his 40th birthday.

“We work during the week, and we get to come out here and play against the guys we just watched on TV and were cheering for,” he said. “It’s pretty exciting for us.

“If we can go make a little money, that’d be nice. But that was certainly a special game for us.”