Pavlik making waves in new Cuervo Series

BY foxsports • July 20, 2012

It really only takes a few steps off the asphalt onto the sand and beyond the passing cars on Pier Avenue to appreciate the backdrop of one of the most popular stops on the upstart Jose Cuervo Pro Beach Volleyball Series.

With the Pacific Ocean just over a hundred yards in the distance and a mid-July sun shining over a genial, summer break-type crowd that began to fill the auxiliary courts and will populate the temporary stadium later this weekend, the free-of-charge Hermosa Beach Open appears part-festival, part-commercial overlay, but most importantly, a fully dedicated showcase of many of the biggest athletes in professional beach volleyball.

And that's why this series will succeed in 2012: because it offers an opportunity to witness the top athletes in a sport compete in an intimate setting amidst the backdrop of the Summer Olympics, where the United States will look to continue a firm but not impenetrable authority on the sand. Americans swept gold in both the men's and women's beach volleyball tournament in Beijing four years ago and have won gold on either the men's or women's side at each Olympics since the sport debuted in Atlanta in 1996.

"Beach volleyball does very well at the Olympics, as we all know," said James Leitz, the senior vice president of IMG Action Sports and executive producer of the Jose Cuervo Pro Beach Volleyball Series. "It raises awareness, and the key for us is to capitalize on this awareness. Every quadrennial, there's the big tail off after the Olympics. I remember back in '96 when we helped get volleyball into the Olympics, everyone was thinking 'OK, '97's going to be great,' and all the tours collapsed in '97 and then had to get picked up and rebuilt again. Last year we made a footprint. We let people know that we were here, and we worked really hard. This year we expanded the tour, and now they go, 'OK, these guys are for real. This thing's legit.'"

The Cuervo Series was borne out of the financial shortcomings and eventual dissolution of the Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) in 2010, though the AVP has returned with a shortened schedule and a firmer corporate foothold.

In its absence, the sports space it voided has largely been absorbed by the Cuervo Series and the up-and-coming professionals that have filled out its tournament brackets.

Former UC Irvine star and 2008 AVP Women's Rookie of the Year Whitney Pavlik and partner Jenny Kropp are exactly the type of young stars the Series is looking to promote.

The duo have opened the year with wins in the first three Cuervo Series stops, held in Fort Lauderdale, Fla, Belmar, N.J. and Chicago. The 28-year old Pavlik, a Laguna Beach native, and the 33-year old Kropp, a 2000 NCAA champion at the University of Nebraska, credit the heightened practice and conditioning regimen and getting "back down to the basics" as reasons for their increasing success over their last two years after inconsistently defining themselves during the tail end of the AVP.

The six-foot-tall Pavlik attributes her indoor versatility during her amateur career as the backbone of her successful transition to beach volleyball. Having appeared as an outside hitter, on the right side, a middle blocker and even as a libero while rehabbing an injury her junior year, she was able to gain confidence in all aspects of her game while building a bridge towards a successful transition outdoors. Her versatility spilled outside the court this past year as an assistant coach on the Laguna Beach High girl's team.

"I think playing all the positions where I had to pass, set, hit got me ready to play the beach game," said Pavlik, whose sisters played Division I NCAA volleyball and whose younger brother is on the crew team at Gonzaga University.

For Pavlik and Kropp, attention may now gradually begin to shift towards international experience and the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, a reasonable destination should their career ascendance continue with the same trajectory displayed over the past 18 months.

"I definitely have to keep working hard every day at practice and really getting in better shape, just kind of working as hard as I can with my coaches and improving each tournament, each season," Pavlik said.  "The end goal is definitely in four years, 2016, but focusing on when we go international, learning from it, and coming out strong."

Being able to witness the development experienced by one of the game's rising stars has Leitz hopeful that the Cuervo series can withstand the reduction in coverage and visibility associated with post-Olympic years. Why not come out, for free, in a party-like setting, to watch some of the best athletes in their sport build for a potential Olympic career?

"You talk about Whitney Pavlik, and you talk about what the goals of the Cuervo series are," Leitz said. "We're trying to build a strong domestic tour. We're trying to bring all the top players back to the beach here in the United States. We're trying to cultivate talent, work with USAV, and find out who is that next gold medalist, that silver medalist in 2016 in Brazil."

There are those participating in this weekend's Open who previously appeared in Olympic Games: John Hyden, a veteran of the men's indoor team in 1996 and 2000, and partner Sean Scott, are top seeds in the men's tournament after winning an earlier Cuervo tour stop in Fort Lauderdale. Stein Metzger, a 2004 Olympian and three-time NCAA champion at UCLA, is partners with Mark Williams, an Australian Olympian who participated in the 2000 indoor tournament and the 2004 beach tournament. The two are seeded 17th.

Showcasing a wide array of talent in accessible tour stops among familiar markets has helped the Jose Cuervo series expand, according to Leitz. Jose Cuervo tequila was beach volleyball's first major sponsor in 1979.

"I think for us, it was being focused," Leitz said of the efforts to assume the role as beach volleyball's top exhibition. "Go to fan favorite markets – Manhattan Beach. Hermosa Beach. Huntington Beach. A good spot in Florida. Belmar. Chicago. All the major tentpole locations of pro beach volleyball. That was important, number one. Another thing that was important was to bring the fans back. We're not charging admission. We don't want to give anyone a barrier of entry to come back. Bring these fans back. Introduce these new stars. To build any sport, you've got to have star power, and so on and so forth, and there are incredible athletes on the beach here."

The purse for the Hermosa Beach Open is $100,000, as is the purse for the Manhattan Beach Open August 24-26. The season will culminate with the Jose Cuervo National Championships September 21-23 in Huntington Beach, where a $150,000 purse will be awarded.

Though Leitz acknowledged the need to focus on its core markets, the tour also found success in the Midwest, away from the more traditional strands of beaches in Southern California and Florida.

"To cultivate this as a national property is really important," said Leitz, who praised the reception received from non-traditional beach volleyball markets in Chicago, which held a Cuervo series stop last week, and Milwaukee, a stop on the circuit for the second straight year. There are seven events in all in 2012.

A venture backed by the sturdy corporate strength of IMG, it does seem that there are plenty of pieces in place for the Cuervo Series to permanently maneuver into the league's most recognizable brand of top flight beach volleyball.

"Now it's time to carry that momentum off the Olympics, deliver a great close-out of this year's season, announce the schedule early for next year, and get everyone excited," Leitz said.

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