[Noozhawkâs note: This is the latest in a series of articles on the myriad of recreational activities along the Santa Barbara waterfront. Click here for the complete series index.]
From all-time greats to weekend warrior recreational players, East Beach’s volleyball courts are a living landmark for one of Santa Barbara’s iconic sports.
Of the more than two dozen courts open all year round, 14 are dedicated to beach volleyball legends and gold medalists who learned their trade there, including John Hanley, Henry Bergmann, Kathy Gregory, Kathy Hanley, Paul Hodgert and, of course, Karch Kiraly – the Santa Barbara High School alumna was widely regarded as the GOAT of volleyball (both indoor and on the beach). Last summer, Kiraly coached the US women’s Olympic team to gold in Tokyo, adding to the three Olympic gold medals he won as a player.
East Beach hosts tournaments, youth and adult classes, leagues, camps, and clinics, all for a wide range of experiences and abilities, and there’s plenty of availability for pickup games.
For many, East Beach volleyball is a source of lifelong friends, weddings, and mentors.
âThe culture of East Beach is what makes it attractive,â said Dillan Bennett, girls and boys volleyball coach at Bishop Diego High School. âNo matter what court you go to, you’re bound to come across a sub-community that you can connect with – you just have to be prepared to stick with it and not give up trying to find the right mix of people. “
Gus Detar and Patti Cook, an active mixed doubles team in tournaments, perform drills on a late summer morning in East Beach. (Photo by Dennis Moran / Noozhawk)
Bennett, also director of operations and administrative assistant to Bishop Diego’s principal and sports director, remembers sitting on the East Beach ice factories when he was 13 and watching the play and having the courage to ask the older ones if they could join.
âFor about 10 years, I played East Beach every day, meeting countless people, competing in tournaments and ultimately coaching,â he said. “What I will remember the most was the opportunity I had to climb the ranks and earn a street cred on the beach.”
Many names of friends and mentors – people who taught him the game, how to assess strengths and weaknesses, run tournaments, and more – come easily to Bennett.
“‘Friends for life’ does not do this group justice,” he said.
Longtime friends and volleyball legends Karch Kiraly and John Hanley hug each other after Hanley had a volleyball court at East Beach named in his honor on February 9, 2020. Hanley has been a two-time All-American at the University of Hawaii and excelled as a professional beach volleyball player. Kiraly is a three-time Olympic gold medalist. The couple were teammates at Santa Barbara High School in the 1970s (Photo by Nan Schooley)
With an âinnate attraction to teachingâ since childhood, it became natural to push forward and become a coach and teacher.
âCoaching is a way I’ve found to stay involved in a sport that’s beyond my playing ability, and I can teach the next generation something that I’m passionate about,â he said. âAlthough I no longer play 12 hours a day, the two hours I spend in the gym with my team each day is a special moment for me. “
He is also passionate about the history of East Beach and his role in the game. Names like Kiraly, Gregory, Todd Rogers, Dax Holdren, Phil Dalhausser, John Hanley and many more come easily.
“The history of our beach is rich and continues to develop in a spiderweb pattern over time, making East Beach one of the best places to play this sport in the world,” Bennett said.
Court dedications are made possible by the Friends of East Beach Association and the City of Santa Barbara Department of Parks and Recreation.
On a random and uncrowded late summer morning, players have included a long-standing group where anyone can play.
âWe’re doing it for fun,â said Charlie Voss of Santa Barbara. âMost of us have been playing for decades. It’s good for the aging ensemble.
Dillan Bennett, right, peaks in Legends Plus One at the Henry Bergmann Court Dedication on July 10, 2010, in East Beach. Bennett’s teammate on the left is John Hanley. They were playing against Randy Stoklos and Sinjin Smith. (photo by Ken Delgado)
He joined this particular group a few years ago, he said.
âDifferent groups come together for years and they split up and come together,â he said. âI think at one time these guys were called the Old Nooners. It was the regular Nooners years and years ago, when everyone was younger.
Nearby, the mixed doubles team of Patti Cook, 39, and Gus Detar, 40, were doing exercises on their own for a workout. Cook, a former AVP professional, played at Westmont College and then coached there for 11 years, compiling a record of 190-65.
Getting together for exercises several times a week is good in and of itself for training and maintaining her skills, and it was good in recovering from a knee injury in early June that kept her from competing in the summer. , she said.
âIt allowed me to get my legs used to the sand and rehabilitate my knee to allow me to play again – I think it’s earlier than last week,â she said. âWe could go to the gym, or we could come here and exercise outside. And it’s a really good workout. We maintain our skill to play because we love to play and it’s more fun when you win. So you might as well work on it and try to win.
Swimmers race to the ocean at one of the weekly Summer Reef & Run competitions in East Beach. (Photo by Dennis Moran / Noozhawk)
City Parks & Recreation’s offerings include adult beginner and intermediate courses in the spring and summer, extended leagues in the mixed and men’s and women’s AA, A and B divisions, and summer camps for children.
A list of tournaments is available here. There are California Beach Volleyball Association weekend tournaments, AVP First, Shorebreakers and more. Popular local tournaments include the Beach King and Queen, the Polar Bear (the day before Super Bowl Sunday), and the Lime and Coconut in August.
Santa Barbara AVP player Katie Spieler, who learned her craft there, co-founded East Beach Volleyball Academy in 2016.
Beach volleyball isn’t the only sporting activity featured at East Beach, although over two dozen courts are a prominent feature. In summer, in particular, sporting celebrations include the Semana Nautica summer sports festival in July and the weekly Reef & Run summer series.
And the summer days are full of hundreds of young people involved in the Junior Lifeguard program.