Last weekend, Geena Urango and Julia Scoles hoisted their first (of likely many) AVP Championship Trophy. Last AVP season, they collectively won only two Main Draw matches. So how did these two athletes go from Qualifier to Champions in just five tournaments together?
Geena has been a staple on the AVP Tour for almost a decade. She was 2016’s Most Improved Player, has been in seven AVP Finals, and boasts a jump serve feared by all. Her last two seasons have been lackluster, however. Geena didn’t make the exclusive 18-team cut in the 2020 Champions Cup, and she only won two Main Draw matches in 2021.
On the other hand, Julia Scoles is a bonafide AVP rookie. She’d only played in four AVPs until this year, but she’s no stranger to beach volleyball. Julia had a successful career at Hawaii before finishing up her eligibility at the beach volleyball powerhouse USC. She’s now a two-time National Champion and clearly ready to make a tidal wave on our beach.
Geena took notice of Julia early, even before Julia’s impressive final season at USC. In Winter 2022, after a few group training sessions, Geena began courting Julia, for lack of a better word. “I’ve played with a handful of people in my career,” Geena says, “and immediately I felt chemistry with her. I wanted to assert myself; it’s like the dating world. I wanted to keep my foot in the door because I wanted to do everything I could to make this happen.”
Then Geena came to the USC Alumni event and pulled some strings to assure Julia as her partner. Together they beat AVP Champions and USC royalty Sara Hughes and Tina Graudina. “Immediately after, Julia was like, ‘I’m in! Let’s do this!'”
“I was in beforehand!” Julia rebuffs, laughing. “But I hadn’t communicated with you about it.”
“I could tell you felt it, too,” Geena says, “as far as the chemistry. Chemistry like this doesn’t come that quickly or easily.”
Beach volleyball and dating really are two sides of the same coin.
Geena and Julia’s first two events were Tour Series stops in Muskegon, Michigan, and Denver, Colorado. In Muskegon, they made the Finals and earned their spot in Hermosa. A third in Denver got them into Ft. Lauderdale. Since then, they’ve played those two Pro events and one Gold Series tournament.
Their Pro/Gold finishes improved every weekend, starting with third and ending with first. Their Atlanta Gold Series win earned them almost $11,000 more each than their 2nd-place finish the weekend before. Pretty good time to hit your stride.
Many teams experience honeymoon success; Julia and Geena could have easily stayed middle of the pack, maybe hovered on the cusp of the Main Draw for the rest of the year. That story is more common, more likely than the one they wrote for themselves.
But success has never been the ultimate goal for these two ultra steady and heady players. They take things one match at a time. Their one goal in Muskegon, their first tournament together, was to qualify for Hermosa.
Once they got to the Semifinals and secured their spot in Hermosa, “the rest was just gravy,” Julia says. “It was cool to work through the uncertainty. It opened my eyes to the possibility that we could actually do well this year. I just thought I would get my feet wet on the AVP Tour and focus on my grad program. I had no idea how I’d line up against some of the top teams. It’s been so encouraging to know we’re right there. We can hang with them. We can win!”
Geena, too, with her years of understanding the ups and downs of beach volleyball, resolved this year to not look beyond the here and now. “I’ve worked on not thinking too much of the outcome or too far ahead. We’ve gone into each tournament and took it one set, one match at a time. Success has been had, but we’ve also had a really good mental steadiness to us.”
“Yeah,” Julia agrees, “When we win, it’s not like, ‘Oh, we’re good now.’ It’s like, ‘Okay, we beat them that day, but any team can win on any given day.’ And a loss is, ‘Okay, how can we learn from that?’ It’s never a state of complacency. We can acknowledge that we’ve had success, but that doesn’t define us. What defines us is how we operate at each moment, point to point, game to game.”
They employed that mental steadiness in Atlanta. Early Sunday morning, Geena and Julia fought through one 28-point set each against AVP Champs Kloth/Nuss and Cheng/Flint to reach the Semis. After those unconventional wins, they faced Hughes/Kolinske, the team who’d put them into the Contenders’ Bracket.
Julia admits her first match against Hughes/Kolinske in Atlanta was one of her worst matches. Uncharacteristically, she was ready for it to be over almost from the beginning. Facing them again could have worked a number on her, but Julia chose optimism. “Nothing can be as bad as how I played yesterday.”
Their goal was to rework the game plan and strengthen their mentality. “‘What did I do yesterday that wasn’t effective?'” Julia asked. “So instead of falling back on my strength and trying to power through every ball, I was trying to be more tactful in my approach and decision-making. It was one of my favorite games because of the stark contrast, struggling so bad on Saturday and learning from that the next day.”
If that’s how the rookie thinks now – with wherewithal, intelligence, and self-coachability – there are no heights Julia Scoles can’t reach.
Julia and Geena are level-headed women. Sure, they celebrate and get jazzed, but they don’t overly react to anything. It’s what makes them so good at going on runs, an attribute of their team I’ve noticed over the last three events.
This first happened in Muskegon – win the first set handily, get down big at the beginning of the second set. “We just focused on siding out,” Geena says. “We were down 1-6, and we ended up coming back and winning that set. It was that first moment of us as a team coming back that way; it gave us the confidence to know we could do that. It’s possible to go on these runs. The set’s not over til it’s over. We live by ‘side out and earn one.’ It takes the pressure off of needing to get four in a row. Side out and get one right away, then it’ll be a different story.”
“Staying steady makes the outcome take care of itself,” Julia adds. “When we’re down, we realize we have to change. Maybe take more aggressive rips from the service line. Just know you need to play with a sense of urgency. If they can go on a run, so can we. Let’s get after it.”
They got after it all the way to the Finals for the second weekend in a row. It was Julia’s second, Geena’s seventh.
“Each Final has been so different,” Geena says. “This one, I went in with this calm confidence. It wasn’t that I knew we were going to win. I just knew we were going to play a great game. We’d been playing great ball. It wasn’t about the outcome. I had a head-held-high assuredness in myself. I was confident in my abilities, as well as Julia’s.”
Confidence in herself hasn’t been easy, as the last three seasons have been the least successful in her career. “The past few years have been mentally challenging,” Geena says. “Physically, I’ve been fine, but I wanted to get back to the Main Draw. So I thought – what little things can I do to make a difference?
“I started working with a new trainer,” Geena says. “I started working with a mental coach. And then solidifying Julia – finding a good, stable partner who believes in you and trusts you, too. Those three things have been a huge difference for me this season.”
Success breeds confidence, but neither is letting it get to their head. “I don’t think doing really well or really poorly would change my perspective or approach that much,” Julia says. “I’m thankful for our finishes, but that doesn’t guarantee us to do well the rest of the season. Every tournament, I’m going to give it my best go. The outcome is uncontrollable. I’m not expecting to win another tournament. But will I try to win another tournament? Yes!”