Next up for our Reach the Beach series is Jeff Samuels. Jeff was one of the first volley dudes I met in Cali. He’s so fun, always down for an adventure. He once drove with me and two other girls up to the San Francisco Open in 2017. We left on the morning of the Fourth of July and drove six hours through central California. We then ended our evening watching fireworks under the Bay Bridge after getting lost on the Embarcadero for hours. I’ll never forget his “warmup” pose as he waited for his partner to show up to practice.
As many athletes born outside of California or Florida, Jeff’s path to the beach was unorthodox. A lot of his story I’d not heard before, and once again I’m grateful for this job offering me the chance to learn more about my friends.
Growing up in Grand Blanc, MI, it’s safe to say I wasn’t exposed to much beach volleyball. Grand Blanc borders the south edge of Flint, but the two small cities could not be more opposite. You may know Flint from its ongoing water crisis, which began more than five years ago and is still yet to be resolved. Before that, Flint was known for its poverty, crime rate, and formerly booming car industry, hence the nickname “Buick City.”
From a young age, athletics were a huge part of my life. Whether it was football, hockey, baseball, or lacrosse, I was always competing. I played varsity hockey and lacrosse in high school, and I was selected for the East vs. West All-State lacrosse game. After high school, I accepted a scholarship to play lacrosse at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, MI. As a starting midfielder, I helped our team to a successful season in which we just fell short at the MCLA National Championships, finishing 3rd in the country.
In 2006 I humbly tasted victory, winning Gold at the World Games of Lacrosse, beating Japan in the final of the London Ontario Open Level Finals. While playing lacrosse in college, I also had the honor of playing professional inline hockey (hockey played on inline skates). With that team, we won back-to-back TORHS Gold Level National Championships for MPH Summit in Taylor, MI (2007), and Summit Fury in Buffalo, NY (2008). I also earned Most Valuable Goaltender honors each year.
I was torn between my love for hockey, lacrosse, and my college studies. At this time, volleyball played a small role in my life. I played indoor at the rec center and a bit of beach with my sister but didn’t think much of the sport as part of my future. Amid all of my sporting obligations, I also worked at Hollister. At work, our store played a live feed of a famous beach in California. As I folded clothes, I found myself constantly wishing I could go there. I knew nothing about the place apart from the surfers and beach lovers I watched on the live feed. After all, I’d never been to the West Coast.
While finishing school and weighing all my options for the future, I kept playing beach volleyball for fun. I always knew I could jump well but still had no interest in taking volleyball seriously. It wasn’t until a fellow hockey buddy and I decided we were tired of looking bad in front of girls in swimsuits that we got more serious. We were done losing to old drunk dudes with little ball control in our sand league. We vowed to be better next summer.
To aid in our efforts, a knowledgeable volleyball friend gifted me with a DVD labeled “Huntington Beach AVP Finals.” At that time, for all I knew AVP stood for Alien vs. Predator, maybe? I’d never heard anything about this Association of Volleyball Professionals. As soon as I turned the DVD on, I found a familiar scene. The volleyball match was filmed from the same spot as the beach camera I was obsessed with at Hollister. Something clicked. The electric atmosphere, the excitement from the fans, and, in particular, Phil Dalhausser, brought me to one conclusion: I was picking volleyball over all the other sports in my life.
The following year I was recommended to Sante Perrelli by a volleyball friend. Sante was a legendary club volleyball coach at Michigan State University. In my mind, I was already playing pretty good ball with the formula I had and didn’t need a club team to get better. But I went to visit anyway. Sante explained to me that what I would learn at MSU would not only change the way I approach sports but also my perspective on life. After meeting the team, I received a brief tour of the trophy case featuring photos of teams from the golden years. Sante showed me each successful young man he’d coached. Many would go on to become doctors, lawyers, and business owners. I made the tough decision to forgo my scholarship and Davenport University to play a club sport I’d only played for a couple of short Michigan summers. Until that point, I had never played competitively. My years at MSU made me a better man and volleyball player. Volleyball led me to the life I lead.
When I told my friends, family, and former teammates that I wanted to make it on the AVP Tour, they were skeptical (to say the least). But I was all in. I watched that old Huntington AVP DVD until I’d memorized the match. I tricked friends into coming over to watch it with me. After a couple years of working on my new craft indoors and traveling to the beautiful beaches on the west side of Michigan on the weekends to play beach volleyball, I caught a break. I was invited to the CBS ALT games in San Diego, CA.
The ALT games consisted of several sports like surfing, skateboarding, wakeboarding, and beach volleyball for college athletes. I participated in a highly competitive King of the Beach-style event. I finished poorly but wasn’t discouraged, considering all the players were from volleyball powerhouses like USC, Lewis, Pepperdine, and Penn State. I was this skinny, still crazy raw kid with MSU on his chest. Nonetheless, I was in heaven. I loved the brutal competition and taste of the best. And I really loved bunking at the Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Chula Vista.
The athletes also had the chance to stay at the OTC a few extra weeks for additional coaching. The beach volleyball players got to be trained by now Senior Director of the AVP Jeff Conover and AVP legend/top coach Jose Loiola. We were also evaluated by Ali Wood Lamberson, which went like the ALT Games did: crappy. My time there ended in me dropping an entire tray of food and falling to the floor, my muscles painfully locked in a full-body cramp. And of course, it was in front of a few top athletes – pretty embarrassing stuff.
Surprisingly, I wasn’t discouraged by these failures. I had gotten the taste I needed; I had what I now like to call the itch. I see it in young players trying to qualify for the AVP Tour around the country. I see it in aspiring players on Instagram. It’s easy to spot – the player that just can’t get enough, everything he or she does is for the love of the game.
I went on to play in the National Volleyball League (NVL) in 2012. By 2015, I had become a standout player, making a 2015 Madeira Beach Finals appearance with former partner Skylar Del Sol. I also took home Most Improved Player and Best Blocker awards that year. In 2016, I made the transition to AVP with the big dogs, as our late Road Dog Eric Zaun would say. My partner Dylan Maarek and I made it to the Main Draw after an epic comeback from being down 14-10 in the decisive 3rd set. It was my first-ever time qualifying for the AVP. It was also the first tournament of implementation for “The Freeze” rule. Needless to say, I’m a huge fan of the rule 😏
Fast forward to 2020, I now have four top-10 AVP finishes. I never imagined I’d accomplish that. However sweet those finishes are, they mean nothing compared to the experiences I’ve had and those yet to come while chasing AVP glory. I can’t wait to see the looks on my kids’ faces with the volleyball stories I’ll tell them someday. I’ve hit many speed bumps and snags on barbed wire along the way, but I still wouldn’t choose another path.
Despite crashing on couches and floors and moving all over the country – including Chicago, Denver, Ft. Lauderdale, and Southern California (twice) – I’d do it all over again. Some could see these as failures. I never looked at it that way. To be a successful up-and-coming AVP athlete, you really can’t look at it that way. You’d never get better because you’d be focused on something else. To be a Road Dog, a true beach volleyball lover attempting the pro-life, you have to reframe your outlook. It’s about the journey, not the wins and losses.
I’ve learned a tremendous amount about life from a wide variety of people in our small volleyball community. I couldn’t even begin to list or thank them all for their contributions. So here is my attempt: thank you, all. I look forward to continuing to do my part, leaving a trail for the next raw skinny rascal from the MidWest with dreams of playing in the most electric atmosphere on earth – the AVP.