Over the last couple of months, we’ve gotten to know two lady volleyballers and their paths to the beach. The first was me and my journey to Southern California by way of Indianapolis, Chicago, and Miami. Then we got to know Betsi Flint better and her story of winning an AVP in her first year on tour after playing as a kid in Phoenix.
Now, we’ll get to know some of the men. First up is Ryan Doherty, a former professional baseball player originally from New Jersey. I profiled Chase Budinger recently, covering his childhood playing basketball and volleyball and later competing professionally in both. Ryan Doherty is also a double pro athlete. But the high school Ryan that worked at a local beach court setting up lines would never have thought he was capable of playing with those big dogs one day. Nor would the mid-twenties Ryan golf caddy in Hilton Head Island have guessed that he’d one day win an AVP.
My journey to the sunny shores of Southern California started the same way as it has for so many others…on the little league fields of Toms River, NJ.
I fell in love with baseball as soon as I was allowed to play it (it helped that the little league fields were close enough to my house that I was allowed to ride my bike there on my own at a relatively young age). I focused on pitching to take after my idol, the Big Unit Randy Johnson. All throughout high school, I would occasionally play other sports (I don’t think they were going to let the seven-foot kid graduate if I didn’t play at least a couple years on the basketball team), but my passion was always for our nation’s favorite pastime.
Interestingly, beach volleyball was not among the other sports I dabbled in. My summer job during high school was actually where I first saw beach volleyball. I was responsible for setting up nets for the Jersey Shore Volleyball Association (JSVBA). I was around the sport and appreciated the community of great athletes that loved it. But I was too focused on baseball to play much myself.
Baseball took me from my small town in NJ to the Golden Dome of the University of Notre Dame, and eventually to the professional ranks when I signed a minor league contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks. My life was fantastic; being paid to play a game that I loved, spending all my time with my buddies at the ballpark, and pursuing the monumental goal of becoming a major leaguer. But, sometimes you get thrown a curveball that you just aren’t ready for, and the game ends sooner than you would have liked.
I got released from the Diamondback organization and couldn’t find another major league affiliate that was interested in signing me. I had the opportunity to play on some independent league teams (meaning a team without a direct affiliation with a major league club), but it just felt hollow being unable to pursue my goal of competing with and against the best in the world. I retired, and “ran away from home” to clear my head and figure out what I was going to do next with my life.
I drove down to Hilton Head Island, SC to live on my buddy Stevie’s couch. I got odd jobs at a t-shirt shop or caddying at an upscale golf course (I was the worst caddy ever; I couldn’t read a green to save my life so I just ended up saying to aim “About a cup outside left” every time I was asked and hoping for the best). But I was having trouble finding any passion in what I did. However, the local beach had a couple volleyball courts right outside the Tiki Hut Bar & Grille, and it seemed like all the fun people on the island would gather there and play. Stevie recommended we buy a cheap replica Wilson so that we could pepper after we both got home from work, and we would head down to the courts on weekends.
At the time, I was a former professional athlete, Stevie was a four-year starter in Division I baseball with over 25 career HRs, and we were routinely getting crushed on the sand by high school girls. We had no idea what we were doing and would celebrate if we were able to touch the ball three consecutive times on our side of the net. (The first time I actually SPIKED the ball… drinks on the house!) But I was having more fun than I could have imagined and started trying to play the game as much as possible.
At some point, I knew I would need to head back to Notre Dame to finish my senior year and graduate. I signed with the Diamondbacks after my junior season and wouldn’t have felt right leaving ND without a diploma after all that university had done for me. I spent my senior year taking seven classes a semester and playing on the indoor club volleyball team. Basically, I learned that indoor volleyball teams rotate around the court and that the indoor game isn’t much fun.
Upon graduating, I went back home to NJ and found a couple part-time gigs to help get some money together. I would be working as a bouncer at a bar or running the front desk of a local gym, but kept finding myself fantasizing about beach volleyball. I was driving 40 minutes each way to get a few practices and one tournament in every week. I realized the only way I would really “scratch this itch” is if I moved to Southern California where they play beach volleyball every day. So I made myself a deal; the second I had $5,000 in my savings account, I would start my drive west within the next two weeks. In my mind, working a couple hours a week at some low paying jobs would give me plenty of time to save up that amount of money, during which I could plan some things out. But after a successful trip to Atlantic City (always split Aces, kids), I had my nest egg earlier than I had anticipated. I ended up starting my trip without the time to work out all the details, like finding a place to live or getting a job lined up.
I landed in Huntington Beach, CA about four days later and $1,000 poorer. (Damn you, Las Vegas. I guess sometimes you shouldn’t split Aces.) I had contacted a few people on Craigslist with rooms for rent, so I was only forced to sleep one night in my Jeep before finding a place to stay. And about three weeks later, I was able to find work at a great pizza place in Seal Beach and also gave the occasional pitching lesson. My life consisted of going to the beach every morning and working every afternoon. It was perfect, aside from two things: I didn’t know any of the volleyball players in California, and I wasn’t any good.
The next few years were spent learning about the sport. I found some great people that included me in their practice groups. I learned what I was good at (being tall) and what I wasn’t good at (everything else). But I was having a blast and loved the challenge of trying to improve, so I just kept doing what I was doing. I gradually went from “not very good” to “he could be good” to “that tall guy can kinda play.” I was picked up in the 2011 offseason by Casey Patterson, who was one of the premier players in the US at that time (and still is). In my first professional event with him in May of 2012, we beat the defending Olympic Gold-Medalists Todd Rogers and Phil Dalhausser in the finals to win the tournament. The following year, I played with that very same Todd Rogers, and we competed both on the AVP and also internationally on the FIVB tour.
I’ve now been a professional beach volleyball player for nine years, have competed in 20+ countries on five continents, and have won and lost against all of the best players in the world. I’ve been able to live a charmed life due to this game, and I wouldn’t change my winding, challenging, frustrating path to get here for anything.