UCLA seniors Jackson Bantle and Hagen Smith are practically adjoined at the hip.
The two have been best friends since they were 5 years old, and have played indoor volleyball together for 15 years.
But this week, they are embracing an opportunity they’ve seldom had in their cherished history — playing volleyball on sand under the national spotlight.
Bantle and Smith are competing as the No. 2-seeded duo at the USA Volleyball Collegiate Beach Championships, which take place from Thursday through Saturday in Hermosa Beach, California. The event is part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Comcast, with the men’s final scheduled to be aired Saturday evening on NBC Sports Network following the women’s final, which will be broadcast live from 6-7:30 p.m. EST.
Because men’s beach volleyball isn’t an NCAA sanctioned sport, the athlete development pathway in the United States has been less defined for Bantle and Smith than their female counterparts. The Bruins teammates, who paired up on the sand for the first time about two years ago, only recently began easing themselves into the beach game on the national and international stages after having to rely on smaller club programs growing up.
That’s why this week’s collegiate event is a big step for the sport, with the competition serving as trials for the USA Volleyball collegiate beach national team.
“We have to start selling the sport for what it is,” Smith said of beach volleyball for younger generations. “It’s a fun and sexy sport.
“Getting more people interested in our sport between the quads is about having people understand that beach volleyball is super intense from the first point. Let’s compare it to the NBA, where you can have a full game with two halves that just comes down to being decided in the last two minutes. In beach volleyball, it’s exciting the whole time, as one point or one play can affect how the whole game goes.”
While Bantle spent much of his younger years on the baseball diamond as a left-handed pitcher prior to joining Smith on Team USA at the 2014 U21 world championships, Smith grew up as the son of Sinjin Smith, who led UCLA to two national titles before representing Team USA in beach volleyball at the Olympic Games Atlanta 1996.
“It’s pretty good coaching I had growing up,” chuckled the younger Smith, whose mother, three uncles and three cousins are all UCLA graduates as well.
Firing off the parallels between Bantle and Smith today would take hours. Both measure up at 6-foot-1. Both hail from Pacific Palisades, California. Both are graduating college with bachelor’s degrees in geography and environmental studies.
But, their external temperaments are opposite.
“We have very different personalities, and that helps us balance each other out,” Bantle said. “I’m more of a passive person, and Hagen’s more excitable. At certain times we need (explosive energy) on the court, and that’s where Hagen comes in, and other times we just need to be Steady Eddie playing more of a mental and strategic game, and that falls on me.”
Together, the two are eager to enhance their relationships with beach volleyball’s fan base in the United States, especially with Los Angeles providing the perfect setting for the sport in its 2024 Games bid at Santa Monica.
Although the sport — both indoor and beach — has roots in the United States, it’s trying to catch up in terms of awareness to places like Poland, Brazil and Iran, where the sport consistently draws in fans in thousands at all age levels. That prospect excites the young players.
“I look forward to getting the U.S. junior programs for beach volleyball up to par with the rest of the world,” Smith said. “It’s tough with our system with high school and club teams. Beach volleyball for men in particular struggles in the beginning for players who are pre-college and in college. The first thing a lot of the better players think to do after is to go overseas to play indoor volleyball, and they don’t think about beach careers.”
With the USA Volleyball Collegiate Beach Championships being the first stop of the Team USA Summer Champions Series this week, Bantle and Smith will certainly be part of a massive step in that direction for their sport.
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.