Standing in the backyard of Jacksonville Beach Volleyball club coach, Kent Ammons, I observe two veterans of the game exchanging banter about the proper way to play this century old game. Ammons and his friend Gage, who played beach volleyball in college, are discussing the importance of positioning as they criticize players with a penchant for dramatic sand-scattering dives. “Positioning is what it’s all about,” Ammons said.
Ammons has a full beach volleyball court installed in his yard (six truckloads of sand), where Clay Messenger, 17-year-old beach volleyball phenom, is swatting serves and returning equally hard shots on the scorching Friday morning. Messenger, entering his junior year at Nease High School, is exceptional for his age Ammons said.
“He has a really consistent game, being the age he is, that’s what typically differentiates the good player from the great players,” Ammons said. “People don’t learn until much older. I’m 32, he’s half my age, and it seems like he’s already done that.”
Messenger said he knew he wanted to play beach volleyball early-on.
“My brother played in middle school and I went to go watch his games. I loved watching him play and always knew that when I got to middle school I’d want to play.”
But this is where Messenger and his brother differentiated, as Clay wanted to take it to the next level. He started playing club indoor volleyball at Jacksonville Juniors Volleyball Association to up his game. Although Clay said indoor volleyball helps his beach game, he prefers the beach volleyball because it’s less rigid.
“Beach is a lot more fun that indoor. You can pick your partner, you don’t have to worry about five other people making a mistake,” Messenger said. “There’s a lot more freedom.”
To improve, Messenger started playing with better players and against better competition. It’s easy for the St. Augustine native to pinpoint when he started getting good.
“Eighth grade to ninth grade when I played club volleyball is about when I found out.”
To find the highlight of his blossoming career you have begin 6,250 miles away. In late July, some of the world’s most-promising volleyball prospects converged on Larnaka, a city on the south coast of Cyprus (a tiny, sun-drenched Mediterranean island with beaches that attract thousands of tourists) to play in the FIVB Age-Group World Cup.
“I didn’t really hit me until I got on the court and you hear people from all the countries around you, the country that’s playing you and the people cheering ‘U.S.A.,’” Messenger said, adding representing the U.S. in international play, “is a great feeling.”
It’s even more impressive considering Clay’s regular partner, Adam Wienckowski, sprained his thumb three days before the tournament in Cyprus. This forced Clay to receive an alternate to play with rather than the partner he’d grown accustomed to. Despite this, Messenger and his partner won two qualifying matches to make the main draw, before going 1-2 and finishing tied for 17th in the world.
Ammons told me it was a shame that the partners that won the spot didn’t get to play together, but Messenger’s performance, often against older and taller players, only further showcased his ability.
“So, he’s playing against the best teams in the world with a partner he’s never played with, and to win the qualifiers, win a game, and finish 17th in the world, it showed a lot because he’s the one who earned the spot,” Ammons said.
“There’s definitely a little pressure when you first get out because you’re representing your country, you want to do the best that you can when you have U.S.A. on your chest. But I just had a lot of supporters and people help me throughout the way,” Messenger said.
On two separate occasions, he’s played on the AVP Pro Beach Tour and National Volleyball League competing against players that ranged in age from 19 to 25.
Looking forward, Messenger’s biggest obstacle is something he cannot control — his height. Messenger stands a respectable 5’9”, but beach volleyball players that play defense range around 6’2” according to a study by the journal of human sport and exercise.
“The only thing really is my height, but I’ve learned to overcome it. A lot of people say ‘oh you won’t make it, you’ll never be the best because your height.’ But I’ve learned to work with it and adjust to it,” Messenger said.
Messenger has to adjust to this disadvantage, something that his coach Ammons said is one of his greatest strengths.
“Aside from having a really good base for volleyball in general, he does all the skills well and he’s very good at adapting and playing smart,” Ammons said.
Beach volleyball is one of the few sports that involve players in tandems. The two-person teams are split between defenders and blockers. It’s like a chess match on sand. Like any sport, beach volleyball is unpredictable and spontaneous, but there’s far more happening behind every set.
“There are signals a blocker will hold behind their back to let their partner know what’s going on in the next play. There’s blocking line, blocking angle, jumping in the line and jumping in the angle. So, the defender knows what the blocker is doing so they can adjust,” Messenger said.
Partners need to know one another’s strengths and weaknesses completely. It makes sense for Messenger, since defense is his main skillset, so he teamed up a strong offensive player like Wienckowski.
“Adam’s complementary to me because we’re both athletic and we get each other,” Messenger said.
His goals are lofty, though based what he’s already accomplished at 17, they might not be. Messenger wants to play Division I beach volleyball at“maybe a school in California.” He hopes to play on the world tour, then one day go to the Olympics. Messenger has high hopes for the sport and its growth.
“A lot of people are getting into beach, a lot of indoor players are getting into beach. People are starting to watch beach in the Olympics, and say, ‘wow I really want to play that.’”
He’s laid back, humble and not distracted success.
“School comes first, then volleyball” he said, adding it helps when you have a vibrant beach volleyball scene to support you.
“There are a lot of great players in Jacksonville and it’s made me so much better,” Messenger said. “Everyone out here is really cool. You just need to come out here and play, because the community is awesome.”