Setting Up for Success: Why These Longtime Friends are Heading Towards the Top of the AV

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If you’ve ever spent an afternoon at East Beach, you’ve probably noticed the abundance of volleyball lessons, group classes, and pick-up games. Whether it’s a team of athletes perfecting their form or a group of students playing after summer school, it’s undeniable that that volleyball has taken over the shores of Santa Barbara. But what you may not know is that amidst the everyday crowds that surround the courts of East Beach are a couple of young men who are truly making a name for themselves in the world of professional volleyball. While you may see them enjoying a friendly game with other locals or just hanging out on the beach, Ben Koski, 28, and Jeff Minc, 26, are also taking on the AVP by storm, and getting stronger with each tournament they face.

High Times and Low Times

Ben and Jeff were both born and raised here in Santa Barbara, playing together on the Santa Barbara High School and UCSB volleyball teams. It wasn’t until college ended that they decided to take their favorite hobby of beach volleyball a little more seriously and start competing in tournaments. “I was pretty much raised by the beach, and always played beach volleyball in the summer,” Jeff explains, “After finishing school we started playing more competitively and then signed up to play in the AVP. We started doing pretty well and thought if we keep getting better we can a career out of this.”

And so it began. Over the last several years, Jeff and Ben have been working on improving their game and inching their way into the higher rankings of AVP’s main draw… and having a great time getting there. It’s doesn’t take much to see that these two have a strong passion for volleyball. “It’s great being able to workout at the beach playing a sport we love and getting better and better at,” Ben says. Who can blame them? When getting ready for work consists of heading down to the Santa Barbara beaches and when making money is comprised of traveling around the country to compete in tournaments, it’s hard to complain.

But being a professional volleyball player isn’t as glamorous as it may seem. Even though making a living out of playing your favorite game seems like a life of paradise, it isn’t always that easy. Manager Lee Carlander, who was also their former club volleyball coach, says, “The players don’t get a salary, the money they make depends on how well they do in tournaments.” That means there’s no room for injuries for off days—if they don’t win, they don’t get paid. But that doesn’t stop from for pursuing the sport they love and working hard to make it big.

Tour-Stoppers Fortunately, Ben and Jeff have been climbing the ladder towards AVP success and show no signs of slowing down. Of the hundreds of athletes that registered in the AVP this year, Ben and Jeff took two 13th place finishes after advancing to the main draw in both the Huntington Beach and Glendale, AZ tournaments. While competition grows fierce as the draw narrows down with each game, they face the pressure of dueling against the top volleyball players in the country. But this pair seems to share an optimistic attitude of where their lives as volleyball players will take them. “If all goes well,” Ben says, “I hope to stay in Santa Barbara playing volleyball for as long as I can.” And Jeff agrees. “My idea of success is being able to pay the bills by playing volleyball and not ever having to work in an office.”

Regardless of how well they do in a particular match, this pair has an incredibly dedicated and enthusiastic fan base (to say the least) who cheers them on through every point of each game. “Our friends are our biggest fans. They’ve supported us for years and have even traveled with us to other tournaments,” Jeff explains. So if you ever pass by a beach volleyball match and hear young voices cheering at the top of their lungs, or catch a verse of their famous “Peanut Butter Jelly” theme song, it’s a good sign that Ben and Jeff are doing well on the court.

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A Pair of Aces Between tournaments, you may see Jeff coaching tennis at the Montecito Country Club, or Ben working at Titan Sports Performance Center. These athletes have also spent time giving private lessons to younger athletes from around the Santa Barbara area, and have previously held coaching positions for high school volleyball teams as a way to stay involved with the community. But what’s particularly unique about Ben and Jeff is that aside from their rising success they have remained loyal to not only the community but to each other as well. “It’s very common for athletes to switch partners,” Lee explains, “but these two have stuck by each other.” In fact, they are the longest running team in the AVP today. In the world of professional sports where switching teams, trading players, and leaving partners is all part of being in the industry, Ben and Jeff have remained a dynamic duo despite tough competition, personal struggles, and outside pressure to find new partners. Only a few years after college, Ben was off the court for several months due to a major shoulder injury. After undergoing countless tests and surgeries, doctors told him that he could lose him arm and never play volleyball again. During his break from volleyball, Jeff went down to Manhattan Beach to continue training and played with other athletes in several tournaments, but made clear that his partnership was temporary until Ben recovered. Ben had been suffering from blood clots in his shoulder, and after almost a year of rest and recuperation, he was back in the sand and playing again with his longtime partner. “People have told them to switch partners before,” Lee says, “but they’re comfortable with each other, they grew up together, and have no plans of changing.” Wherever their future with the AVP takes them, these two are bound to push through each competition together.

Equally impressive is the fact that Ben and Jeff, despite their status as professional volleyball players, have remained grounded and accessible to their lifelong peers and fellow Santa Barbara residents; they are still your everyday guys who spend their nights out on State Street or at home playing Guitar Hero, or their afternoons playing Frisbee golf or kayak fishing. And with that, these two are able to convey that anyone can get out there and play volleyball and learn to love it. While it does take that special touch of talent to make it in the AVP, volleyball is nevertheless a very social and active sport of which any Santa Barbara resident can take advantage.

Serves Up

If you ever want to get out and give the sport a try, Jeff recommends Brant Lee’s group classes at East Beach or camps for youth players with his cousin, Jon Lee. Santa Barbara City College also offers group classes for both students and community members. For those of you who would prefer a more low-key experience, grab a group of friends and play a casual game at any open court on the sand. As little as four people are enough to get a great game going. “Volleyball has a very social environment,” Ben says, so take advantage of the rest of summer and hit the beachside courts. Who knows, you may run into a couple volleyball pros while you’re out there.

Over the next several months Ben and Jeff will be heading to Boston, Brooklyn, and Cincinnati to compete in more AVP tournaments. You can check on results or find out about future matches at thw  Association of Volleyball Professionals‘ website.

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