Dane Johnson spikes the ball through a block attempt during the Boys 14U championship game. Photo by Randy Angel
Not many years ago, the majority of winners at the AAU National Championships could walk from their homes to the annual tournament held in Hermosa Beach.
But with the growth of beach volleyball throughout the United States, young South Bay players are finding it much more difficult to bring home a medal.
Approximately 270 teams from 17 states and three countries competed in the 21st AAU Junior National Championships Saturday and Sunday in Hermosa Beach which has hosted the tournament for 17 years.
“Having it in Hermosa solidifies the tournament and it is a popular spot for families from across the country to visit,” Director Gino Grajeda said. “The talent level is definitely high. The numerous college coaches that are here recruiting come for a reason.”
Grajeda said in the last decade the percentage of girls to boys playing has increased for 60-40 to about 80-20.
“The number of boys playing has remained the same but with new incentives for girls, such as college sand volleyball scholarships, the numbers have increased dramatically,” Grajeda said.
Luke Grafton, left, and Dane Johnson won their second straight gold medal at the AAU Junior Nationals in Hermosa Beach. Photo by Randy Angel
While the South Bay had its share of medalists, the turning tide was proven when a New Zealand team won the Boys 18U title, a pair of girls from Phoenix, AZ captured the Girls 18U crown, a team from Kansas City, KS won the Girls 12U title and players from Illinois and Iowa teamed to win the Girls 16U gold medal.
Five local players won gold led by Luke Grafton (Hermosa Beach) and Dane Johnson (Manhattan Beach) who won the Boys 14U championship for the second consecutive year with a 21-19 win over a team from Florida.
“Winning it two years in a row is amazing,” said Grafton, who will be attending Loyola in the fall. “The competition was much better this year. There was a bigger field from many different states which makes the championship mean that much more.”
Johnson, who will be a freshman at Mira Costa, was excited to win in front of a home crowd that included legendary coach Mike Cook, the current junior varsity coach at Mira Costa.
“This feels great,” Johnson said. “This is the best tournament in America. There were teams from Florida, Hawaii, even Puerto Rico. It was a tough tournament but the final definitely had the two best teams playing.”
Manhattan Beach’s Presley Forbes knuckles the ball for a point to help win the Girls 15U gold medal. Photo by Randy Angel
Manhattan Beach’s Aaron Phan and San Clemente’s Gabriel Dyer won gold in the Boys 12U division, defeating Kyle Johnson (Manhattan Beach) and Luke Turner (Hermosa Beach) in the finals.
In the Boys 18U division, Matt Reilly (Manhattan Beach) and Vinny Pizzuti (Redondo Beach) fell to the New Zealand team in the championship game. The Hermosa Beach team of Carter Kimble and Teddy Karrer won bronze.
In the Boys 16U competition, El Segundo’s Jackson Bacil and Sebastian Roca (Tiera Verde, FL) won silver and the Redondo Beach team of Brady Wedbush and Ian Pizzuti were bronze medalists.
In the Girls 15U division, Presley Forbes (Manhattan Beach) and Marisa Ramsey (Laguna Niguel) defeated the Manhattan Beach duo of Sunny Villapando and Pippa Monk for the gold medal
Erica Griffiths (Redondo Beach) and Nicaylah Iamaleava (Carson) won bronze. Hope Sabater (San Pedro) and Savannah Stanage (South Shores) defeated Ryan Griffiths (Redondo Beach) and Serena Ramirez (San Pedro) in the gold medal game.
The event served as a qualifier for the AAU Junior Olympic Games to be held in Hermosa Beach July 26-27. For complete results and schedule, visit aaubeach.org.