Luke Grafton, Dane Johnson reach new heights on youth beach volleyball circuit
Shortly before a thunder and lightning storm dumped rain throughout the South Bay on Sunday, Luke Grafton and Dane Johnson electrified the home crowd with their own display of power.
Coming off their second straight AAU National Championship and the boys U15 title at the USAV High Performance Championships, Grafton and Johnson made a statement when the 14-year-olds captured gold in the 16U division at the AAU Junior Olympics held in Hermosa Beach.
Moving up an age level and playing with a higher net didn’t seem to affect the duo, who jumped out to 5-0 lead in the championship and never looked back, defeating Anthony Wong-Orantes (Cypress) and Brian Beggs (Seal Beach) handily 28-11.
“It was a great win for us,” Grafton, of Hermosa Beach, said. “Playing up in the 16s was a great experience. Playing with the higher net was hard because we couldn’t hit as well, so we had to keep our shots in. After we got off to the fast start, I think they kind of got down on themselves.
Johnson, of Manhattan Beach, was proud of his team which has been together for four years.
“That was a good experience,” Johnson said, “It was the first time playing in the 16U division so I’m very happy with results. The deep sand makes it much more difficult to jump higher, reach higher and swing deep. We had the early cushion that allowed us to relax and keep passing well and keep executing.”
Grafton and Johnson had a much tougher game in the semifinals when they played the Ian Pizzuti (Redondo Beach) and Brady Wedbush (Manhattan Beach).
“The competition was tough even with some 14’s playing,” Wedbush said. “The game against Luke and Dane was by far the toughest game for us. It should have been the finals.”
Pizzuti and Wedbush duplicated their bronze-medal performance in the AAU National Championship held two weeks before. Jackson Bacil (El Segundo) and Jose Roca (Tierra Verde) also took home bronze medals.
“It was the luck of draw, but it was fun playing those two,” Pizzuti said of the semifinal contest. “You could tell by their shots that they spend a lot of time together on the beach. We weren’t quick enough sometimes. The silver medalists, Wong-Orantes and Beggs, are very good when it comes to hitting and power, but we gave the gold medalists a tougher game.”
Friends since the third grade, Grafton and Johnson are enjoying their summer together on the beach before the tide turns in September.
Johnson will be playing for hometown Mira Costa High School while Grafton will take his talent to Loyola. Every year, a number of boys volleyball players from the Beach Cities attend Loyola, creating fierce competition between the perennial powers in what had become one of the most storied high school rivalries in the nation.
“My brother, Kyle, plays for Loyola so I’m keeping the family tradition,” Grafton said.
Outside of a summer vacation to Oregon, Johnson will be playing the sport he is so passionate about.
“The rest of my summer will be volleyball, volleyball and more volleyball,” Johnson said with a smile. “It will be fun playing against Luke but I’m hoping he ends up at Mira Costa at some point. Games with bragging rights on the line are exciting to be a part of.”
In other Pairs Championships at the Junior Olympics, medalists included players from Georgia, Texas and Puerto Rico but the competition dominated by athletes from Southern California.
In the girls 18U division, the reunion of Manhattan Beach’s Skylar Caputo and Redondo Beach’s Abril Bustamante paid off as the duo showed why they are two of the best youth beach volleyball players in the nation. Caputo won a gold medal the previous week in Hermosa Beach at the USAV High Performance Championships.
Rivals during the school year when Mira Costa and Redondo Union square off, the longtime friends culminated a 12-game winning streak in the 58-team tournament with a 21-9 victory over Jo Kremer (Pacific Palisades) and Julia Mannisto (Thousand Oaks) in the gold-medal game.
Bustamante and Caputo rallied from a six-point deficit in the semifinals to defeat last year’s champions Grace Campbell (Manhattan Beach) and Mia Merino (Tustin) 23-21.
The Mira Costa High School tandem of Lan Nguyen and Claudia Lemieux were bronze medalists.
The championship game in the Girls 16U featured Gigi Hernandez (San Juan Capistrano) and Natalie Anselmo (Thousand Oaks) defeating Maddie Micheletti (Hermosa Beach) and Sammy Slater (Ventura).
Lindsay Sparks (Huntington Beach) and Abby Van Winkle (Cota de Caza) defeated a San Diego team to win the Girls 14U crown.
In the Girls 12U competition, Emily Corbett (Rancho Santa Margarita) and Grace Colburn (Mission Viejo) defeated a team from Texas for the gold medal. The Manhattan Beach duo of Leah Kelly and Ava Gallien won bronze medals.
In the Club Championships held Thursday and Friday, Elite Beach/Los Angeles ICG defeated San Diego Beach to win gold in the 18U division. Extreme Fitness (Honolulu, HI) beat San Diego Beach for the 16U crown and San Diego Beach defeated Crescent Beach (Santa Monica) in the 14U gold-medal match.