HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — Kyle Friend compares the 6-foot-5 33-year-old he is today with the 6-foot-5 30-year-old he was in 2019. Can he jump higher now? Not really. Hit harder? Eh. Lift more? His numbers are about the same.
Tangibly, there is little that is physically different from when Friend enjoyed what was then the best season of his professional beach career and today. His 2019 season was one in which he took a career-high on the AVP, finishing ninth in Austin with Duncan Budinger. He won a pair of NORCECA medals — one silver, in La Paz, Mexico; one bronze, in Bonaire — and set his personal high-water mark for prize money.
This year? Friend has made 2019 look downright pedestrian. With two events remaining on the calendar — a Tour Series stop in Huntington Beach, Calif. and a Pro Series in Tavares, Fla. — Friend has nearly quadrupled his previous career-high in prize money. He finished fifth in the Chicago Gold Series, stunning Chaim Schalk and Theo Brunner on the way, and nearly doing the same to eventual finalists Taylor Crabb and Taylor Sander. He’s flown up the rankings, now tied for 16th in the country alongside his precocious partner, Tim Brewster, jumping a host of veterans and AVP champions such as Billy Allen, Jeremy Casebeer, Nick Lucena, Rafu Rodriguez, Ed Ratledge and John Hyden, among others.
And, also, everything.
“Over the last three years, has my body really changed? Not really. I’m lifting just as much as I was before, I’m training just as much as I was. Now the difference, what I feel, is when I go into matches, the mind is more calm,” Friend said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “Of course I have these butterflies and I’m excited to play, but it’s a different calmness, it’s a different confidence.
“It’s come from losing. Just reps of tournament play. Playing against top level guys, getting our butt kicked in Manhattan Beach this year, a nice little smack in the face. As I’m getting older, I realize how much I love this sport, and how blessed I am to be able to play. I have this different gratitude, relaxation just to be able to play, and I don’t feel that stress, ‘Oh my God I have to side out!’ The tighter you get, the worse you play.
“Playing with Tim, I feel like I want to be that person who’s a little bit steady in my confidence and my focus now that I’m the older guy on the team. It’s a different role and it’s helped me smooth out my game at the same time, which has been great. It’s been awesome.”
The only tangible difference in Friend’s game, perhaps, is the role he’s playing in his partnership, one for which he’s been groomed since his day as an outside hitter at Long Beach State. He was what’s called an “O2” at Long Beach, meaning, as he says, his job was essentially to play mistake-free volleyball, to get a kill here and there, but mainly to take a bit of pressure off the primary outside and not make mistakes. Or, really, his job was to, as a guest speaker named Karch Kiraly told the team one day, “make volleyball easier for your teammates.”
Thus became the bedrock of Friend’s game: There would always be men who would jump higher and hit harder; that was out of his control. But he could always be the best teammate. Nine years later, playing his final professional indoor season in Switzerland, that’s exactly how he was recognized.
“The nicest compliment my coach gave me was that ‘We play better when you’re on the court because you make volleyball easier for everybody around you,’” Friend recalled. “I’m like ‘Dude, that’s really nice to hear. I love that.’ I think in the same way when it comes to beach, you have to touch the ball so well and so clean so if it can be easier for my guy to do it, then perfect, that’s what I want to do.”
You can see the results for yourself: Every partner Friend has played with has had a milestone moment — either the best win, tournament, or season of their respective career. In 2018, Myles Muagututia made the most main draws he’d make in a single season, and the two emerged from the qualifier in New York to finish ninth, the best of Muagututia’s career. In 2019, Duncan Budinger amassed his highest career earnings in a single season. That fall in Bonaire, Friend and I would stun Mexico’s top pair of Jose Rubio and Josue Gaxiola, a team who would go on to win a silver medal at the Doha four-star in their next event and eventually qualify for the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games, upsetting Latvians Edgars Tocs and Martins Plavins. This season, he has expedited Brewster’s growth from a potentially solid defender, one who had yet to make an AVP main draw, into one of the most dazzling on the AVP. The two have qualified for every main draw they’ve attempted, finishing second in a Tour Series event in Waupaca, third in Atlantic City and Virginia Beach, and fifth in the Chicago Gold Series. They’ve upended Crabb and Sander, Hyden and Logan Webber, Avery Drost and Chase Frishman, and Brunner and Schalk.
“I want to be the best partner because it’s just me and you out there, so however I can make you play the best volleyball and whatever that looks like then we have the most success,” Friend said. “Just the dynamic that Tim and I have has just worked well. I’m going to be that good guy and good partner to everyone but I think it might have been the extra juice that Timbo needed to get the fire blazing.”
April Ross can say the same. She was in the box with the two in Manhattan Beach, site of their only disappointing tournament this season. She saw how one bad play could suddenly become three. Noticed how Brewster wore the baggage of an error or block or missed dig for a beat too long.
“You have to move on,” Ross told them afterwards.
It just so happens that few in the United States are better at helping their partner move on than Kyle Friend.
“Kyle always has a smile on his face,” Brewster said. “No matter what’s happening in the game, he can always smile and laugh it off. As a partner it makes it really easy to not feel a lot of pressure. You feel free to go for what you want. He’s really supportive and just happy. He’s just a happy dude. It makes it easy to feed off that energy and he knows when you as a partner need to be lifted up.”
Both are now in the midst of the best season of their careers, which is something of a surprise to both. When they agreed to partner earlier this summer, they committed only to Tour Series events in Denver and Waupaca. Ten events and a career-high in every possible category later, here they are, the fastest-rising team on the AVP Tour.
“My expectations were zero,” Brewster said. “I figured we’d play two tournaments together and he’d go back and block. I figured we’d be a good team. We’re both pretty positive on the court and we have fun when we play, so personality-wise I knew we’d be a good fit. Volleyball-wise I knew we’d be good ball control, so the volleyball would be easy, but scoring points with a smaller blocker I just wasn’t sure how it was going to go.”
Brewster is now firmly in the main draw mix, a 22-year-old with one of the highest dig-per-set ratios in the country. And Friend, who was once on the cusp of pulling back on volleyball and focusing more on work, is fully committed to the game once more.
“There’s been doubt. The last two years I’ve wondered: ‘Am I a good defender? Can I do this at the highest level?’ Now it’s a totally different feeling stepping onto the court,” he said. “Stepping onto the court against the Taylors in Chicago or even Chaim and Theo, I felt confident that we could win that match. That is not a feeling I’ve had before with any partner necessarily at this extent. It’s been really crazy, it’s kind of surreal. The confidence is huge, it’s huge. And Tim’s getting it every match, every tournament, a little bit better.
“The beginning of this year, I was in the qualifiers with [Brandon] Joyner and we hadn’t qualified for any Pro events, and I said ‘Man am I going to still push this and grind this?’ I knew I didn’t want to stop but there wasn’t a lot of income coming in. There was a lot of income going out. Pretty much for most of my career, the years have been in the red. The last two months that hasn’t been the case and that’s a huge difference in feeling.
“Now the mindset has completely [done a 180] which is wild, and it’s so ridiculous to me. Now my focus is to squeeze all of the juice out of this moment while I can, right now, out of this time that I’m playing good volleyball, while I have a partner who’s playing amazing volleyball, and whatever we have together is really good and on the court it’s working. We just want to see what’s possible because I’m only getting older, and Tim is probably only getting younger. The mindset right now is I’m all in on beach volleyball.”