It’s not often that the biggest win of a player’s career is followed closely by the seemingly radical decision to change playing partners, but that’s exactly what Sam Schachter was faced with late last year.
The monumental victory came Sept. 19 in the World Junior Beach Volleyball Championships in Alanya, Turkey. Schachter and Garrett May, both from the Toronto area, rallied to upset second-seeded Alvaro Filho and Vitor Felipe of Brazil, 21-23, 21-16, 15-13.
“It’s still hard to speak about how much that meant to me, my country and my family,” said Schachter, whose 18th-seeded team won all seven of their matches in Turkey’s blistering heat. “You never truly expect to be able to say you are the best in the world. So it was a real positive for volleyball in Canada. It showed we are more than just a hockey nation.”
Indeed, it was Canada’s first medal in the 10-year history of the event. One month later, the Canadian Sports Awards honored Schachter, 21, and May, 19, as the Junior Athletes of the Year. By then, though, Schachter had come to the realization that he needed to switch partners.
“Garrett and I really enjoy playing together,” Schachter said. “But he goes to school in the winter, and I need to train year-round to improve.”
A second important factor in Schachter’s decision was his quest for more size. At 6’5”, he was one of the smallest blockers on the FIVB Tour. Schachter formed a new partnership with 6’7” Maverick Hatch, whose partner had retired. In the new partnership, Schachter plays defender, so, in essence, he replaces the 6’2” May.
“Hatch touches 11’5”,” Schachter said of the Comox, British Columbia native, “and he has arms like a monkey.”
In their first three FIVB matches this year, Schachter and Hatch won five out of nine, finishing 41st in Brazil and in China and 25th in the Czech Republic. And on July 31, Schachter and Hatch won Center of Gravity, a pro beach tournament in Kelowna, British Columbia. The duo won four straight matches without losing a set.
“Sam’s style meshes with mine because we’re both really aggressive,” Hatch said. “He’ll hammer a ball, and I’ll put a rip on one, too. Physically, he has all the skills to be a great defender. It’s just a matter of time and added experience before he gets there.”
In the tournament in Prague, Hatch and Schachter won three matches in a row before falling 21-19, 21-11 to top-seeded Americans Todd Rogers and Phil Dalhausser. That was a match where perhaps Schachter’s relative inexperience played a role.
“When you play Rogers and Dalhausser it gets into your head a little bit,” Schachter said, referring to the reigning world and Olympics champs,
But playing the highest caliber opponents is all a part of Schachter’s boy to man transition from juniors to the FIVB circuit. Then again, traveling the world while playing pro beach volleyball is not a bad life. It’s also a long way from Richmond Hill, Ontario, the well-to-do Toronto suburb where Schachter grew up playing hockey, volleyball, tennis and golf. At 190 pounds, he felt his lean body would fit best in volleyball, a sport he started playing exclusively in the 11th grade.
When time permits, Schachter attends Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, where he is a junior majoring in communications.
“It’s virtually impossible to balance school and volleyball,” said Schachter, who eventually wants to earn a master’s degree. “My schoolwork definitely suffers.”
But his focus for now is working with Hatch to improve their world ranking, which is hovering in the 50s.
“We have a ways to go,” Schachter said. “Going from the 50s to the top 32 and then the top 16 - that’s miles apart. Hopefully we can snowball next year and establish ourselves as a real team on the tour.”
To get there, Schachter and Hatch will have to improve so that even if they have an off game, they can still “win ugly” against a lower-ranked team. Part of reaching that point is team chemistry, and if their enthusiasm is any indication, Schachter and Hatch seem to have what it takes.
“We both get stupidly loud sometimes,” Schachter said. “We have occasional disagreements – like every partnership does – but we don’t clash too much on the court. Once he gets rolling, he is pretty tough to stop. He gets all jacked up, and that gets me all jacked up.”
Hatch said the partnership is working well, and he expects even bigger things in the future.
“In Canada, teams usually stay together no longer than three years or four max,” he said. “My expectation is that Sam and I will be known around the world as that team from Canada that stuck together and continued to improve.”
One of the things Tammy Thomas loves about beach volleyball is “the vibe” – reggae music blaring, the scent of suntan lotion in the air and the refreshing taste of a cold beer on a hot day. It’s a sexy blend, and the Canadian native can still recall an event in 2007, when she made it to the final of Volleyfest, played in her hometown of Kelowna, British Columbia.
Thomas, who is 5’6”, and Kylie Crick, who is 5’11”, made a surprising run to the final before losing to Joanne Ross and Barb Bellini, each of whom had a five-inch height advantage over their opposite number.
“I’m one of those players who thrives when fans are into it,” Thomas said. “I remember in the final, the DJ was playing Buffalo Soldier by Bob Marley, and the crowd seemed to know all the words. I was just kind of nodding my head, feeling it. I felt like no matter what happened, we were going to score.”
Thomas felt that way again this past July, when she was back in Kelowna for Center of Gravity, a three-day beach and music festival that also includes competitions in basketball, wakeboarding, freestyle motocross and mountain biking. With more than 150 pro athletes and thousands of fans on the scene, Thomas and Carol Hamilton finished second, a potential sign of more good things to come for a duo that has been together just a few months.
Hamilton, a 6’2” blocker from San Diego, Calif., may be Thomas’ best partner yet. A veteran of five years on the AVP Tour, Hamilton, 30, has also played in Europe.
“We actually met three years ago and played one tournament together,” said Thomas, 25. “We finished third [in Aspen, Colo.]. We wanted to stay together, but I don’t have a green card and couldn’t play the AVP.”
The two kept in touch through Facebook, and when the opportunity presented itself to play in Canada, they reunited.
“She’s super intense,” Thomas said of Hamilton. “Our communication is far better than with any other partner I’ve played with. You don’t have to set a ball perfectly for her to make a play.”
Thomas caught herself after that last statement.
“She definitely does expect me to be perfect,” Thomas said. “But even when I’m not, she can still make the play.”
Thomas said the partnership works because both players are demanding.
“We say things to each other that aren’t socially accepted,” Thomas said. “But we don’t hold grudges. We both just want to win.”
Originally published in November 2011