It’s time for Jackson Bantle and Hagen Smith to get out of California.
The two volleyball seniors have always called Southern California home and have attended school together in Los Angeles for 17 years.
“I would say it’s very similar to having brothers on the court at the same time,” said Loyola High School volleyball coach Michael Boehle. “They know one another like the back of their hand, and that was something special that they both brought to their team.”
Bantle and Smith both hail from Pacific Palisades, California, attended Loyola High School and are now at UCLA. They both plan on going overseas after graduation. First, though, they’ll enjoy each other’s company and Southern California’s beaches just a bit longer.
The two grew up playing volleyball together and attending a beach volleyball camp run by Smith’s father, Sinjin Smith, and his longtime volleyball partner, Randy Stoklos.
“(Bantle’s and my) style of play is very similar because we both grew up learning volleyball at the exact same time in the same place,” Hagen Smith said. “So knowing what I can do, I trust that he can do too, or more.”
At 6-foot-1 each, Bantle and Smith are considered smaller players, and are accustomed to filling a more defensive role in beach volleyball, playing alongside taller partners who have larger presences at the net. Because of their similarity, Bantle and Smith have rarely competed as a duo.
“Even when we got to college, we didn’t play (beach volleyball) with each other until the end of junior year,” Bantle said. “We both had people to play with – we’re both the ‘littles,’ the defenders. So we’ve always been looking for a bigger partner.”
Smith finished his final season ranked No. 6 all-time on the school digs list and No. 4 on the school career set assists list. The veteran setter/opposite played in every match except two, splitting time with sophomore Micah Ma’a to run the Bruin offense.
Bantle was the only member of the team who played in every single match this past season, filling roles as a libero, outside hitter and serving specialist. However, he said he did not originally expect to play such a major role.
“I kind of came in with the mindset that I’m just going to try to get better and probably not play very much,” Bantle said. “Then (coach John) Speraw decided to cut two of the people ahead of me. So all of a sudden, you have an opportunity and it’s like, ‘How are you going to make the most of that?’”
The libero notched over 100 digs this season for the third time in his career, and said his connection to Smith helped even in indoor volleyball, despite having more players on the court.
“There’s a different dynamic with indoor, like a big team dynamic, but (Smith and I) don’t have to worry about what (the other is) doing,” Bantle said. ”It’s always been like, ‘Okay, you good? Good. Alright, what’s everybody else’s issue?’”
After the two wrapped up their final indoor season, it was back to the beach.
There are stark differences between the beach and the court. Reaching a high level of play in men’s beach volleyball comes with significant challenges for Americans like Smith and Bantle.
Smith said European countries often start their beach athletes young so they can train their entire lives, so many top-level teams are made up of players in their early 20s.
There are virtually no men’s beach volleyball clubs in the United States, Smith said, so athletes have struggled to find the opportunities offered in other parts of the world.
“Comparing collegiate men’s indoor and beach in the United States – it’s ridiculous,” Smith said. “Since college, what we’ve been doing is through the (USA Volleyball Beach High Performance Program). That’s basically the only spot where we can get coaching.”
At a televised tournament in which Bantle and Smith competed in May, the women’s matches ran long and the men were only allotted a short blurb at the end. Still, the two finished second at the tournament, the inaugural USA Volleyball Collegiate Beach Championships.
Despite their love for the sand, Smith and Bantle are focusing on professional opportunities away from the beach. Both seniors hope to continue their indoor volleyball careers and play overseas after they graduate.
Smith said he would like to play in France, Spain or Portugal because all three are good for surfing.
“I’m looking to find the best opportunity I can – a good pay would be nice, but I’m looking for the experience,” Smith said.
Bantle hopes to attend a program at the University of East London, in which international volleyball players can simultaneously play for the school and local club teams while completing their master’s degrees. He said he is considering a degree in business administration.
“The upside of it is that I can get my master’s, because, you know, you’re never going to play volleyball forever,” he said.
Bantle said players of his position and height often find it hard to play at the highest level because liberos have a limited amount of opportunities.
“As an undersized person, I don’t know necessarily where they’d want me,” Bantle said. “But if anything, I’d get on a team and work my way up. That’s the mentality we’ve always had – we’ve never been the biggest, most physical people, but we work harder than everybody else.”
For the first time, Smith and Bantle are going to call somewhere other than Los Angeles home. It’s time to see where the game will take them next.