At both Ridgefield High and the University of California-Santa Barbara, Theo Brunner made his volleyball mark as an intimidating net presence, using his rangy 6’7” frame to block shots or kill them.
Brunner, an All-State player in high school and an All-American in college, is still plying his trade, although he has exchanged gyms and courts for sun and sand.
Following several years of playing both indoor and beach volleyball, the 28-year-old Brunner has opted to go full-bore with the latter, hoping the dedication will help him and partner Nick Lucerna earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic beach volleyball team for the 2016 Summer Games in Brazil.
“I am finished with indoor volleyball,” said Brunner. “I committed with my partner, Nick Lucerna, to train full time on the beach and make a run at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. To do so beach volleyball will be my full-time job for the foreseeable future.
“An unbelievable amount of dedication, discipline, and hard work go into being a United States Olympian in the sport of beach volleyball,” added Brunner. “Of the hundreds of great players, only four (two teams) are allowed to make the trip to Rio.”
Brunner began playing beach volleyball during his summers while he was a student at UCSB.
“Around 2006 I began to play in a lot of amateur tournaments with one of my collegiate teammates,” said Brunner. “Beach is more physically demanding than indoor because sometimes you will play as many as five one-hour matches in a day, and tournaments generally last two or three days.
“It also requires greater all-around skills because each player has to be able to pass, set and attack proficiently in order to compete at a high level. Indoor volleyball separates the skills into specialized positions.”
After finishing his collegiate career in 2008, Brunner began playing professionally indoors in Greece and Italy while also competing on the AVP beach tour in 2009 and 2010 with a former UCSB teammate, Aaron Mansfield. But when the AVP tour went bankrupt in 2010, Brunner’s focus returned to indoor volleyball.
The tour resumed this year, and that led Brunner back to the beach with his new partner, Lucerna.
“I was training with the U.S. Olympic Indoor National team this summer, and Nick was training in the same weightlifting facility with us,” said Brunner. “He was looking for a blocker to play with for the new AVP … and I told him if he wanted to play with me I would quit the indoor team immediately and commit to playing with him. I always preferred the beach game, and the opportunity to play with a guy like Nick, who narrowly missed representing the U.S. in the (2012) London Olympics, was too difficult to pass up.”
Brunner and Lucerna played in all seven AVP events this year, winning one event and finishing second twice and third twice. The victory came in October at Huntington Beach (Calif.), when Brunner and Lucerna, seeded fourth, upended the third-seeded team of Tri Bourne and John Hyden in the championship match. That victory followed an upset of top-seeds Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson in the semifinals.
Brunner added an individual honor when he was chosen as the best blocker on the AVP tour, which finished in October. The year-end honors were awarded based on statistics, player votes and points earned during the 2013 tour schedule.
“It was nice that my fellow players voted me the top blocker,” said Brunner. “It wasn’t a situation where I would have been upset if I didn’t win or anything, and I wasn’t overly excited that I won either. I still think Phil Dalhausser is the best blocker on tour, but I was able to edge him out in the blocks per game category and was a fresh face, which I think ended up netting me the award.”
Brunner and Lucerna will continue on the AVP tour next year while also competing in the FIVB (Federation Internationale de Volleyball) tour. One thing Brunner wants to improve before that is his physical stamina.
“Beach is a very demanding sport and it seemed like every tournament last season my legs were on the verge of collapse when we went deep into a tournament,” said Brunner. “In order to improve this, I will be working out in Anaheim (Calif.) with an excellent strength and conditioning coach who works for the U.S. Olympic Committee. Last season he trained the top AVP team of Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson, and I am honored to be working with him this off-season.”
Brunner said that this season’s success with Lucerna has allowed him to consider some lofty ambitions.
“After getting my the first open win under my belt at the AVP Huntington Beach Open last season, I have a whole new set of goals I want to accomplish,” he said. “Winning a gold medal at the Olympic Games and getting my name inscribed on the Manhattan Beach (Calif.) Pier are among the top goals I want to achieve.”