Brothers in Arms

Brothers in Arms

In the long lineage of notable sibling beach teams, teenagers Marcus and Miles Partain are up there with the best.

By Tom Feuer

Miles & Marcus Partain (Photo: Don Liebig)

When it comes to discussing the greatest brother combinations in beach volleyball history, much of the oxygen in the room gets sucked up by the Crabb brothers. And rightfully so. They keep adding to their resumes with significant honors – most recently, Taylor’s four-star FIVB tournament with Jake Gibb (November in Chetumal, Mexico) and Trevor’s sublime triumph at the Manhattan Beach Open last August. But while Taylor and Trevor won a few NORCECA’s playing together, they could never capture an AVP or FIVB title, which, in part, led them to seek different partners.

The Crabbs are not the only elite brother combo to seek the pro beach volleyball limelight. In fact, the most intriguing set of siblings may be the Partains, 19-year-old Marcus and 18-year-old Miles. Together, they were the youngest team to make an AVP main draw, which they achieved in Hermosa Beach, California, in July of 2017. Separately, Miles, at 15 years and seven months, became the youngest individual to ever make an AVP main draw.

But it wasn’t until this past fall that Miles really broke out. He finished fifth in a fully loaded AVP Chicago event with Paul Lotman, who at the time was twice as old as his precocious partner. Nevertheless, Miles’ poise under fire was truly exceptional. Four of their seven matches were over an hour in length and included a seminal victory over Trevor Crabb and Reid Priddy, themselves fresh off the win at the Manhattan Beach Open.

Miles is obviously a fast learner. He and Lotman won a NORCECA event in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, in November, turning the tables in the final on the team that ultimately eliminated them in Chicago, Jeremy Casebeer and Chaim Schalk. Miles’ natural instincts for the game at such a young age are reminiscent of Sinjin Smith, who is second all-time in pro beach victories (139) behind Karch Kiraly (148). Miles, a lefty, doesn’t hammer the ball but instead is very crafty, able to manipulate around the block and find open seams. On defense, he is a careful study of his opponents’ tendencies.

The Brothers Partain first caught the beach “bug” playing in a CBVA youth tournament in Pacific Palisades, California, when Marcus was 12 and Miles was 10. It probably didn’t hurt that the tournament director was Randy Stoklos, winner of 122 tournament titles. Stokie has remained a confidant to the boys ever since. A few years after meeting the Partains, he imparted some sage advice that Miles took to heart, telling him, “Don’t think, just play.”

“I tend to be very analytical,” Miles says. “He told me to just turn off my mind.”

The Partains hail from the same high school, Palisades, where Stoklos made a name for himself in the late 1970s. And it wasn’t just him. The Dolphins were regularly spitting out top players, including Olympic indoor gold medalists Chris Marlowe, Steve Salmons, Dave Saunders and Ricci Luyties, Olympic beach gold medalist Kent Steffes and outstanding beach players like Fred Sturm, Don Shaw, Wally Goodrick, Roger Clark and Jeff Rodgers. But ever since the 1980s, the well has run dry. That is, until the Partains entered the scene.

Given their youth, temperament and skill set, the Partains would still seem to have a lot of room to grow, literally. Miles picked up an inch over the summer to stand 6-3 and Marcus, while still “only” 6-2, may also have some upward mobility ahead. When the two play together, they split block, but it does bring up the inevitable question as to whether they can stay together as partners given the behemoths that stride the sand these days. “We’re not 6-4, 6-5, so I guess at a higher level it might be tough to continue to split block,” Marcus says. “And it might be wise for us to see if we can play together with respectively bigger partners. But we do love playing together. We shared the same room our whole lives (until this past fall when Marcus enrolled at UCLA). I literally sleep five feet away from him, so we just know each other so well. And we can be up front with each other. We don’t have to hide anything. We can just tell it how it is. We have talked about playing Seaside (Oregon, where they played for the first time in 2019) every year for as long as we can.”

“I do [get excited when Miles plays well]. Regardless of whether he’s my brother, it’s really cool to see someone that young and passionate about the game doing so well. I’m definitely happy for him.”

For his part, Miles is also diplomatic on what can be a thorny topic among volleyball families. “I’m just taking it day by day, and we’ll just see per event,” he says. “But Paul (Lotman) and I have talked about playing together. I still want to play with Marcus as well. I just want to try to keep options open.”

On the surface, there appears to be no jealousy between the brothers.

“I do (get excited when Miles plays well),” Marcus says. “Regardless of whether he’s my brother, it’s really cool to see someone that young and passionate about the game doing so well. I’m definitely happy for him.”

It was Miles, in fact, who picked Lotman to play with, not vice versa.

“It was definitely me who sought him out,” Miles says. “I saw him playing with Gabe Ospina at the Chicago AVP in 2017, and I got his email from somewhere. I emailed him and asked him to play to see what his thoughts were for the coming AVP season. And it worked out for the next AVP in Seattle (in 2018, they placed 17th). He has national team experience (Lotman played indoor for the U.S. at the 2012 London Olympics), and that’s super valuable for a young player like me who doesn’t have as much experience. And my parents thought highly of him.”

Scheduling for the brothers is a major issue. Aside from school (Marcus is a freshman at UCLA, and Miles will graduate early from Palisades before enrolling at UCLA too), both are indoor players of some repute. “I definitely love playing indoors as well,” Marcus says. “The thing about indoor that you don’t get on beach is the overall team aspect. It’s really fun getting fired up with a bunch of teammates, rather than one teammate. We are both setters. It’s like the quarterback who gets to control the flow of the offense, which is really fun. And it’s kind of like a chess game, super strategic. There are different parts about both (indoor and beach) that are super intriguing. I want to keep the option open about playing indoor as well as the beach.”

One of the most interesting aspects about the brothers is how much they are students of the game. They regularly watch Anders Mol and Christian Sorum’s “BeachVolley Vikings” channel on YouTube. And they don’t miss an opportunity to check out, on demand, the FIVB three-, four- and five-star tournaments on YouTube as well.

“I try to play to my natural strengths,” Miles says. “But I really like watching the Norwegian defender (Christian Sorum). His sideout play and the way he fakes on defense is really intriguing to me. I like watching Taylor Crabb also, just his offensive range and his vision. And I like watching this guy from Austria, Alexander Huber, who is like 5-9 and has really great fundamentals. I think he’s one of the best to learn from (for) defenders right now because he does so well, even though he’s shorter than everyone else.”

For those of you now name-checking Huber, he is the 34-year-old who played for Austria in the Rio Olympics and partnered with Robin Seidl to pull that stunning upset over Casey Patterson and Jake Gibb in pool play.

Marcus, like his brother, also admires the game of Mol and Sorum, and his favorite American is Reid Priddy. “I have never met him,” Marcus says. “I have just heard great things. He is a real solid dude, hard worker, super passionate about the game and definitely someone I try to learn from. I respect him a lot.”

Given their rigorous schedules, the brothers Partain do not have a full-time beach coach, but they lean on Dylan Maarek (when they’re not facing him in an AVP Next or CBVA event) and have received pointers on how to block from legendary Brazilian Jose Loiola and also from Lotman. Time will certainly tell, but before the Partains are done, they may end up atop DiG’s rankings of best brother tandems. They may also leave an indelible mark on the sport as the vanguard of the next wave of great American players.

The Best Beach Bros

Trevor and Taylor Crabb

Both had milestone years in 2019. Older brother Trevor, who turned 30 in September, not only won the AVP Manhattan Beach with Tri Bourne but placed fourth in the World Championships, with all three losses coming against eventual medal winners. In the provisional Olympic rankings through the end of 2019, they were the second-ranked American team behind only…Taylor Crabb and his partner, Jake Gibb. Taylor, 28, won four of six AVP tourneys last year and then won that milestone FIVB tournament in Mexico. What’s scary is that the brothers are just entering their beach volleyball primes.

Trevor & Taylor Crabb

Sinjin and Andrew Smith

Between the two, they have won 142 tournaments, a number that dwarfs the Crabb’s combined total of 21. Of course, Sinjin (one year older than Andrew) won 139 of them playing mostly with Randy Stoklos. However, the Smith brothers did play five tournaments together in 1978 and 1980 and had good – but not great – success. Their best finish was second place in 1980 at Marine Street, where they lost in the final to Andy Fishburn and Dane Selznick, a team that won the World Championship later that summer.

“Playing with a sibling at the highest level of competition in the world, how great is that?” Sinjin says. “The reality is, do you connect well enough with your sibling to be effective on the court? I don’t think Andrew lacked any physical skill relative to me. He could do everything. He was one of the top players of the time. If there was a difference in our styles of play (it was that) I was probably a little more intense. Playing together can be great if both of you have the same goals and frame of mind. But there’s always going to be a sibling rivalry issue that you cannot control.”

One of Andrew’s three wins, his last one, was in Miami in 1989 when he teamed with Dan Vrebalovich to beat Sinjin and Stoklos in the final. “Randy thought that maybe I wasn’t playing as hard because it was Andrew,” Sinjin says. “I can assure you that was not the case. I not only don’t like losing, but I would not want to lose to my younger brother. When I was able to sit down for a moment and put things into perspective, I thought I’m stoked that he won his first (big) Open and, two, he did it by beating the best team … us.”

Brian and Tim Bomgren

The Bomgrens from Woodbury, Minnesota, have a couple of notable distinctions. Not only are they one of the greatest brother duos in history, but along with Jeff Nygaard (Wisconsin), the best players to ever come out of the Midwest. Brian, the elder Bomgren by four years, stopped playing two seasons ago, but Tim is still going strong. Together, the Bomgrens played 38 tournaments in eight years. They won two NVLs in 2012, and their best AVP finish was in 2015 when they took third in New Orleans, losing only to Olympians Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson and Phil Dalhausser and Sean Rosenthal.

Tim Bomgren, without a doubt the best hand setter to ever come out of the Midwest, had his two best seasons in 2018 and 2019, earning three second-place finishes with three different partners: Taylor Crabb, Chaim Schalk and Troy Field.

Kevin & Scott Wong

Kevin and Scott Wong

Unlike the Smiths  and Crabbs, who are close in age, Kevin and Scott Wong are separated by six years. Kevin (the elder) had a terrific career keynoted by 10 victories, including three on the FIVB tour and two Manhattan Beach Open titles. He also represented the U.S. at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, where he and partner Rob Heidger placed fifth.

Scott Wong won a NORCECA tournament with Hans Stolfus, and he took a second with Aaron Wachtfogel in 2007 at an AVP tournament in Brooklyn, losing memorably in extra points to soon-to-be Olympic gold medalists Todd Rogers and Phil Dalhausser.

The Wong brothers played in five tournaments in 2006 with a best of ninth in AVP competition. “Amazingly rewarding to team up with my brother,” Kevin says. “His combo of skillset and physicality were pretty special. In some ways, we were really ahead of our time. A lot of things that (Italy Olympian) Adrian Carambula is doing now with the over on twos, the motion offense, the creativity, we were doing 13 years ago. The challenges of playing with Scott were that our personalities were too similar. Chris Marlowe and I (on NBC’s beach volleyball broadcasts) always talk about chemistry on air and how the blend of personalities is so important. I always did my best with emotional partners, and I would bring the cerebral component. It is so hard to predict how each partnership is going to gel. You would think with brothers it wouldn’t be so tough, but the unpredictable alchemy is the same.”

Larry and Andy Witt

The Witts, who both played at Stanford, had meritorious indoor careers in addition to their beach bona fides. Andy was an opposite hitter on the USA Olympic team in 2000, but he did play 31 beach events over the course of six seasons including eight with Larry. Together, the Witts’ best finish was a fifth in Huntington Beach, California, in 2001. Separately, Andy clocked two fifths with his indoor Olympic teammate, John Hyden, one in 2003, the other in 2004.

Larry will always be remembered for his partnership with Sean Rosenthal. One of the most popular teams on tour and with Rosie’s Raiders in tow, they won AVPs in Belmar in 2003 and Fort Lauderdale in 2004.

David and Marc Denitz

The Denitz brothers could be the finest pair of identical male twins to have ever played the game. Their heyday was from 1980-1985, when they logged impressive finishes that included a third in Hermosa in 1981 and a second at Rosecrans in 1982. Marc is a left-hander who played right side, and David is a right-hander who played left. “Our bone marrows are the same, so there is a mindset that is identical,” David says. “Marc and I used to bicker with one another, but then we just said, ‘Shut up and let’s play.’ The biggest negative for us was that we were two small guys (both under six feet) like the McNamaras (current generation identical twins Megan and Nicole), and there is a physical aspect that you can’t overcome. In the sideout era, we had trouble scoring points when we played Hovland-Dodd and Smith-Stoklos.’”

Riley and Maddison McKibbin

Maddison, the younger of the two brothers at age 29, has an AVP tournament title to his credit, but not with older brother Riley (31). Maddison’s greatest triumph occurred in 2017 when Riley was injured; he teamed up with Ty Loomis to win the San Francisco Open. Together, the McKibbins had eight ninth-place finishes before breaking through in Chicago in September with a fifth. You have to admire their loyalty to one another; aside from the Bomgrens, the McKibbins have the most “elite” tournaments together (27) of any other domestic brother pairing.