Watch out for the Karissa Cooks

For those that aren’t up to speed on the latest AVP news, Santa Cruz native and Stanford Alum Karissa Cook won her first AVP title this past weekend in the event held in Austin with her partner Jace Pardon. They annihilated teams in both the semis and final matches:

“They hit cut shots that tagged lines. They hit high angle jumbos that tagged back corners. They snuck in option after option, in every imaginable way possible. Occasionally they – mostly Pardon, the more physical player of the two — even swung over the block and around the block and under the block and through the block and off the block. Just to keep them honest.”- p1440

This comes as no surprise to me as I recognize Karissa as one the best players in the US and I’d venture among the most underrated at this point.  Let me make my case…

I was 25 years old when I first began to play beach volleyball on a regular basis.  Those that know me know that I was the consummate indoor outside hitter.  I could run, jump, and swing hard.  It served me well during my career at Bishop O’Dowd (set the school record for kills at that time) and I went on to have an opportunity to play for the University of California Indoor Program.  I figured that when I took my game to the sand that my indoors skills would instantly translate.  I couldn’t have been any more wrong.

At the time, Karissa was just in high school, just 15 years old and ten years my junior when I first played her.  She had some sand experience already and had no trouble beating me in pickup games on the sand. I resorted to my cannon swings, often hitting the ball in the net, out of the court, or with imprecision that made them easy to dig. She made efficient plays and got the easy points, as she directed shots to all edges of the court. I called it cheap at the time, but that was just the frustration talking. Her play was smart, incredibly smart, and she won a lot.

Fast-forward a few years later and I’m training with the likes of Ilga Celmens, Jackie Signore, Susan Hues, and Veronique Baudon. Back then, these women often won the CBVA opens in Santa Cruz, and I would drive an hour and a half on Friday mornings to receive their tutelage. Little did I know that I would be learning the same lesson that a 15-year-old Karissa Cook taught me some years earlier. The ladies, as we called them, said I played with ego. I didn’t know what that meant at the time. They made me run around the court with their shots. I thought it was fun to work hard and pick all those balls up, only to turn around and swing as hard as I could right at the defender, getting dug, and having to do it all over again. And yes, they often won.

In the long run, my aggressive style led to some wins, but it also led to some injuries and I stopped playing seriously in 2012 when Karissa was really just getting started with her professional career.

Karissa has come to master this wise-woman style of play. And that is what it is, WISE. Calling it “old-lady style” or “dirty”,  I think is a bit limiting; it is efficient, smart, calculated, and fundamentally strong. Just because a style of play is not the norm, doesn’t make it less effective. Just because it’s not flashy, doesn’t make it less worthy of praise. Karissa is one of the most intelligent players (and persons) I have ever met. She knows how to win, in many, many ways. She is like the Jedi knight, who knows the exact points of the body to hit with just the slightest bit of pressure to take her opponent down. This calm and efficient style also allows her to keep her cool; she’s almost always in control of the match. You will rarely ever see her frustrated or overly emotional. As a result, her partners often feel supported and calm as well.

I’ve been a coach for 19 years now and I have seen many different personalities and many different styles of play. In my opinion, Karissa’s is the most effective for a dual-sport and I predict this is not the first AVP main draw win we will see from her.

I have also had the pleasure to coach a few athletes who share similar personalities and similar styles in this game. Jordan Polo, the Pac 12 freshman of the year, being one of them. To the beach coaches and players out there, watch out for the Karissa Cooks and the Jordan Polos. When you see them play, there will be a tendency to overlook them because of their lack of flashiness and subdued nature. But watch out, they are the Jedis that, if given the chance, will prove you wrong with their results.

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