After grabbing three FIVB gold medals in 2017, including a win at the World Tour Finals, and five months of offseason, 38-year old Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena are geared up to kick off the 2018 season in a familiar locale, in both players’ home state of Florida.
The first Beach Majors Series stop in Fort Lauderdale will be the starting point for another go for the duo, which was named as the AVP’s Men’s Team of the Year and features the 2017 FIVB Most Outstanding Player and USA Volleyball’s seven time Male Beach Player of the Year in Dalhausser.
The pair has had success in Fort Lauderdale in the past, taking bronze in 2017 and silver in 2015. Ahead of this year’s event, VolleyMob sat down with the longtime friends to find out their memories of the home tournament and get their thoughts on the season ahead, the state of USA and beach volleyball and each other.
You are back home in Florida now, and you get to play your first tournament of the year in Fort Lauderdale. Is that special for you? Will you have a lot of family there?
Phil Dalhausser: For Nick and I, there is no better spot to open the season than Florida because we are both native Floridians. And Nick actually grew up playing at that beach that we are playing on. But my folks will be there, the wife and kids may or may not come, we are trying to find a dog sitter… but we will see if they come.
Nick Lucena: It is definitely special, playing on the courts where I first started playing, up at Yankee Clipper, which is the hotel that we are playing at. Of course, it is called something different now. I have always wanted to win in my hometown, so that will be a special tournament. It would be sweet to win there where I started playing.
So, to start the season there is pretty great for us, especially living in Florida so our families can go. But, it is one of the biggest tournaments of the year and with us not having played in five months, we are going to have to shake the rust off rather quickly.
What are your memories of playing in Fort Lauderdale last year and earning the bronze medal?
Phil Dalhausser: It was nice to finish on the podium because the World Tour is so competitive right now that any time you can finish in the top three, it is a pretty darn good tournament. As far as memories go, we played Alison and Bruno in the quarterfinals, who won gold in Rio and knocked us out of the Olympics in the quarterfinals, so it was nice to beat them on our home turf. That is probably the main memory of that tournament.
Nick Lucena: Anytime you can finish on the podium is pretty sweet. I remember we had a couple of good matches and in the quarterfinals, we beat Alison and Bruno, which was one of the best matches of the year for us. I was just happy we were able to do well, because it was earlier than the season usually starts. It usually starts in April. And Brazil’s professional season is already happening, so they are well polished. They really don’t get any time off. I think they had four teams in the top five. We just wanted to try to get to the semis as one of our goals. We got there and then we fell a little short, but we were able to come back and win the bronze medal match. Obviously, you want to win the tournament, but the level of competition is so difficult right now, it is hard.
You play in tournaments all over the world, but what is it like to play on the FIVB’s biggest stage in the Beach Majors Series in front of a mostly American crowd? Does that make a difference?
Phil Dalhausser: Out of all of my years of playing, I have probably played maybe four or five FIVB’s on American soil, so it is always nice to play on our home turf. There definitely is a home court advantage. You get the energy from the crowd cheering you on. It is a lot of fun.
Nick Lucena: To be in the US and have people for cheering for you is great. Usually if you are in Europe, you are lucky to have anyone cheering for you unless you have some family there. The crowds in Europe are great and they know the sport. But, being in my hometown is fun and maybe is a little bit of an advantage. Fort Lauderdale has been great for us, we have gotten a silver and a bronze and hopefully we will be able to improve on those, but we will see how it goes.
What are the other advantages of playing at home?
Phil Dalhausser: One is just not having to deal with the jet lag. That is worst, being tired for a few days because you are in a tournament and you have to focus. When you are just running it on fumes, it is kind of tough. And it is nice playing in front of the home crowd cheering you on.
Nick Lucena: We are still traveling a lot because we train one week out of the month in LA and then I am in Tallahassee and Phil is in Orlando, but we are not going to Europe or whatnot. I think we are maybe at a little bit of an advantage playing closing to home. It is really crazy, because we are thinking about Fort Lauderdale, but we have to leave on Sunday to go to Doha, Qatar, to play in another tournament (KATARA Beach Volleyball Cup, March 6-10) back to back. Fort Lauderdale is a big event, but we have to get ready to play two events in a short period of time. It may be a lot easier than some of these teams, but most of them come in a couple of weeks before for training, so I think that all of the teams will be prepared for the weather and be acclimated to the time and everything else. They all want to win.
You are the No. 1 seed coming into the Fort Lauderdale major. Is there added pressure with that?
Phil Dalhausser: It definitely puts a target on your back anytime you are a No. 1 seed. All the other teams out there are looking to take you down. So, there is definitely pressure involved. You are definitely going to get a team’s “A” game because they are motivated to beat you.
Nick Lucena: I think we are one of the top teams, but I wouldn’t consider us the No. 1 team. We are definitely trying to compete for a win every time, so I don’t think there is any added pressure. We are both kind of veterans and have seen nearly everything with all that has been thrown at us. At the same time, I always put pressure on myself. But I am more anxious than anything. I am a little anxious to start playing because this is the longest we have gone without playing in a long time. So, we will see how it goes. I am ready to get started.
Brazilians Alvaro/Saymon, last year’s champions, are starting in the qualifiers this year. Does that change the tournament at all?
Phil Dalhausser: There are so many good teams. The tour is deeper than it has ever been since I have played. And there are just more young, talented guys coming out, so it is just going to get tougher and tougher.
The Brazilians are so deep that they are constantly shuffling in and out of the qualifiers and main draw. They probably have four or five teams that can win a tournament. Alvaro and Saymon started off hot last year and kind of cooled off at the end and a couple of other Brazilian teams caught fire so they slid into the qualifier. Brazil is just pretty darn good. They are our biggest rivals. It pains me to say that they are pretty darn good, but that is the truth. And they have been good for as long as I have been playing.
You said Brazil is good and your biggest rival. How would you assess the growth or status of the American level of play since you have been a part of it?
Phil Dalhausser: It has kind of gone up and down. In the ’90s, the US was the best. Then in the early 2000s, it kind of tapered off a bit. Then in the mid to late 2000s, you could make the argument that we were the best country. We had three or four teams that could win a tournament. And then in the last few years the level has kind of gone down a little bit. Teams keep switching up and I think that hurts USA Volleyball as a whole.
But I think we have some young guys coming up and getting some experience out there and hopefully they can carry the torch and become competitive and start winning tournaments out on the world tour because a lot of the U.S. guys are getting old. Nick and I are both 38. There is a guy John Hyden, who is 45 that I believe is still playing some pretty good ball. Jake Gibb is 42. So there are a lot of old American men. These young guys need to start stepping up their game and winning tournaments.
You have been together as a pair for a few years now. Do you feel like you are still growing as a team? What did you work on during the offseason to get even better in 2018?
Phil Dalhausser: I believe we have room to grow. The more we train with each other and with our coach, Jason Lockhead, the better we get. So, hopefully that shows this year and we have an even better year.
Nick Lucena: Our ball control can always be better. We are working on our spacing as far as how we move when we are receiving balls. In certain situations, we tend to get lazy just because we have been doing it for so long. Just small changes. We are just focusing on our side and using our age and our experience to our advantage. I think there is always room for growth, but we are going to change anything major.
After so many titles and so many individual accolades, what more is there for you to accomplish other than winning another world championship?
Phil Dalhausser: There is always a desire for more. I guess you could say I am a little greedy as far as winning is concerned because I have always said that winning is something that never gets old. That is what drives me: being the best in the world and the best that I can be. As long as I keep winning, I think I am going to keep playing. Hopefully we win a bunch this year because that just makes the sport way more fun.
The FIVB has doubled its prize money across the board in 2018 and now there is the newly formed players union. Do those factors help make this more of a career and make the time away from home more worthwhile?
Phil Dalhausser: Ultimately, we are all out here to make a living, so it is nice that the prize money has increased. But also the number of tournaments has increased as well so that is just more time away from home which is becoming harder and harder as the kids get older. So, it is kind of bittersweet. Yeah, you are making more money, but you are away from home more often.
Nick Lucena: What they have done is add a bunch of little tournaments and added some money, so technically they have doubled the prize money, but I think last year (it was better than this year). That is just my opinion, but it is really tough for anyone to make money.
But, the union is really good for the sport as far as the players having one voice.
Balancing your career and your family has to be challenge when your job takes you away from home so much. How do you handle that?
Phil Dalhausser: It is a tough thing to balance. Actually, since I moved to Florida I am gone more because I have to travel to train a little bit here and there, which isn’t ideal. But to make up for that, the family is going to come travel with me a little bit this year to make up for that lost time. We are gone six months of the year, we are in and out of town. But, for example, this past season, I was home from September to December straight, with no travelling so I caught up on a lot of that missed time. Probably at the end of the day, it evens out. If a guy or a mom works full time, they are gone 8-5, so they see their kids an hour or two a day. But for me, when I am home, I see them, I take them to school, I pick them up from school, I see them way more than someone with a full-time job does, so I kind of catch up.
Nick Lucena: Things have changed for us in so many ways. Now we are dealing with diapers and putting kids to bed and family time, where before we would just go out and have fun and play volleyball. It has been kind of crazy. We just started doing this for fun and a little bit of money to socialize, and now it has turned into a career. It is our way of supporting our families, so it definitely is more serious and focused. Luckily, we still have our friendship off the court as well and get along well. We have a good little staff working for us. I never thought I would still be playing at this age.
Nick, your wife Brooke is the beach coach at Florida State and you were slated to be a volunteer assistant coach this year. Were you able to do that and spend more time with her and your family this offseason?
Nick Lucena: I was their volunteer assistant in the fall, which was really fun because I think she has a really good group this season, a pretty good team. I will help out as much as I can at the tournaments she has this year. It is something that I enjoy doing. It actually gave me a purpose in the offseason, besides just taking care of the kids. It was kind of cool to be able to hang out together and it was really fun. I think they are going to have a really good season. Coaching the elite college girls that get what you are doing and can process it and get better gave me a little different perspective.
What is special the Beach Major Series?
Phil Dalhausser: The promoter, Hannes Jagerhofer, just knows how to run a tournament and put a tournament together. He does such a good job of building the tournament site and he makes us feel like professional athletes as far the accommodations go, the food we are served at lunch and dinner, and everything else. He makes it fun for the fans with a lot of activities to do at the site. He just does a really good job, so when we are in Europe and playing these tournaments, they are just a little nicer to play because they are higher end. I guess that is the best way to describe them.
Nick Lucena: I think the Major Series are the best tournaments in beach volleyball right now. Besides the prize money and the competition being the best, they are really well run. Hannes does a really great job of promoting. All of them are pretty great tournaments.
How has the new FIVB star ratings system changed things and helped you pick which tournaments you attend?
Phil Dalhausser: The five stars are the best tournaments in the world. If you win a one-star, you are actually losing money with the travel and all of that. We pick based on prize money and convenience. If there is a four-star in Rio, it is probably not worth our time to go down there for one tournament. But, there are a few runs of three four stars in a row in Europe. It probably makes sense to go to those because you hit three tournaments in a row out there. We pick and choose, but we try to be smart about it so that we are not travelling every single weekend.
Hamburg is the last stop on the major series. You guys have won back to back golds there and get to go back again for the Major Finals this year. What is special about playing there?
Nick Lucena: Hamburg is general is just really cool. The sands there have been great. We have won there back to back. I can’t say anything negative about it. Hopefully we will be there. You have to be a top 10 team so make the finals. Hopefully we will continue doing well and put ourselves in the position to compete and keep our streak going. Right now, Hamburg is my favorite place to play.
Anything you want to share about Nick?
Phil Dalhausser: Nick and I have been buddies for 17 or 18 years now. We are both Floridians and actually met playing against each other in amateur beach tournaments while we were in college. We have a little bit of history. We are pretty good buds. Now we are like mature adults, when before we were just kid in our early 20s. So, if things are going well, we do a good job of expressing our feelings, because as cheesy as it sounds, it is really like a marriage. If I am pissed off at him or he is pissed off at me and we hold a grudge, it is just not healthy and then we have an unhealthy relationship. We are at a point in our lives where we understand that and we do a good job of expressing our feelings.
As far as a player, Nick is a grinder. He is willing to fight for every last point. At 38, he still has a bunch of fire and is still one of the most athletic guys out there. I just can’t say enough about his drive and his willingness to work. I think that is what you want in partner.
Phil seems to get all of the awards: 2017 AVP MVP, Best Offensive Player, Best Server, Best Blocker and collectively you were Men’s Team of the Year. Do you take some glory in his accolades?
Nick Lucena: Listen, Phil is the face. He smiles real pretty, he is super physical. He blocks and does all of that. I am just there. I side out and I yell at him from time to time, so I don’t mind it. I don’t care about awards. I really enjoy playing with him and competing. That is all I care about. I am in a fortunate situation. He should be winning all of those awards. It is a no brainer. I tell him to his face all of his faults as well, though, don’t think I don’t. I take most of the credit for his success, let’s be honest.
Phil can play for a long time. Phil is a unique athlete. Being 6-9 and being able to have the ball skills that he does is unique and he does a good job keeping in shape.