It was a 14-hour drive for Jason Dibelius from his home in Hermosa Beach, Calif., the epicenter of beach volleyball culture, in Aspen. The flights were overpriced, but the host of volleyball’s most played podcast wasn’t about to turn down a call he got from LetsGO Volleyball organizer Corey Bryndal to come work the 2022 edition of the Motherlode Volleyball Classic.
A long drive later, which included a four-hour layover at a truck stop, and Dibelius had arrived. He wasn’t sure what Bryndal would ask of him, but was ready for all his tricks of the trade – he brought streaming gear, microphones and digital dashboard software for whatever was needed, whether it was either game by game, color commentary or something else. .
“Everyone has heard of Motherlode, even if they haven’t been here,” Dibelius said. “I heard it was intimate, it’s kind of like a little family.”
His presence is an indicator of what Bryndal has been trying to do since his purchase of the event – increase the legitimacy of the tournament as it stabilizes under his ownership and in the wake of COVID-19. He purchased high-end brand name equipment and tents for the shadow to increase the production value of the tournament.
Bryndal is the event’s fourth owner, but the third in the past five years after longtime coordinator Leon Fell handed over management to a group of players in 2019. In 2020, Bryndal acquired the event after playing there for almost 30 years. His knee exploded and his playing days over, he was not ready to let the game pass. He made a list of things he liked or would like to see at the end of his playing days on tour through Colorado, and took that list to his new business and his new tournament.
Now in its 49th year, the Motherlode has seen a return to Wagner Park for the first time since 2019. The nets and stanchions all have uniform LetsGO branding, including printed palm pylons along the Koch Lumber sand courts Park. Barriers prevent loose balls from escaping too far. Shade tents offer athletes and spectators respite from the sun. A new center court with a set of bleachers gives grass players a small stadium feel under the slopes of Aspen Mountain. Giant inflated volleyball stands watch over the sandy courts and merchandise stalls.
On its own, Motherlode has become one of the most prestigious pro-am tournaments in the country. Now Bryndal wants him to feel the role.
“It’s one of the oldest and oldest tournaments in the country, and my goal is to make sure that experience is high quality,” Bryndal said. “I applied and adapted all of these concepts for Motherlode because it was such a phenomenal opportunity. To own something so historic and be able to put your heart into it, it’s a unique opportunity for me.
Due to the pandemic, Bryndal had to stay away as the event was canceled in its first year of ownership – although he admitted some players still went out alone over the weekend of the party work. But somehow he was grateful. Rather than scrambling to manage the logistics and ensure the event was executed on short notice, he was able to put extra effort into planning for the 2021 event.
The result was a rebounding pool of players and the introduction of triples support. In the second year, Wagner Park – where in 1972 the employees of the Mother Lode restaurant hosted a barbecue, officially ushering in the tournament’s history – retained its place as the focal point of grass-court competition.
This year, the number of registrations for the triple tournament has doubled. The open general tournament saw its registration jump about 75%, Bryndal said, from about 40 teams to 70.
“Word got around that we made the effort,” he said.
Motherlode continues to draw from across the country, as it always has. Teams and players from Texas, California, New Mexico, New York, and more. come to the quaint town to play in late summer. In the Facebook group of the event, players without partners or accommodations announced their intention to come, simply wanting to be part of it. Bryndal said these attendants are a small minority, but lure draws people in, even without a plan.
Now Bryndal hopes to add a more professional touch to the tournament to go along with his stature.
“It’s been handled really well,” said Kaila Cleary, a turf player from Los Alamos, New Mexico. “The sponsors and everything matches, which makes it a lot better, all the nets matched, the tents. They’re very involved.
Cleary’s doubles partner Crystal Odenbaugh of Brighton agreed.
“It helps to come to a big, organized event like this knowing that people know what they’re doing and can handle it smoothly,” Odenbaugh said. “There’s a lot of communication between the directors and the players.”
The duo, however, recognized a limiting factor for the tournament: their competition. Both at the amateur and professional level, other major tournaments create scheduling conflicts. Even in town, Bryndal credited the preparation of Food and Wine last year as the reason Motherlode was held at Rio Grande Park, not Wagner, in 2021.
Cleary and Odenbaugh cited the Fraser Valley Doubles tournament at the Fraser Valley Sports Complex near Granby as the one keeping players away from Motherlode. Cleary said the Fraser Tournament uses tall grass courts while short courts are used at Wagner.
Professionally, the Chicago Open has kept top players from coming to Aspen, even for those who want to.
Mark Burick, who has attended 78 Association of Volleyball Professionals events since 2006, said he has wanted to come to Motherlode for almost 20 years. This year, a foot injury kept him from qualifying for Chicago, closing one door but opening another in Aspen, which he has compared to the famously picturesque courts in Gstaad, Switzerland.
“It’s billed as the most scenic beach volleyball tournament in the entire country,” Burick said. “All the professional players say it’s the most pristine and beautiful tournament. It’s our Gstaad. It’s a cool place to come to and there’s a lot of history behind it.
In Burick’s first game, after watching his teammate and longtime Motherlode competitor Jeff Samuels block a series of spikes in a row, he joked with the spectators, “That’s why you answer the phone.”
Samuels has won in Aspen twice. The Michigan native has earned nearly $30,000 on the AVP circuit, according to bvbinfo.com.
Once he learned that Burick had failed to qualify for the Chicago Open, he went through a mutual friend to recruit him for Motherlode. Burick said the two have played against each other before, but were never teammates until Saturday’s opener. The duo entered the men’s open doubles draw as the No. 1 seed.
If it hadn’t been for the scheduling conflicts, Burick thinks many of volleyball’s top echelons would be in Aspen for Labor Day every year.
“This tournament can bring the top five teams to the United States or if the pro tour schedules add up, then it will get a few top 20 teams,” Burick said. “You can attract the best players from a bunch of different cities and then it can become a really crazy and tough tournament.”
On the women’s side, the duo of Katie Pyles and Lena Sokolowski is the favorite seed. The pair also won last year’s women’s open doubles tournament.
On Saturday evening, all the triple classifications and the senior levels were completed.
The five-day tournament continues until Monday, with men’s and women’s open doubles competing on both days in Koch. The finals for these brackets will take place on Monday. On Sunday, grass players will end their game with some of the best competition on the pitch. A-level men’s and women’s doubles and B- and BB-level mixed doubles will lead Wagner throughout the day. Competitions begin at 8:30 a.m. both mornings. The show is free, with food and merchandise available for purchase.
“I think you’re going to see a big open field that’s very competitive,” Bryndal said. You’re going to see a lot of new teams being added to this community, in this open field. You are going to hear the commentator who knows the sport inside and out. The energy level and competitive nature increased exponentially.
“It’s always been a top tournament, but seeing such a deep field is unique.”