Jameel Epps of Absecon never played volleyball before 2008 and first played serious two-man beach volleyball just two years ago.
But the 23-year-old has made a lot of progress, and today he and partner Rob Griffiths will try to raise their level at the AVP DO AC Pro Beach Volleyball Invitational in Atlantic City.
Epps and Griffiths are one of 15 teams in the men's qualifier tournament, which runs from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the sand courts at Boardwalk and South New Jersey Avenue between Revel Casino-Hotel and Showboat Casino Hotel. Only the winning team in the qualifier advances into the main draw of top pros on Saturday.
The big tournament, for members of the Association of Volleyball Professionals, concludes Sunday.
"Basically, it will be extremely tough," said Epps, a Pleasantville High School graduate and Richard Stockton College student. "Rob and I are ready and we're going in with the right mindset. It would be amazing if we made it."
The 6-foot-2 Epps is a member of Great American Volleyball, a level of pros below AVP, and he doesn't accept prize money to keep his collegiate status with the Stockton men's club team.
But he has played in two-man beach tournaments and six-man indoor club tournaments, not only in Seaside Heights and Point Pleasant, but also Clearwater, Fla., Texas, Utah and Kentucky.
After starting to concentrate on beach volleyball in 2011, Epps won a two-man tournament in Brigantine with partner Angel Martinez, a former indoor teammate from Pleasantville High School. Last year he won two beach tournaments, in Point Pleasant and in Seaside Heights, with partner Jerry Mancuso of Jackson.
"I prefer beach volleyball over indoor," said Epps, who's also a baker at ShopRite in Absecon. "It's more relaxing. The girls are watching you, and there's a crowd on the Boardwalk.
"The beach area between Revel and Showboat is one of the finest areas to play. I lot of my friends from Stockton and from the Ventnor League I used to play in, will be there (today), plus other people who know I do this."
Epps and Griffiths have only been a team for about two months and haven't been in a tournament together yet. The 6-foot-1, 29-year-old Griffiths played football and boys volleyball for J.P. Stevens High School in Edison before going on to play men's volleyball for New Jersey City University.
"Jameel and I are both jumpers and we both set well," Griffiths said. "I played against him in indoor volleyball two years ago. We make a good team because we both play as hard as we can. We view this tournament as a learning opportunity. It's our first shot at bigger opportunities, and it gives us a chance to set our goals and measure ourselves against really good competition."
Griffiths also prefers beach volleyball to indoor.
"You're working with just one more player, like doubles in tennis," Griffiths said. "With six players there's more room for error. Also playing in the sand you can dive more and take more chances.
Epps first played volleyball at Pleasantville in 2008, his senior year. He played basketball for three years, and track and field two years. He gave up his third year of track to try volleyball in the spring season.
"A lot of my friends were playing volleyball, and I wanted to be part of the team to win a championship. We missed making the playoffs by two points.
"I stayed with it and started to get good. I joined some leagues in Cherry Hill and was in the Ventnor League two years. I developed a love for the game.
"My coaches at Pleasantville, Jim Bucko and Tim Newkirk, introduced me to the game, and they still help me train and advise me. My Stockton coaches, Phil Kenning and Cecilia Kleiner, have helped me a lot too."
Contact Guy Gargan:
Making the transition from baseball to beach volleyball has proven to be a tall order for To…
AVP DO AC Pro Beach Volleyball
Where: Courts at Boardwalk and South New Jersey Avenue between Revel and Showboat
Today's schedule: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.: men's and women's qualifying
10 a.m. to 6 p.m.: men's and women's main draw
9 a.m. to 2 p.m.: men's and women's quarterfinals, semifinals
2 p.m.: men's final
3 p.m. : women's final