Making the transition from baseball to beach volleyball has proven to be a tall order for Toms River native Ryan Doherty.
The 7-foot-1 former pitcher in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization enters this weekend's Do AC Pro Beach Volleyball Invitational as one of the most promising members of the Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) tour.
But it hasn't been easy. Even while partnered with three-time Olympian Todd Rogers, the 29-year-old Doherty has had mixed results.
"I'm a big believer in the 10,000-hour rule, that you have to practice a task for 10,000 hours in order to succeed at it," Rogers said in a phone interview from Santa Barbara, Calif. "Ryan has been working toward that and he's been getting better and better.
"In a lot of ways, he's behind the eight ball because he's 29 and is still catching up to everyone. He's coming along, but he still has a ways to go to be at the top level. I'd expect him to be a major player in the 2016 Olympics and definitely in 2020."
Doherty has come a long way in a short time.
Unlike Rogers and the other stars of beach volleyball, he didn't grow up playing the sport. Until about six years ago, his idea of digging in the sand involved a pail and shovel.
Doherty was a standout basketball and baseball player at Toms River East High School. He was recruited by virtually every major college basketball program and was the Gatorade national high school baseball player of the year as a junior.
He decided to stick with baseball and pitched for the University of Notre Dame, then signed as a free agent with the Arizona Diamondbacks and became the first 7-foot pitcher in minor-league baseball history in 2005. Two years later, he was released.
"One day you're pitching and then all of a sudden you get a phone call and your baseball career is over," Doherty said in a phone interview from Ventura, Calif. "That was pretty tough to take."
He found beach volleyball almost by accident.
Rather than return home, Doherty accepted an offer from a buddy and moved to South Carolina, where his house happened to be a few yards away from a beach volleyball court. They decided to give the sport a try.
"He worked at a bank and I worked at a T-shirt shop," Doherty said. "We bought the cheapest volleyball we could find and after work we'd go over there and try to pass the ball back and forth three times without shanking it into the bushes. On weekends, we'd go over there and just get crushed by high school girls. But I loved it. I needed a new competitive outlet and passion and beach volleyball is it."
Doherty returned to Notre Dame to finish college, then moved to Huntington Beach, Calif., in 2010 to see if he could make it as a pro beach volleyball player.
He took his lumps for a few years, not winning a lot of matches, but gaining valuable experience. He began to see progress last year, teaming with veteran Casey Patterson to earn fifth and sixth place, respectively, in AVP events in Cincinnati and Santa Barbara.
Doherty got a big break after the 2012 Olympics, when defending gold medalists Rogers and Phil Dalhausser finished a disappointing 17th and decided to part ways. Rogers was looking for a new teammate and chose Doherty.
"I really enjoy teaching and helping players," Rogers said. "And Ryan needs a lot of coaching. I sort of threw him into the fire internationally (in the Federation of International Beach Volleyball) and he got burned a little bit, but I knew we were going to take our lumps because this sport is very tough, especially mentally.
"We've played well at times, but we need to be able to do it for two or three matches in a row. We can certainly win in Atlantic City. We have the potential to beat anybody out there. But the other teams are consistent and we haven't gotten to that point, yet."
Doherty and Rogers lost in the finals of the first AVP event of the summer in Salt Lake City and tied for third in the prestigious Manhattan Beach Open, but struggled in Cincinnati last week, losing in the round of 16.
Playing close to home should help Doherty this weekend. This will be his first trip back to the Atlantic City area in 18 months, since he played in a tournament in Belmar.
He's never played beach volleyball in Atlantic City, but still has vivid memories of some earlier visits there.
"It was the classic Atlantic City tale," Doherty said with a laugh. "My friends and I used to go there and we always left with nothing but memories. But that's OK. The way I see it, as long as you've got a smile on your face, you're doing well."
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