CLEARWATER — Just a few years ago, Mackenzie Dagostino and Star Steele were high school seniors, playing volleyball inside gyms across the Tampa area as setters for their respective school teams.
Dagostino, a high school All-American who won three state titles at Berkeley Prep, now plays for the University of Florida, and Steele plays at the U.S. Naval Academy after starring for Tampa Catholic.
On Thursday at Pier 60, they were among 140 athletes from across the country vying for spots in the AVP St. Petersburg Open, the opening tournament of the pro beach volleyball season.
Thursday was the open qualifier for the St. Petersburg Open, and four teams from each gender could earn automatic bids into the three-day tournament that begins today at Spa Beach Park in St. Petersburg. The tournament will include three-time Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings and Olympic gold medalist and five-time USA Beach Volleyball Male Athlete of the Year Phil Dalhausser.
The eight teams that qualified will be the four bottom seeds in each bracket and will be paired against the top eight seeds in beach volleyball.
“You'll be playing in the tournament against the top seeds in the world, and usually our top five teams are all playing internationally and going for the Olympics,” said Jeff Conover, AVP tournament director. “The chances of playing an Olympian or prospect Olympian are almost certain once you get here.”
Seventy teams, 50 men's and 20 women's, entered the qualifier, many from the Bay area. Tampa Bay did not produce a qualifier Thursday, but many athletes came close. Palm Harbor's Justin Phipps reached the men's semifinals, as did JD Christie of Largo.
“With a typical team for the qualifier, usually the top eight or so seeds are all really good pros that are battling for the last couple of automatic entries into the main draw, so if they are in the qualifier, they're just out (of the main draw) on points, so the quality of the qualifier is really high, especially on the men's side being that there are so many teams,” Conover said.
Dagostino and Steele, once teammates on a Tampa-based club team, were the bottom seed in the women's qualifier and lost in the first round.
“Just being able to come out here and play against the two girls we played against is very eye opening, and it shows how different the two sports are, indoor and outdoor, because beach has a completely different complex than indoor,” Dagostino said. “These people are great, and it was fun to play with them and I definitely want to play more.”
Thursday was the first AVP playing experience for Dagostino and Steele.
“Coming to Clearwater, the AVP tournament does a great job to bring life to the sport through the Tampa Bay area,” Steele said. “Volleyball will grow only when there's more of these events and people can come see that the sport is going to have some longevity to it.”
Phipps, a 15-year pro beach player, lost in the finals of last year's qualifier.
“It's a good spot,” he said. “I think it's one of the better spots on the (AVP) tour and I've traveled to a lot of beaches.”
One of youngest players in the qualifier was Dagostino's younger brother, Berkeley Prep senior Kyle Dagostino, who recently led the school's boys volleyball team to a state title, the first for a Hillsborough County team. Kyle Dagostino is also a member of the USA Youth National Team and has signed to play collegiately at Stanford. He and teammate Jet Steele, Star's younger brother, were seeded 38th overall and lost in the opening round.
“I feel like I'm still going to be an indoor guy, just because that's what I grew up playing and that's what I'm used to, but I'll definitely dabble in beach every now and then and maybe after my indoor career is done I'll still play beach because I feel like it's something you can play when you get older,” Kyle Dagostino said.