Sports

Spartan stars on the sand


Robert Beck/special to the Town Crier
Los Altos native Brittany Howard is in her first full season on the AVP Tour, which stopped in San Francisco last month.

At 9 years old, long before she became one of the best beach volleyball players in the nation, Brittany Howard sat in the stands at San Francisco’s Pier 32, watching her heroes play. Fifteen years later, the Los Altos native swapped the stands for the sand.

“It was a dream come true,” said Howard, who competed in San Francisco last month as part of the Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) 2018 tour.

“I grew up going to the AVP in San Francisco when I was little, and this past week we actually dug up some pictures of me there, sitting at Stadium Court and watching my idols,” the 2012 Mountain View High graduate said in a recent phone interview.

If 9-year-old Brittany had been in the stands last month, she probably would have been impressed. Howard and partner Kelly Reeves took third at the San Francisco Open – the pair’s best finish of the season and Howard’s best ever on the AVP Tour.

This is Howard’s first full season on the tour, a series of tournaments – mostly in California but traversing the country all the way to New York – pitting the best American beach volleyball players against one another. Although the travel and tournament schedule is hectic, the Stanford University graduate said much of the fun comes from the tight-knit bond the players on the tour develop.

“We always talk about ‘AVP family,’” Howard said. “We all live within three miles of each other, and we all practice against each other, so it’s been such a great community to be welcomed into.”

Perhaps nowhere is this connection more evident than in the relationship between Howard and Reeves. While the two have known each other for a few years, meeting through friends of friends, this season has been their first as partners. But despite their fresh partnership and their relative inexperience – Reeves, the 26-year-old “veteran” of the two, is playing just her third season – the bond between Howard and Reeves is already obvious.

“Kelly is so awesome,” Howard said of the UCLA grad. “She just has so much fire and energy and emotion, and when she’s on, she’s unstoppable. It’s really fun to play with her, and I just feed off of her intensity.”

Howard has even earned herself a term of endearment from her older teammate.

“I gave her the hashtag ‘#Stanford’ because she’s a very cerebral, very intellectual player,” Reeves said of Howard, who graduated from Stanford in 2016. “Off the court, she’ll sometimes crack jokes that go over my head, because she’s ‘#Stanford’ – so intelligent.”

Of course, Howard has made it this far on more than just intelligence; she’s also inherited some serious athletic prowess from her parents. Dad Steve captained the University of the Pacific’s Division I basketball team and mom Eileen played volleyball at UOP before joining the U.S. Women’s National Team for two years.

Eileen sparked her daughter’s love of volleyball.

“When we first started (playing), it was just with a balloon,” Brittany said. “My favorite game to play with her was ‘Jump and Spike,’ just in our backyard.”

It didn’t take long for Howard to develop her skills. At 9, she joined a volleyball club in Mountain View. Soon after, she moved to Vision Volleyball Club, one of the top clubs in the Bay Area.

Howard’s impact on the Mountain View High squad was immediate. As a freshman, mentored by seniors Megan McConnell and Marilee Fisher – both of whom went on to play college volleyball – Howard helped the team reach the Northern California championship (the team lost to powerhouse Mitty in straight sets).

“My freshman year, that was the best team we had,” Howard said. “But we were the underdog from the very first round. And then we fell short to Mitty, which, you know, is expected.”

That was as far in the postseason as Howard would get, but the Spartans went 32-16 in the SCVAL De Anza Division over her four seasons and she left as their all-time kills leader.

And as Reeves won’t let her forget, Howard then took her talents to Stanford, where she continued to excel. The Cardinal made the postseason all four seasons she was there, highlighted by a Final Four appearance her junior year. Howard amassed individual accolades as well: She was named to the All-Pac-12 Team her freshman and senior seasons, earning honorable mentions her sophomore and junior years.

Howard’s biggest challenge was still ahead of her. After graduating from Stanford, she attended grad school at Pepperdine University and joined the beach volleyball team. The transition from indoor to beach volleyball wasn’t easy; Howard said the games are more different than one might think.

“I struggled big-time,” Howard said. “Jumping on a hard surface you can be more explosive, you can jump higher. … Jumping on the sand, I just felt like … I had lead attached to my feet.”

Although Howard admitted that there is still more improvement to be made, she’s come a long way from her backyard “Jump and Spike” days.

While her focus remains on finishing the AVP season, which wraps up next month, Howard is also contemplating her future.

“There’s always life after sports, and I’ve prepared myself for that,” said Howard, who earned a master’s degree in global business from Pepperdine. “I accept and I am well aware that I cannot do this forever, but I want to keep playing for as long as I can. … I would definitely say I’ll be playing for a few more to many more years.”

Howard’s next stop on the AVP Tour is Manhattan Beach, where matches are slated Aug. 16-19.

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