The gamer | Lane Carico

Feb. 12, 2014, 8:30 a.m. (ET)

The gamer

By Don Patterson
Originally published in VolleyballUSA, Fall 2013 issue.
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Winning in beach volleyball can sometimes be more complicated than losing. Rookie Lane Carico found that out in August (2013). She and her beach partner, Heather Hughes, had their travel plans all set. They would compete in the AVP season opener in Salt Lake City, fly back home to Los Angeles, get a good night’s sleep, pack and fly out the next afternoon for an FIVB event in Russia.

Then they won a couple of matches in Salt Lake, and then they won a couple more. By the time they were finished, they had a nice fifth-place finish – four wins, two losses – but their window of time before the Russia flight had shrunk from overnight to about an hour. So now they were in crazy mode, a mode pro beach volleyball players find themselves in quite a bit.

“There’s a business side to the sport that’s new to me, and it gets a little overwhelming at times,” says Carico, who is 23 and just finished her college career – four years of sand this past spring at Georgia State University – and practiced this summer with USA Volleyball’s Beach Elite Development team as well as its U26 team. “I’ll train all day and work as hard as I can physically, but it’s a different type of learning, figuring out how to organize everything.”

 Up-and-coming star Lane Carico

Fortunately, she has help from mom and dad. When the timetable got crunchy in Salt Lake, Kelli and Chris Carico kicked into gear. They bolted to the grocery store to pick up travel snacks, packed her bags, then rushed to the airport to stand in line for her at the international terminal.

“All the little things that are necessary to make it in this sport and take advantage of these opportunities, I wouldn’t be able to do it without them,” Lane says. “They make it all go so much more smoothly.”

Not that there wasn’t a little craziness left. Lane did her homework on the subject of international travel and got the word that you don’t want to rely entirely on the local food. So she stocked up. Man, did she stock up.

“I brought soooo much food,” she says. “Pretty much my whole big suitcase was filled. I had protein bars and nuts and oatmeal and beef jerky. Peanut butter. A couple of cans of soup left over from a camping trip.”

Of course, that beefed up her bag to the point where it was way over the weight limit. The real challenge, though, came when she arrived at the Russian village where she and the other athletes were staying and was told: No outside food allowed.

“They seemed so serious about it,” she says. “So I ended up having to store it all in a locker at the beach volleyball venue. You just have to learn to deal with things on the spot and make the best of every situation because things don’t usually go as planned. You always have to be able to adjust.”

Whatever speed bumps and potholes lie ahead on Lane Carico’s pro beach volleyball path, she is, by all accounts, a great student. For starters, she has the tools. So says three-time Olympian Holly McPeak, who is third on the all-time beach volleyball career victories list and has trained Carico along with many other elite players. McPeak goes as far as to say that Carico has the right stuff to rise to an Olympic level sometime in the next decade – if not by Rio, then by Tokyo in 2020.

“Absolutely,” McPeak says. “She has stood out from the beginning for me. She’s really quick defensively, has really good instincts and is awesome offensively. She can hammer it and has good range. She knows how to put the ball away.”

McPeak calls Carico “a gamer.” 

Lane at the Porta del Sol Beach Volleyball Tournament
at Boqueron, Puerto Rico

“Even before she had much training, she could still win tournaments, and then when she started training, she became so much better,” McPeak says. “She still has a ways to go in blocking and setting and experience – she doesn’t have a lot of competition experience yet – but she can battle against the best people in practice. I played a couple of defensive drills against her this summer and she was touching balls that I can usually eat people alive on.”

And one other thing: She has the right work ethic. Nobody judges this quality with higher standards than McPeak, who has always trained at an intensity level that nibbles around the edges of nuttiness. “I like her attitude,” McPeak says. “She wants it and doesn’t make excuses for stuff. She’s hungry.”

Similar praise comes from Ali Wood Lamberson, USA Volleyball’s (former) director of International and High Performance Beach programs. She says Carico clearly has Olympic potential and she likes Carico’s explosiveness. She also likes her rich beach volleyball roots, which were developed early on when Lane accompanied her parents to the beach in her hometown of Manhattan Beach, Calif., the epicenter of beach volleyball.

“Lane just seems really passionate about the sport,” Lamberson says. “Since her parents played, she’s been around it for years. I think that helps young players develop; even if you’re not always out there playing, you’re still learning the sport sitting on the beach watching mom and dad. I think that has really helped her.”

It also helped that the Caricos have a small court in front of their family home in Manhattan Beach. Very small, actually. In Lane’s estimation, it’s about half the size of a normal court. But that provides certain advantages.

For instance, it has forced her to tangle with such hardships as digging balls when shrubbery branches are poking into her arms and battling one-on-one in a confined area with her younger brother, Weston, who is 6-2 and plays both indoor (currently at Concordia University in Irvine, Calif.) and beach. (Her older sister, Taylor, played indoor – three seasons at University of Southern California and one at University of Minnesota.)

“You don’t score points to easily on a court that size,” she says. “And it teaches you to read. (The playing area) is so small, and then I’d have this 6-2 person who was either going to crush the ball at my face from three feet away or shoot it over my head. I had to be really quick with my vision.”

Carico was plenty good at the indoor game – 37-0 her senior season at Mira Costa High School in Los Angeles: two-time AVCA All American as an outside hitter at the University of Miami – but beach is probably where she belongs. At an angular 5-10, it’s hard to imagine her cracking into the top level as an outside hitter in the international game, but it’s not hard at all to envision her rising on the beach as a defensive player who’s big enough and strong enough to transition consistently for points.

Some players and coaches in the know have said that she might be a good future partner for 20-year-old Summer Ross, another USA elite player who lit it up this summer alongside Emily Day to the tune of a victory and second on the AVP Tour, a fourth at the FIVB Grand Slam in Long Beach, Calif., and four head-to-head victories over three-time Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings and her current partner, Whitney Pavlik.

Lane going for a ball at the Porta del Sol Beach Volleyball
an event she and partner Sara Hughes won.

Ross and Carico are two of the very best prospects in their age range. Ross has said that she wants to play defense, although, at 6-1 she seems more suited to blocking full time or being a tweener. So you never know. They could end up on the same side of the court. But it’s also possible Ross will go in the split-blocking direction and Carico will end up with a bigger girl up front.

After Carico finishes the 2013 FIVB beach season, which stretches into December, her plan is to plunge into an offseason training program that furthers her transition from indoor to beach. On her to-do list: Break down the technical skills of the game, take a ton of passing and setting reps – “One of the things I’ve been hearing from Holly and other coaches is that passing and setting are the most important parts of the beach game,” Carico says. “You have to be able to pass and set at any time, in any situation,” – and develop some new serves. She also wants to cultivate a better understanding of when to swing and when to shoot.

“A lot of indoor players are just swing, swing, swing,” she says. “Out here on the beach, you have to understand what your opponents’ weaknesses are and be able to adjust. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that if somebody is taking away my normal swing, I have to learn to swing somewhere else.”

Another focus will be adding shots to her repertoire. One she hopes to develop is the jumbo, a crafty beach lob shot.

I haven’t hit many jumbos in my life,” she says. “But a lot of players don’t have it, so a lot of players don’t learn to defend it or don’t expect to have to defend it. That’s why it will score. It’s a shot I’d like to learn for sure. All the true shot-masters, they’ve got it.”

Improving her cut shot is also on the list. Carico recalls what she was told by USC sand coach Anna Collier, who also coaches USA High Performance teams. Collier says there’s an art to hitting a great cut.

“When the cut shot crosses over the middle of the net or even farther towards the other end, defenders have so little time when the ball is on their side of the court,” Carico says. “With the normal cut shot that a lot of people do, it’s on the other side of the net for so long, and you see it travel and the defender can track it much more easily.”

As part of USAV’s Elite Development group, Carico says she’s in a great position to sponge up information. Not only is she getting instruction from McPeak and other accomplished coaches such as beach Olympians Barbra Fontana and Stein Metzger, she’s playing against high-powered young players, including current partner Heather Hughes, Kaitlin Sather Nielsen, Morgan Beck Miller, Tealle Hunkus, Crystal Engel and even some veterans: Angie Akers has trained with the group; Kerri Walsh Jennings even showed up for a practice.

“It’s an amazing experience for someone who is young and trying to learn beaches I’m playing with higher level players who are better than me and I get to watch and learn from them, she says. “They’re pushing me to get better, faster.”

Carico is “a believer in pushing yourself” McPeak saw that first hand this summer. One morning, Carico finished a touch McPeak workout and was getting ready to leave when Kerri and two other players showed up to do drills. She immediately jumped at the chance to join in and be a fourth, so it ended up being a double-day practice for her. And she did double days every time the U26 practices fell on the same day as the Elite Development practices.

The message is clear: When it comes to beach volleyball, Lane Carico is all in.