Taylor Crabb: I should still be getting better

Read how USA's Taylor Crabb got to where he is today

The most nervous Taylor Crabb admits to being on a volleyball court didn’t come in any of his 15 AVP finals appearances, or at the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships or World Tour Finals. It didn’t come in any of his heated – in a good way – matches with his brother, Trevor, either.

It came in practice. His first few with Jake Gibb.

Crabb was, by U.S. standards, a kid then. Barely 25 years old with just a few years of professional beach experience. It’s difficult to imagine Crabb nervous now. This is the guy who can get blocked by Phil Dalhausser, look across the net, and stare him down, as if Dalhausser had made a grave mistake by having the audacity to block Crabb.

But in that first year, in 2017, Crabb felt the nerves of playing alongside a three-time Olympian, a guy who had succeeded at every level of the game, who will go down as one of the best blockers in American history.

Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb at the Doha 4-star in March

“I was like ‘Oh my God, I gotta be perfect, this guy’s going to think I suck, and he’s going to go back and wonder why did I pick this guy,’” Crabb recalled of the early days in his and Gibb’s partnership. “He’s a three-time Olympian and this is my third year on the beach. Not that I didn’t deserve to be out there, but playing with a guy like this was really nerve wracking because I wanted him to feel like he made the right decision.”

The first tournament helped, a fifth at the Fort Lauderdale Major in 2017. They would beat Italians Marco Caminati and Alex Ranghieri, Spain’s Adrian Gavira and Pablo Herrera, Canadians Sam Pedlow and Sam Schachter, falling only to eventual world champs Evandro Goncalves and Andre Loyola in a close match. Crabb’s first two wins on the AVP Tour also helped, in New York and Hermosa Beach, just months after their debut in Fort Lauderdale.

Still, 2017 was marked partly by inconsistency, partly by brilliance. There was a 25th, in Moscow, and a pair of AVPs in which they didn’t make it to Sunday.

Gibb points to the finals of the Manhattan Beach Open of 2018 when it all began to shift. They were playing against Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena. Dalhausser has won more Manhattan Beach Opens than any player in history. He has, in fact, become so good on Sundays – the day on which semifinals and finals are played on the AVP Tour – that many have divided Dalhausser into two: There’s Phil, then there’s Sunday Phil.

If you manage to beat Sunday Phil, it’s best you cherish that memory. It doesn’t happen often.

On that Sunday, Crabb was, hands down, “the best player on the court,” Gibb said, “and there were three Olympians on the court. I thought that match was just a game changer for him building confidence.”

They didn’t win, allowing a 20-18 lead in the second set to become a 20-22 loss, which preceded a 13-15 third set. But there was little if any debate over who had taken over as the best defender in the country: Taylor Crabb.

“It’s mostly confidence for me,” said Crabb, who has now been named the AVP Defensive Player of the Year three times, also winning Most Valuable Player in 2019. “I don’t think I’m doing anything volleyball-wise or skill related any differently. It’s more just being confident that I deserve to be out there and I can be out there with these guys who have been playing for 20-plus years. Jake and [coach] Rich [Lambourne] have always boosted me up and always given me the highest praise and compliments, so they help me with that and make me feel like I deserve to be out there and deserve to be at that level.”

Taylor Crabb keeps the ball in play in Gstaad in 2018

Any questions over that were silenced this past November. Good as Crabb and Gibb had been on the AVP in their three years as partners – eight wins and four second-place finishes in 19 events – they hadn’t yet put it together on the World Tour. There had been good finishes, near misses, like the pair of fourths they took in Majors, one in Gstaad of 2018, the other at the World Tour Finals of 2019.

But no medal.

“I think that was a monkey on his back and our back, collectively,” Gibb said.

“I felt so much pressure those three years without getting a medal,” Crabb added. “We’re expected to be this great American team and one of the best teams in the world and we hadn’t been able to finish. It was really confidence crushing for me, not being able to podium. This is what USA shoots for is podiums and medals and we’re supposed to be this team that gets those and we hadn’t gotten those.”

Then came the Chetumal four-star, the bookending event of the 2019 season. A slow start in pool play – narrowly beating Argentinian qualifiers Julian Azaad and Nico Capogrosso before losing to Chilean cousins Marco and Esteban Grimalt – meant an arduous gauntlet of a bracket ahead: Italians Adrian Carambula and Enrico Rossi, Poland’s Michal Bryl and Grzegorz Fijalek, Austrians Martin Ermacora and Moritz Pristauz-Telsnigg.

That was just to get to the semifinals, where they’d meet Alex Walkenhorst and Sven Winter. All of which preceded a bout with Dutch Alex Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen, a team whom Gibb hadn’t beat since 2013, in the finals.
That road only served to make it all the sweeter when they pulled it off in three over the Dutch, 15-12 in the final set.

“It was sweet, man,” Gibb said. “It was huge.”

Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb top the Chetumal podium

Crabb immediately called up his former coach at Long Beach State and good friend, Tyler Hildebrand, who is now the Director of Beach National Teams at USA Volleyball. It was Hildebrand who architected the team in the first place. He was the one who recommended Crabb to Gibb. He was the one who set the first meeting between the two. He was the one who told Gibb to give Crabb some time. Let the kid show you what he can do.

“He sold him to me,” Gibb said. “Because he was so high on him, I just continually watched him and I agreed on what he was saying.”

It is impossible to disagree at this point. Crabb has become the answer for who is the best defender in the United States. And he’s made his way into the discussion for who is the best defender in the world, alongside Christian Sorum, Viacheslav Krasilnikov, Clemens Wickler, Daniele Lupo, among others.

Why Crabb has made this jump in such a short amount of time is difficult to pin. It’s nothing skill-wise, he said. He just feels like he belongs at that level, with the medal of the proper colour to prove it.

“I feel like every year I’m getting better,” Crabb said. “I’m still at that age where I should still be getting better. I don’t think I’ve reached my prime yet and obviously I have I think the best two guys around me in Jake and Rich to help me to get to my potential and get to my prime. I’m excited with where this is headed, where our team is headed. This is our fourth year together and every year we’ve been getting better.”

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Olympic Games Tokyo 2020