March 17, 2022 - During 2014, an outside hitter at Long Beach State you may have heard of, a 6-foot 22-year-old with a whip of an arm named Taylor Crabb, finished a staggering senior season with 499 kills, 225 digs, 64 blocks, and a team-high 19 aces. He was subsequently named All-Everything: All-America, All-Conference, Player of the Year.
It was unquestioned dominance with which Crabb played that 2014 season.
And yet, during that same 2014 season, a player you likely did not hear of, at a school few would recognize outside of North Carolina, amassed 24 more kills than Crabb, an astonishing 5.03 per set. Nolan Albrecht might not have the name recognition of a Taylor Crabb, a 2021 Olympian and arguably the best defender in the United States, and Belmont Abbey may not have the long-standing history of Long Beach, but make no mistake: He is very, very good at volleyball.
He just happens to play it on the grass.
People had asked him to play, prior to his graduation from Belmont Abbey, and it’s easy to see why.
Bomb of a serve? Check.
Cannon arm? Check.
Magnetic ball control? Check.
What else do you need, really?
After leaving Belmont Abbey, Albrecht opted not to play, choosing not to put his NCAA eligibility at risk, the following summer, "I played in a whole bunch of grass tournaments and I found that the grass game really does emulate the physicality that's required on the indoor court. Really good transition play, really high sideout rates, even higher than sand by a long shot, and then just the necessity for a great serve," Albrecht said. "On the grass court you can move so much faster than beach so just being able to rip a hard jump serve to a spot is half the battle. That carried me through basically all the way to the semis just because we can score so many points off the serve. I started to see that playing grass played to the strengths that I had trained indoor and I didn't have to modify my game very much to be one of the elite players on the grass."
Indeed, little to no modification was needed at all. And the swift and remarkably consistent success he has enjoyed is proof enough. He won the first three grass AVPAmerica events he played, in 2016, and his stock has only taken a meteoric rise since. Last year alone, Albrecht made the finals of the Pottstown Rumble and then claimed the title at the AVPGrass Tour Nationals, the two biggest grass tournaments of the year, both with Marc Fornaciari.
"Now that I'm in my older years, I get more enjoyment out of seeing guys like Nolan put themselves on the map," Fornaciari said. "I've been raving about Nolan for the last five years. I've been telling [Bill] Kolinske, I've been telling people: This kid's the real deal. He's on the map now."
Oh, yes. He's on the map all right. Every map, really. Beach or grass. He took a top-10 at the Waupaca Boatride on the beach, a setting many hadn't yet heard of Albrecht at the time. The power behind his arm was, frankly, alarming to a few.
"It's insane," said Tim Brewster, who played Albrecht in the ninth-place match.
"A lot of the serve and pass game and the attacking game, that's pretty much all grass is," Albrecht said. "You’re not going to get many blocks. You got to get a couple of digs and convert on those. I think it does lend more to my skill set, but then there is just something about it, it's more of a community-based sport. The whole community of Greenville will come out and watch, Atlanta will come out and watch."
It's almost a coastal sport, grass volleyball, with hotbeds up and down the East Coast in both of the Carolinas, New York, and New Jersey, with another tradition-rich state in Wisconsin. There isn't necessarily a professional level to it, no professional league to aspire to, no Olympic Games with grass volleyball featured. It’s just a traveling troupe of a competitive community who simply enjoys playing grass volleyball in the hopes that their prize money cancels out the expenses.
It’s this menagerie of factors that have led to Albrecht's love for all things grass: the style of play, the surface, the community. And, perhaps most important, the fact that he can rock his Jordans. Can't do that on the beach.
"I like wearing my Jordans," he said, laughing. "I like wearing shoes while I play. I like repping Chicago, wearing my Js, so that's one thing. I just enjoy that. Being a basketball guy, that's just something I enjoy."
Hitting hard and repping Chicago. It's a simple style Albrecht enjoys.
A style that works awfully well.
~ Travis Mewhirter: @trammew