I cannot name to you the seven wonders of the world. But I can give you the eighth. His name is John Hyden.
Hyden is 45 years old. He’s been playing professional volleyball almost as long as Taylor Crabb has been alive. I mention Crabb, because he’s the 26-year-old that Hyden helped beat on Friday in Fort Lauderdale for the first FIVB Major of the season. Now he finds himself in the quarterfinals despite blocker Theo Brunner still battling a balky ankle from an injury suffered late last season.
This is what Hyden does. He does it again and again and again. With each partner change, it seems easier to count him out. When Sean Scott retired in 2012, it would have been easy to point and say that it wouldn’t be the worst idea if Hyden did too.
Together they had played in 25 AVP tournaments, won five, made nine other finals and seven more semifinals. They won all five of the ephemeral Wide Open events and seven of the nine Jose Cuervos.
So when Scott retired, maybe that was it for Hyden. He’d accomplished much more than most any of his peers – two indoor Olympics, a beach career with an enviable amount of victories. It seemed that maybe his career had taken a new phase, more developmental than aspirational, when he picked up an unknown named Tri Bourne, who had never qualified for an AVP event and whose beach career had been mostly limited to a few events in New Zealand on a tour that more resembles the CBVA than AVP.
Within three seasons Hyden and Bourne were ranked No. 5 in the world, qualifying for the Olympics only to be snubbed by the country quota, losing by the smallest of fractions to Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson.
And when Bourne went out with an illness for the 2017 season, and Hyden was left to scramble once again, it would have, once again, been easy to count him out, to suggest that maybe this time it was time to hang it up. Hyden was, after all, 44.
Time stops for no man.
Then again, Hyden may not be a man at all. He’s the god damn eighth wonder of the world.
He picked up the 7-foot Ryan Doherty, and in their first tournament, this very event a year ago, with only a few practices, they took fourth, barnstorming past eventual world champs Evandro and Andre, Italian Olympian Alex Ranghieri and Marco Caminati, 2016 silver medalists Nicolai and Lupo before finally succumbing to Brazil’s Alvaro and Saymon and American world-beaters Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena.
Just Hyden being Hyden.
Beyond that, beyond the defense that still ranks among the best in the world and the ball control that is magnetic and the side-out percentage that makes you wonder if his shoulder isn’t bionic, perhaps Hyden’s best quality is his ability to develop those around him, to make his partners exceptionally, visibly better.
Bourne made the transition from raw upstart to world-class blocker.
Doherty’s setting, which was already impressive for a man of his size, made remarkable strides.
And now Brunner.
Hyden is known for engineering a dynamic, ball-control oriented offense, moving from pin to pin, spreading the defense. It takes a player with the ability to make those difficult sets on a consistent basis. Brunner’s blocking can be the best in the world, and he stands 6-foot-7, so his side-out game is not typically a concern. At the time, it seemed fair to wonder if he would be able to consistently set the ball where Hyden would want it in transition, for they’re not easy sets to make, even for someone like Bourne, who puts his hands on everything, or Scott, who could bump set anywhere, anytime, in any condition.
On Friday, Brunner proved that there’s a reason he has been picked up by Lucena and Patterson and Todd Rogers and now Hyden, Olympians all. He made the sets Hyden called for. He made the blocks when they needed them, including on match point, dropping his right hand to seal the seam that sent them into the quarterfinals.
These flashes of brilliance are juxtaposed with curious inconsistencies, but such is the game of volleyball, where the world champs barely break pool, the gold medalists are out before the quarterfinals, and one of the winners of last year’s event didn’t even make it through the qualifier.
You cannot predict the game of volleyball, though there is one thing that will never, it seems, remain in doubt: John Hyden is going to deliver.
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