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"Thunder' on Clearwater Beach

Published Oct. 11, 2005

The voice is louder than all the others, maybe louder than it has to be _ demanding, cajoling, whining. Randy Stoklos is at it again.

The ball has hit the sand just beyond Sinjin Smith's diving reach. A point for the other guys. And Stoklos, Smith's teammate, is once again venting his spleen, letting him know how and why he could have _ should have _ made the save.

It is his stream of invective, as much as his play at the net, that has earned Stoklos his nickname, Vanilla Thunder.

Smith shoots him one of those if-looks-could-kill glances, then turns back toward the net.

Just another moment in time for the most successful team on the pro beach volleyball circuit.

"The court is my stage, the place I feel most comfortable, the place where I make my living," says Stoklos, who will team with Smith during the $150,000 Jose Cuervo Gold Crown today and Saturday at the Holiday Inn Surfside in Clearwater. The tournament will pay a $60,000 prize to the winning two-man team.

At 6 feet 4 and 215 pounds, with sandy blond hair and full-body tan, the 31-year-old Stoklos looks like the prototypical California beach bum. But the beach has made him a very comfortable living. He is the first $1-million career winner on the Association of Volleyball Professionals tour. That is worth shouting about.

"Am I more vocal than anyone else on the tour? I sure hope so," he says, not even bothering to wait for an answer. "If not, I'm not doing the right things. . . . Sinjin knows my yelling isn't because I dislike him or he's done something wrong. It's my way of pushing him, and myself as well. It may look nasty, but it works for us. It motivates both of us."

It is also, Stoklos adds, a way to psyche out the players on the other side of the net. "You see a guy yelling and very intense and all, you've got to think to yourself, "Hey, what's with this guy?' "

Off the court, he said, he is "rather average," and a lot quieter.

That he has become so good at his chosen profession is more a matter of happenstance than design. When he was younger, he said, "my father would tell me, "Don't bother with sports. What will it get you? What will a silly game on the beach get you?' "

Rudy Stoklos, born in Poland, grew up in the war years and spent much of his teen-age years and his 20s on the run. "Any kid back then, either you became part of the (Nazi) regime or you wound up in a concentration camp," Randy said. "My father wound up in one of the camps but he escaped."

Rudy met a girl in Germany and in 1947, a month apart, they emigrated to the United States. They met again in New York and, two weeks later, they married. He spoke no English and did whatever manual labor he could find.

By the mid-'50s they had driven Route 66 to California and had settled where Sunset Strip meets the Pacific Coast Highway in West Los Angeles. Rudy Stoklos, who had landed in the United States with $20 and one suitcase, was employed, as Randy put it, "in the hi-fi business." In 1969 he opened his own loudspeaker manufacturing company. And by then, the Stoklos twins, Randy and Rhonda, were in grade school. Randy is now owner and president of the company his father founded.

"During the week it was school and work at the family business," Randy recalled. "There was no time for play, and if there had been time, my father wouldn't have allowed it."

But just a block away lived another set of twins, and their father played volleyball with them on the beach at Santa Monica. On weekends, the Stoklos children joined the crowd and Randy fell in love with the game.

"My father (who died four years ago) would chew me out," he said. "When I got into high school, I barely made the varsity, and two or three times a week he would pull me out of practice to work in the business. Imagine how it felt, me standing there in my uniform with the rest of the team and here's my father, an immigrant with a thick accent, telling me, "Come with me' and "What do you need this for?' "

But by his senior year at Palisades High, Randy Stoklos was recognized as a star in the sport. He played volleyball at Santa Monica City College (junior colleges are virtually free to California students) for two years, then was offered a scholarship by UCLA coach Al Scates.

"That, my father understood," Stoklos said. " "Okay, now you can do something with this sport. You can get an education.' I think what he meant was, "This is not going to cost me any money.' "

Rudy Stoklos negotiated the scholarship for his son. "He got Randy a little better deal than I opened with," Scates said with a chuckle. "He was a tough businessman."

Randy became an All-American at UCLA in 1980, but left before receiving his degree. "He was a great player, but he was still very involved in his father's business," Scates said. "He didn't have time to attend all his classes. It wasn't his top priority. He also was busy working on the beach game."

In 1981, Randy Stoklos joined the emerging pro beach volleyball tour. "By then," he said, "my father had accepted volleyball totally. When I started making more than he could pay me, that was fine with him."

Randy Stoklos has been at it for a dozen years now, ushering it through the period when players had to supplement their incomes with night jobs, to the current era, when five or six hours of games, practice and workouts each weekday can lead to a five-figure tournament check on weekends. He has been the tour's most valuable player three of the past four seasons.

"Is it a job? Sure," Stoklos said. "When you have to travel to 20 or 25 sites around the country, when you have to catch a 6 a.m. flight in L.A. and get to the East Coast at 4 p.m. That's a job. But I wouldn't trade it for anything. The beach is my office."

Tournament details

WHAT: Jose Cuervo Gold Crown pro beach volleyball tournament

WHEN: Today, 12:30 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m., with championship match at 3 p.m.

WHERE: Holiday Inn Surfside, 400 Mandalay Ave., Clearwater Beach

PURSE: $150,000, with $60,000 to winning team

COMPETITORS: Top four two-man teams, plus four teams emerging from round-robin preliminary competition Thursday

ADMISSION: Free

INFORMATION: Howard Dolgon, 461-3222