Cody Caldwell is a big man on the beach

Former Loyola volleyball star makes return to Chicago in AVP Gold Series tournament.

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Cody Caldwell (right) and partner Seain Cook

Cody Caldwell (right) and partner Seain Cook made a big impression at the Manhattan Beach Open with a third-place finish.

AVP

Cody Caldwell left Loyola as a conquering hero at the pinnacle of the men’s indoor collegiate game. He returned to Chicago this weekend for the AVP Gold Series beach tournament with substantially more sand swagger than he enjoyed in previous seasons.

A memorable run to the semifinals with partner Seain Cook in the iconic grandaddy of beach volleyball, the Manhattan Beach Open, two weekends ago will do wonders for one’s outlook.

“Third place at Manhattan was a great finish and it always feels good when you get something you can hold on to,” Caldwell told the Sun-Times earlier in the week after a practice session at blustery Oak Street Beach in 17 mph wind. “Maybe this will move me up in the ranks. It might make my road a little easier, start kind of carving my way into the top teams. So I’m super stoked to be back in Chicago. This is my favorite AVP of the year.”

Caldwell and Cook were seeded solidly in the middle at No. 8 in the 16-team men’s draw here.

Caldwell made vast contributions to Loyola’s NCAA champions in 2014 and ’15, His teammates included Thomas Jaeschke, a two-time U.S. Olympian, and Jeff Jendryk, a member of the U.S. national team who likely will be part of the 2024 Olympic roster in Paris.

Caldwell was the Most Outstanding Player of the 2014 NCAA Tournament, after Loyola (29-1) defeated Stanford at Gentile Arena. Caldwell cracked 20 kills and made 10 digs in the four-set title match. In 2015, he was named to the All-tournament team after the Ramblers (28-2) topped Chicago-area rival Lewis in a five-set thriller that ranks among the best NCAA men’s finals in history.

Shane Davis, who coached Caldwell at Loyola, said that he was the essential first piece of the puzzle in two NCAA champions. He came out of Newport Beach, California, and with extensive ballyhoo. One recruiting publication ranked him as the No. 1 boy’s volleyball player in the country.

“Cody was probably the most talented volleyball player I’ve been able to coach in my 20 years,” said Davis, now the women’s coach at Northwestern. “His volleyball IQ was just so high. He was the big catalyst for our program. A lot of people wanted to play with Cody Caldwell. The next year, we got Thomas Jaeschke and Nick Olsen and Peter Hutz. Then the year after that, we got Jeff Jendryk. But Cody was the first big name where everybody knew who he was before he even got on campus.”

That a cerebral player such as Caldwell finally has climbed the ladder in the AVP does not surprise Davis, who made a point to watch his former Rambler play in the MBO semis on ESPN+.

“Jaeschke was the big OH1 indoor banger and Cody was the finesse on our team, the typical OH2,” Davis said. “Ball control, super efficient with what they do, helps the people around you be really, really good. The beach game suits him so well. He would always be in the gym, always doing extra reps. No surprise that Caldwell has put in the work to become proficient on the beach.”

But gaining a foothold in the sand proved a formidable challenge. Caldwell was little more than a footnote the first four times he competed in the Chicago AVP.

In 2017, between indoor seasons overseas, Caldwell lived in Chicago and worked the summer setting up beach nets for Chicago Sport & Social Club leagues. He and local indoor standout Harshil Thacker entered a massive single-elimination qualifying tournament that would send eight pairs into the 24-team main men’s draw. Seeded 71st out of 79 pairs, Caldwell and Thacker were bounced in the second round.

In 2019, Caldwell and David Van Der Meer, seeded 17th in the main draw, were eliminated in two matches. In 2021, Caldwell and Dave Palm failed to make it out of the “Q.” In 2022, Caldwell and Ed Ratledge were the 15th seeds in a 16-team main draw, but went uno-dos-adios.

The 2023 AVP season, however, has seen the 6-5 Caldwell, at age 30, finally gain significant traction. He advanced to the semifinals of the spring second-tier Pro Series tournaments in Miami Beach and New Orleans, teaming with Chase Frishman, and took first place with Cook, 31, in the Tour Series event at the Waupaca Boatride in Wisconsin in July.

A strong finish in Chicago would be icing on the cake.

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