Was it a season? Was it not? An appetizer? A warm up for what will hopefully be a full 2022 season, under the new ownership of Bally’s Casino?
Nobody really seems to know what to label this sprint of a 2021 AVP season, in which, for the second straight year, there were just three tournaments. But there were performances worth honoring and the list of who was the best follows.
There were fans. Oodles of them.
In Atlanta, for the first time in recent memory, there were paying fans, fans that dropped real American dollars to watch beach volleyball. There were paying fans, too, on NBC’s new streaming platform, Peacock, which added new broadcast talent to the mix in Chris Marlowe and Kevin Wong, giving Amazon Prime stalwarts Camryn Irwin and Kevin Barnett some much-needed breaks throughout long days of beach volleyball.
There were packed stands in Manhattan Beach, from 9 a.m. to sunset. There were, for the first time since 2012, Olympic gold medalists competing on the AVP, as April Ross and Alix Klineman proved, over and over and over again, that they are the best team in the world, and there isn’t another who is really even close.
There was nostalgia, and memories, and sendoffs. There was a teary final match, the 114th bout of Jake Gibb vs. Phil Dalhausser. There was a fun-loving Nick Lucena, a skyballing, trash-talking, crowd-pandering 41-year-old who seems far from finished with beach volleyball.
There was the ebullient debut of a pair of youngsters out of LSU, Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth, who won the first AVP event of their careers in Atlanta, then parlayed that into two more top-five finishes.
Despite the brief and bright blip that this season was, it had a little something for everyone: Olympians and rookies, dominance and Cinderellas, retirements and breakthroughs, hope for the future and nostalgia for what is passing.
Below is a subjective but comprehensive list of superlatives for this season, entirely subjective and therefore entirely open to debate and suggestion. Did we miss an award? Gaffe on one (or many)? We’d love to hear your opinion.
Here are mine:
To find the last AVP tournament in which April Ross did not make a Sunday on the AVP Tour, you have to rewind five years and six partners, to AVP Chicago of 2016. That was the fateful year of the introduction of the freeze, when Kerri Walsh Jennings sat out, and Ross had to pick up Kelly Reeves at the last minute. Since then? Ross has just been winning and winning and winning some more. With three straight victories in the AVP Champions Cup in 2020, and two more this year — Ross and Alix Klineman did not play Atlanta — Ross is now the victor of five consecutive AVPs. Yes, Klineman is too, and to separate them as one more valuable than the next is a strange thing to do, but Ross is the consummate veteran, the only player in history with all three Olympic medals to her name. She’s not only the best player in America.
She’s the best player in the world.
At the beginning of the season, had you bet on Casey Patterson and Chase Budinger to make three straight AVP finals this year, you’d have likely gotten some pretty friendly odds — and cashed in a mighty ticket on Labor Day morning. The 41-year-old Patterson looked an awful like the mid-30-something Patterson who dominated the AVP alongside Jake Gibb. He finished all three tournaments in the top four in digs, leading the field in Atlanta, where he and Budinger won. In Chicago, he finished second in aces. Despite getting served nearly every ball all three tournaments, his hitting percentage was consistently terminal. He was the best all-around player in the country, at the youthful age of 41, no less.
Honorable mention: Theo Brunner, Tri Bourne, Alix Klineman, Kristen Nuss
Rookies of the Year
Anyone who follows the college game knew that Kristen Nuss was good. Really good. One does not simply become the winningest player in NCAA history through the virtue of luck or light scheduling. Nuss was a darn good volleyball player, and she was a winner. How that would translate to the next level, where being 5-foot-6 suddenly seems to be a much bigger disadvantage, was the question.
And it was a question that was answered thoroughly, quickly, and without any semblance of doubt. Nuss and Taryn Kloth, who had been picking off one AVP Next after another in their rise through the minor leagues, opened their professional careers with a victory in Atlanta. They followed it with a fifth in Manhattan and yet another Sunday in Chicago. She finished in the top two in digs in every tournament, leading in Atlanta. Her court vision is otherworldly, her swagger enviable.
For Kristen Nuss, the transition from NCAA to the AVP proved to be a smooth one, and now she and Kloth plan to also hit the FIVB Tour in 2022.
To be 100 percent transparent here: I have no idea how the AVP Rookie of the Year is actually decided. Andy Benesh has made AVP main draws before, but I don’t think he’s made enough in a single season to ever qualify for Rookie of the Year voting. However, I don’t know what the number of main draws is to cross that threshold, so that’s what I’m going with, and that’s why he is unquestionably the AVP Rookie of the Year.
In Atlanta, Benesh had a career-high fifth-place finish with consummate veteran Billy Allen. It really should have been a third, but Tri Bourne went full Tri Bourne and put the clamps down late in the third set of the quarterfinals. In Manhattan, Benesh and Allen became Kings of the Freeze, coming back to beat Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb, then battling back again to topple John Hyden and Ricardo Santos, claiming third.
Another tournament, another career-high.
In Chicago, Benesh stunned Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena, out-blocking Dalhausser and out-performing Lucena on the offensive end. Again, he’d finish third, tying the career-best he’d set just the week before.
Many have been wondering where the next blocking talent will come from, in the absence of Dalhausser and Lucena.
Hello, world: Meet Andy Benesh.
Honorable mention: Michael Groselle, Evan Cory, Taryn Kloth, Megan Kraft
Breakthrough Players of the Year
Virtually everybody knows that Larissa Maestrini is a phenomenal beach volleyball player. She’s been to three Olympic Games and won a bronze medal in London. Had it not been for a whole lot of gumption from April Ross and Kerri Walsh Jennings in Rio, she’d have had another. That said, I didn’t think it would be right to give Larissa the breakthrough player of the year: Even if she had only played one AVP prior to this season — she won in Glendale in 2009 — she had already broken through, many times over. The player many didn’t know much about, then, is Larissa’s wife: Lili.
Lili cobbled together an excellent international career, winning seven FIVB medals, including a pair of golds in 2018. It wasn’t quite the lavishly decorated career of Larissa, but it was impressive nonetheless. But how they’d fare in AVPs was still a wonder.
It is a wonder no longer.
After getting upset in the Atlanta qualifier by Savvy Simo and Megan Kraft, the Brazilians took third in Manhattan before emerging from the qualifier to march all the way to the finals in Chicago. Larissa was her usual untouchable self, but it was Lili who proved to be a rock: Getting served almost every ball, putting away enough for a semifinal and a final.
It was Lili who broke through this year.
How the indoor players will fare in their transition to the beach is always an interesting event to behold: Will they become the dominant players they were indoors, or will the growing pains be too discouraging to battle through? Reid Priddy was able to make the transition and win Manhattan Beach, but it took a few years of dedicated work to get there.
This season, Lotman arrived.
He’d already been good. More than good. He’d already been one of the AVP’s most formidable servers, and his arm is so good that unless he’s blocked, the odds of him getting dug are astonishingly low.
In Atlanta, he qualified with Kyle Friend, claiming ninth. In Manhattan, he reunited with Miles Partain, who is, hands down, one of the best players in the country, and the reunion was oh so sweet. A seventh in Manhattan preceded a third in Chicago, where they upset Jeremy Casebeer and Tim Bomgren — on paper this was an upset, anyway; but in reality, the odds-makers at Bally’s should have favored Partain and Lotman — beat Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb, gave Billy Allen and Andy Benesh an excellent three-set match, knocked out Casebeer and Bomgren, and fell to Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb in the semifinals.
The third in Chicago was a career-best for both. And a harbinger for what is to come in 2022.
Honorable mention: Miles Partain, Michael Groselle, Taryn Kloth, Zana Muno
The most elite blockers in the world strive for 1.75 blocks per set. That is a world-class number.
Theo Brunner smashes that number in virtually every set he plays. In Atlanta, where Brunner and Chaim Schalk made the finals, he blocked 29 balls in 12 sets, good for 2.42 per set. In Manhattan, he swatted 23 in nine sets: 2.56 per set. In terms of pure blocking, there wasn’t another player in the same stratosphere as Brunner this season.
But here’s where Brunner might be even better: There is no category for “shots altered,” but Brunner is the unofficial leader in that, too. What all those blocks gets him and Schalk is a tentative offense on the other side of the net. Now the high lines are suddenly higher, the cut shots more hurried and errant. He forces other teams to do things they aren’t comfortable doing, producing errors that he doesn’t get credit for while making Schalk’s job as a defender one of the easiest on the AVP.
Not many would know it, given Klineman’s astonishing success in so little time on the beach, but the 6-foot-5 gold medalist’s biggest concern about her transition from indoor to beach was her blocking. Consider that concern nipped right in the bud. In the two AVPs she played this year, Klineman and Ross lost just a single set. They’re good offensively, of course, but defensively, they’re a nightmare: Two good servers, with the most formidable presence at the net and one of the best defenders in the sport’s history behind her.
In Chicago, where they did not lose a set, Klineman led the field in blocks per set, tallying 1.70, well ahead of runner-up Taryn Kloth’s 1.43.
You might not be able to teach height, but you can teach blocking. Klineman is one of the most skilled blockers in the world, while also standing as the tallest as well, a devastating combination that leads to a whole lot of wins.
Honorable mention: Tri Bourne, Chase Budinger, Taryn Kloth, Kelly Claes
After one of the wildest matches of the year, the semifinals of the Manhattan Beach Open, where Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb came back from down 12-16 to Chaim Schalk and Theo Brunner to win in three sets, Crabb was asked about Bourne’s serving, to which he said, in effect: I gave him the green light to rip.
Bourne’s jump serve, like most of the best servers — Evandro, Paolo Nicolai, Jeremy Casebeer — can be hit and miss. Streaky. But when it was hitting this year, it was hitting hard. Bourne led the field in aces in Atlanta and was in the top five in Manhattan. He dipped in Chicago, but such is the nature of the jump serve. Still, it was enough for Bourne and Crabb to take a pair of thirds and a victory, his first in Manhattan Beach.
I’m not too sure why more women don’t jump serve. Five times has April Ross been named the AVP Server of the Year, and in all five years she has been thumping one of the toughest jump serves on the beach.
In 2021, again Ross was the most formidable server, bombing in 20 aces in two tournaments on the power of her jump serve.
Honorable mention: Casey Patterson, Jeremy Casebeer, Terese Cannon, Kelly Claes
Best Offensive Players
The beach volleyball serving, digging, siding out machine who is April Ross continues marching on. In 151 attacks in Chicago, Ross made just 11 errors — 11! That is patently absurd, and one of the reasons she’s so consistently great: Ross doesn’t hit balls out, and the balls she hits in are terminal. She sides out well from anywhere on the court, taking sets inside and out, in serve receive and in transition. At 39 years young, with three Olympic medals around her neck, Ross remains the most consistently effective offensive player in the world. And she has another two AVP titles to show for it.
There is no official award for most athletic, but Brunner would certainly be in the runnings for most athletic player on the AVP. He makes block moves you simply cannot teach. Hits angles that you cannot defend. And, best of all, hits them at a consistency nobody else on Tour did this season. Brunner led the AVP in hitting percentage, which, according to his logic on Instagram, also makes his partner, Chaim Schalk, the best setter on the beach.
Schalk’s a good setter, but let there be no doubt: Brunner is going to side out no matter who is setting him.
Honorable mention: Chaim Schalk, Casey Patterson, Alix Klineman, Taryn Kloth
Best Defensive Players
Somebody at USA Volleyball needs to have an amicable discussion with the athletic department at UCLA and figure out a way to get Miles Partain into the USA beach system and onto the FIVB. In terms of pure defensive talent, Partain is second only to Taylor Crabb as the best defensive player in the country, and in Chicago, he even topped Crabb in a fantastic three-set match.
He’s smart, disciplined, making all the plays he should make. He doesn’t allow bad or mediocre shots to go down, ever, the hallmark of a phenomenal defender. And he’s still a teenager! In three events this year, Partain logged more digs per set than Crabb in two — Atlanta and Chicago — and in the final event of the season, Partain dug more balls than anyone in the tournament.
Yes, yes: April Ross is the best player in America, and probably the world. She’s also a defender. By any logic, this would also make her the best defensive player. There’s an argument to be made there. But in my mind, the best defensive player removes all other elements of the game — siding out, serving, setting, winning — and isolates it down to one factor only: When a team is attacking in system, who is the toughest player to score on?
That player is Kristen Nuss.
Nuss played in three AVPs this season and finished in the top two in digs in all three. In victory in Atlanta, she led the field. Despite taking fifth in Manhattan, and thus losing two additional matches, she still finished second behind Larissa Maestrini. Her balance and discipline is unbelievable for any player, let alone one in her rookie season on the AVP. She doesn’t cheat, doesn’t guess, just stays home, letting Taryn Kloth block while covering the rest of the court — and covering it better than anyone in the United States.
Honorable mention: Taylor Crabb, Casey Patterson, Zana Muno, Sarah Sponcil
Coaches of the year
The college game is filled to the brim and overflowing with talent. But still: There’s a jump to be made from NCAA beach volleyball to AVP beach volleyball. Nobody has made that jump as well as Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth did this season, with one victory and three top-five finishes.
Much of that comes thanks to their coach, Drew Hamilton.
“Drew Hamilton has taught me everything,” Nuss said. “I just said ‘Tell me what to do, and I’ll do it. I’ll listen to everything you say.’ His volleyball brain is crazy. I love just talking volleyball with him because I want to know everything that’s up in his head because I want to know how to do it. Whatever you tell me, I’ll do.”
Whatever he told them to do helped them to one of the best debuts of any AVP team in recent memory.
Had anyone watched Casey Patterson and Chase Budinger compete internationally at the beginning of this season, three straight AVP finals would not have been the wisest of predictions. They fell in the first round of the qualifier in Doha, then the second round in Gstaad, and didn’t look particularly great in the process.
Then came the full-time work with Mike Campbell.
Campbell is the head coach at Long Beach State, and formerly the coach of Jeremy Casebeer and Chaim Schalk, when the two won in Seattle. He wasn’t finished winning yet. Campbell helped Patterson and Budinger to three straight finals this season, finishing atop the podium in Atlanta and Chicago, proving to be the most consistent, and maybe most surprising, team in America.
Honorable mention: Angie Akers, Jose Loiola, Scott Davenport
MBO Quarterfinals: Nuss-Kloth vs. Claes-Sponcil
Should both of these young teams stay together, this match will prove to be the genesis of the next great rivalry in American beach volleyball. With Canadians Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes not competing on the AVP this year, it left fans without the Canadian-American clashes with April Ross and Alix Klineman.
Enter Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth.
Nuss and Kloth played Olympians Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil in all three AVPs: a tremendous final in Atlanta, for seventh in Chicago, and the match many will remember most, the quarterfinals of the Manhattan Beach Open.
The first set in the quarterfinal was a marathon, a 39-37 bout that showcased just how far the women’s game has come in one long quad. Both teams hand set virtually every ball. Both have two of the grittiest defenders on Tour, unwilling to let a single ball drop without taking a face full of sand. Both have dynamic blockers able to make huge moves at the net.
Both are teams we’ll be seeing on the AVP and FIVB, playing against one another in big matches, for a long time to come.
Chicago 7th-place: Dalhausser-Lucena vs. Gibb-Crabb
This might not have been the best match, but it was undoubtedly the most meaningful to the world of beach volleyball: It was the 114th and final meeting of Phil Dalhausser and Jake Gibb. The final time Gibb and Taylor Crabb would be on the same side of the net. The final time Dalhausser would play with his good friend, Nick Lucena.
One final send off, to the blockers who have been the Atlas of USA Volleyball, holding the federation on their lean shoulders for the past four Olympic quads.
“Well that was an emotional match,” Gibb said afterwards.
Emotional — and iconic.
Webber has been on the periphery of breakthrough for a few years now, qualifying here, picking up a main draw win there, getting close, close, close. This year, where he made two main draws with Evan Cory by virtue of winning AVP Next Gold tournaments in New Orleans and Seaside, was a minor breakthrough for Webber. Yet much of the attention of that team went, somewhat deservedly, to Cory, whose explosive style and personality draw crowds and highlights.
Webber, meanwhile, plays a type of volleyball one might compare to Tim Duncan: effective, efficient, devoid of anything you’ll see on SportsCenter — or Bounce Beach — for the most part. As such, he stays under the radar. Yet his game isn’t all that dissimilar to that of Jake Gibb, a man who has made his living playing a meat and potatoes style of volleyball, hitting crisp swings but not bouncing balls, blocking but not making a show of it, quietly going about his business. Webber might be quiet, and you might not see highlight reels on Instagram, but he’s a very good volleyball player, and only getting better.
The thing about players being underrated is that they usually don’t stay so for long. Zana Muno will not stay underrated for long. She is one of the most exciting players to watch, leading the field in Chicago by 22 digs — 22! Balls simply don’t go down easy on the former UCLA National Champion. In three AVPs with three different partners this season, Muno tied her career-high of third twice, and split-blocked with Savvy Simo to take a 13th in Manhattan. On the FIVB, she won a gold medal in Belgium and claimed ninth in a two-star in the Czech Republic, slowly rising through the international ranks.
The 2021 season was brief, yes, but Muno put herself firmly on the radar of any blockers seeking a defender to make a run at Paris in 2024.
Honorable Mention: Megan Rice, Carly Kan, Paul Lotman, Jake Landel