Paris 2024: Olympic Beach Volleyball Rankings, updated November November 27
November 27, 2023
October 29, 2023
A few notes about our 2023 VolleyballMag AVP Awards:
HERMOSA BEACH, California — One of the most reliable ways to determine how elite a team is, across the spectrum of sports, is not to review a championship run, or to look under the statistical hood and discover any number of gaudy metrics.
It’s to see how a fanbase and critics respond when they lose.
When Andy Benesh and Miles Partain fell in the finals of the AVP Chicago Gold Series to Trevor Crabb and Theo Brunner, the reaction in Hermosa Beach, site of the Labor Day Calcutta, was a mix of shock and obituaries being orated.
Most couldn’t believe it.
The Chosen Ones, the team which would soon head to Paris for an Elite16, seeded No. 1 in the world, lost to a team who, on the world stage, had been, at that point, decidedly mediocre for most of 2023.
The dialogue featured comments on how the AVP teams had figured out Benesh and Partain, how the matchups favored their style on the Beach Pro Tour but not the AVP; how Benesh and Partain “won’t be doing well domestically because it has nothing to offer them.” In a single, 51-minute match — a finals no less — Benesh and Partain, the highest-ranking USA team, were all but written off by a startling number of fans.
Those following Chicago seemed to forget that in three AVP tournaments this season, Benesh and Partain made three finals, won two tournaments, and went 14-2. They had the highest winning percentage (.875) and tied Crabb and Brunner, and Taylor Crabb and Taylor Sander for the most wins (2) despite playing two less tournaments than the former and four fewer than the latter. Their only losses came to teams seeded No. 1 (Tri Bourne and Chaim Schalk in Huntington Beach, a loss they avenged in the finals) and No. 2 (Crabb and Brunner in Chicago).
By any objective or subjective measure, they were the best team on the AVP in 2023.
Which is why Andy Benesh and Miles Partain are the 2023 AVP Team of the Year.
Taylor Crabb, Taylor Sander
Trevor Crabb, Theo Brunner
Tri Bourne, Chaim Schalk
To separate one player from his own teammate in regards to Most Valuable Player is a strange task. Andy Benesh and Miles Partain complement one another to a degree that they are only perhaps 85 percent of the player they would be without the other. Such is why they are an elite team — the best team, in our opinion.
Both finished in the top seven in hitting percentage, although Partain’s .512 led the entire AVP (of those with the minimum matches played).
Both were outside of the top 20 in errors.
Both were more effective on offense because of the growing threat of the other’s option, as well as the advent of the Benesh jump-set. Evidence enough: Partain jumped from No. 14 in hitting percentage in 2022 (.442) to No. 1; Benesh surged from No. 21 in 2022 (.423) to No. 5 (.476).
But it was the defense that separated Benesh in the MVP race. Benesh led the AVP in blocks per set (2.02) while Partain finished in the middle of the elite pack in digs per set, a number that is, of course, impacted by the fact that Benesh allowed him fewer opportunities to get digs than any other blocker on Tour. As the game jumps in level, blockers become paramount to a team’s ability to succeed. Blocking is, in a literal sense, the first line of defense, and nobody was more dominant at the net than Benesh.
Combine that with offensive efficiency, dynamic as a jump-setter and on-two threat, and Andy Benesh is the 2023 VolleyballMag MVP.
The 2022 VolleyballMag.com MVP, Partain will have to settle as the Offensive Player of the Year in 2023. Partain led all players in hitting percentage with the minimum 10 matches played this season, a stat that is made more impressive when considering two other factors: The difficulty of many of his attacks — in transition or on-two from a variety of angles and distances — and the notable dearth of errors. In 416 attacks, Partain hit just 55 errors, an error rate bettered only by Phil Dalhausser, Theo Brunner, and his own partner.
Many might argue that Partain’s hitting percentage is improved largely because of the jump-setting, option-heavy offense he runs with Benesh, but that would ignore the part where Partain is the engineer of that hyper-efficient system. It isn’t easy to hit balls on two, nor is it easy to hit jump-sets, which are often imperfect in tempo and location. To master it the way Partain has, at the age of 21, is why he has been so dangerous offensively not just on the AVP, but on the world stage, where he and Benesh are ranked No. 3 — behind two other teams who regularly use the jump-set.
That masterful ability is why Miles Partain is the Offensive Player of the Year.
In 2017, Trevor Crabb said some of the most prescient words of any volleyball player who has appeared on SANDCAST: “Last year, I was getting some defensive reps behind Sean Rosenthal because he can pretty much do everything… It’s definitely something I could see myself doing. My goal for sure is the Olympics, and to medal in them – gold medal, to be precise… I can definitely see myself doing it as a blocker and potentially down the road as a defender.”
Well, well, well. Look at what we have here: Trevor Crabb, in his first full-time year of defense, finished third on the AVP in digs per set. His 4.44 trailed only Chaim Schalk (4.75) and Avery Drost (4.6), and while we do not factor in international results in the AVP Awards, it is worth noting that Crabb led the World Championships both in total digs and digs per set.
“Not my first rodeo,” he wrote on Twitter after. “Oh wait, it is.”
It was a special debut for Crabb as a defender. He won two of the biggest tournaments on the schedule, in Hermosa Beach and Chicago. The only teams who were able to beat Crabb and Brunner this year — Bourne and Schalk, Benesh and Partain, Taylor Crabb and Taylor Sander — were ranked in the top four on the AVP.
In Trevor Crabb’s first rodeo as a defender, he also made it the best on the AVP.
It’s amazing what can happen when a 6-foot-9 28-year-old in his prime treats beach volleyball as his full-time profession. Andy Benesh once abandoned weight lifting, didn’t eat great, brought only a gallon of water to practice, and was giving out suspect financial advice, working a job he hated.
Then he went full-time on the beach.
In a year, he became, by our measures, the best player on the AVP and the most formidable blocker on Tour. He led the AVP in blocks per set, jumping even Theo Brunner and Phil Dalhausser, a pair of individuals who have dominated that category in recent years.
In a similar vein that his partner, Miles Partain, is a hyper-efficient product of the system he runs on offense, Benesh engineered a unique system on defense that befuddled attackers, either leading them into his block or into the awaiting platform of Partain. Benesh plays the chess match as well as anyone in America.
“It’s a lot based off of Norway,” he said earlier this year. “I watched so much film on them. We try to mold it in a way — they’re doing some different stuff this season. Ours is very choreographed. I know exactly where he’s standing behind me. Him being able to bait and switch behind me has elevated my blocking a lot.”
The scary part? He’s only just getting started.
“Since I started playing beach volleyball, I could never do what I thought about,” he said. “I think my body is finally catching up. I think I’m still a year or two away from being able to do what I want to do.”
Edit: Alison Cerutti was improperly snubbed from this list. On the AVP statistics page, there is both an Alison Cerutti, with 37 blocks in 28 sets — a decent number and one that seemed surprisingly low, especially since he blocked me somewhere in the realm of six or seven times in the Denver quarterfinals. Just below Alison Cerutti, however, there is an ambiguous figure: A Cerutti Alison, who is ranked No. 14 in blocks, with 26 blocks in 11 sets. That seemed much more like it. Had I caught the error earlier, he’d have been on this list. However, Theo Brunner, credit to him, pointed this out, and it has thus been fixed. The Mammoth is an honorable mention blocker of the year.
Paul Lotman being the winner of 2023 might surprise some people, since most would justifiably expect this to be the category Taylor Sander would dominate for as long as he’s playing on the AVP. And, sure enough, it was Sander who led the AVP in aces for the second consecutive year. Yet when you look into the numbers, a fascinating stat line pops up: Sander hit exactly as many service errors (148) as Lotman hit total serves. Meanwhile, Lotman’s 56 aces were only four behind Sander’s 60, putting Lotman’s ace rate at .378 and Sander’s at .288.
Now, if you were to poll the top 50 male players on the AVP and ask whose serves they’d least like to pass, Sander might get the majority of the votes, because he alone can rip off four or five unpassable aces in a row and nobody would be all that surprised. There is also no stat on how often players put teams out of system, and if there were, who knows how that would shake out. In terms of efficiency, and quietly putting together a tremendous run at the service line, Lotman is the unquestionable No. 1 in 2023.
When Cody Caldwell played his first event of the season, in Miami in March, even he had no idea what to expect. He was coming off a brief indoor season in India, where he was an outside hitter for the Kolkata Thunderbolts. He flew straight to Miami — windy, hot Miami, not the easiest of conditions in which to transition back to the beach.
He took a third.
It wasn’t a fluke.
One month later, he and Chase Frishman took another third in New Orleans. That torrid start was sustained, with a win in Waupaca with Seain Cook in which they didn’t drop a single set, a career-best third at the Manhattan Beach Open, slaying Alison and Phil Dalhausser in succession, and a perfect bookend win in Laguna.
On SANDCAST earlier this year, I said that Andy Benesh might be the most improved player in the world. That might be true — but he isn’t necessarily the most improved player on the AVP. Benesh was already an established presence on the AVP, beginning with his win in Austin with Phil Dalhausser. Caldwell wasn’t yet established on the AVP.
Now, as the most improved player in 2023, he certainly is.
The green card most foreign players will seek to attain eligibility to compete on the AVP Tour is an exceptional talents visa. After six years of trying to attain eligibility via that route, DJ Klasnic established, in his rookie season, that he is, no doubt, an exceptional talent. He played in six AVP tournaments this year and qualified for five (four if you choose not to include the Laguna Beach Tour Series, which is fair enough). Three times, he finished in the top 10, even doing so as a blocker for Silila Tucker in Chicago, where they stunned Manhattan Beach Open champions Taylor Crabb and Taylor Sander and nearly did the same to Phil Dalhausser and Avery Drost. Offensively, he was tremendous, hitting .430, one spot behind Trevor Crabb, the Defensive Player of the Year. He added 10 aces and untold number of out of system serves with a wicked skyball that was particularly useful in Chicago. He is now ranked No. 28 on the AVP and in line for automatic main draws heading into the 2024 AVP season.
When Mike Placek was hired as the man to lead Andy Benesh and Miles Partain, he took over arguably the most promising team for the future of USA Volleyball. Key word: Promising. Both Benesh and Partain, relative to American standards, were brimming with youth, Benesh as a 6-foot-9 28-year-old, Partain a 6-foot-4 21-year-old who was still setting for UCLA at the time. In the span of just a few months, that promising team evolved into The Team: No. 1 in the USA Olympic rankings, No. 3 in the Volleyball World rankings, No. 1 on the AVP.
Some might argue that it is difficult to mess up a team like Benesh and Partain, but what makes them so special is actually exactly what would make it so easy to mess up. Placek didn’t play it safe, as many might with a team as supremely talented as Benesh and Partain. Rather than reining them in, he allowed them to jump-set and jump-set and jump-set some more, even when Benesh and Partain would admit it was inadvisable to do so. He helped deploy the most unique defensive system in the world, with a heavy dose of angle blocks and late line dives that turned them into a points-earning machine on the AVP and one of the most formidable defensive pairs in the world.
He didn’t put a governor on them, rather helped them push the perimeters of their abilities, even when that was cause for a rash of errors or seemingly strange mistakes. In allowing, encouraging even, those growing pains, Benesh and Partain were able to win two of three AVPs, finish the season 14-2, and make three consecutive finals.
The Team of the Year was made possible by Mike Placek, Coach of the Year.
The female award for this category is named the Carly Kan Award, because for years, she operated so far under the radar, every time she qualified, many would wonder: Who is Carly Kan?
People know Trevor Crabb.
Many just don’t believe in him.
Take a poll at the beginning of the year, in which only nine percent of responders picked Crabb and Theo Brunner to qualify for the Olympic Games. Or the bets against Crabb at AVP Chicago — bets he, of course, happily cashed in on. When Troy Field came on the podcast at the beginning of the year, he talked about Crabb for a few minutes, admitting it took him this long to believe that Crabb is truly an elite player.
Yet here Crabb is, winner of more AVP tournaments in the past five years than any other individual on Tour. He added two more to that total this year, finished third in digs per set in his first year defending, and hit .440 on the year, good for No. 11 on Tour.
It’s long been time to begin respecting Crabb’s game. In 2024, this award will be renamed the Trevor Crabb Award.
Given to the man or woman who made a significant impact in the sport of beach volleyball.
There is no NCAA Beach Volleyball system for American men.
The closest thing USA Volleyball has had to a men’s developmental pipeline, prior to the advent of this year’s developmental program, is a single individual: Adam Roberts.
Without Adam Roberts, there might not be an Andy Benesh. Maybe there wouldn’t be a Phil Dalhausser or Nick Lucena, either, had Roberts not convinced them to move to Myrtle Beach in the early 2000s, before anyone had ever heard of them. Which means that, in an indirect way, Roberts has had a not insignificant hand in the majority of medals won by
USA men in the past two decades.
Given the roaring success of Benesh this season, this year seemed a fitting time to give Roberts, at 47 years old, with more than 200 career events played and counting, a smidgen of what he is due. Nearly a dozen USA blockers have launched their careers, with Roberts as their launching pad. Benesh and Dalhausser are just the brightest of the bunch.
Beyond that, he has also turned the Myrtle Beach Open into something of a bucket-list event, a star-studded field akin to a major sport’s All-Star festivities: light, carefree, but still remarkably high level. He is almost constantly doing things behind the scenes for other players no one will ever hear of (nor will they, considering Roberts doesn’t have a social media, and even if he did, he wouldn’t use it to gain attention for doing things for others he does simply because he wants to help).
For those reasons, among so many others, he is our 2023 Sinjin Smith Man of the Year.