Paris 2024: Olympic Beach Volleyball Rankings, updated November November 27
November 27, 2023
October 30, 2023
A few notes about our VolleyballMag 2023 AVP Awards:
Previously: The 2023 AVP men’s award story
HERMOSA BEACH, California — There was little incentive for fans of women’s beach volleyball to leave the USA this summer. Why catch a 10-plus-hour flight and pay thousands of dollars to hit Gstaad or Ostrava or Doha when you could just go to New Orleans or Huntington Beach or Atlanta or Chicago and see five teams ranked in the top 10 in the world battle it out at home instead?
Indeed, this season presented an embarrassment of riches in women’s beach volleyball on the AVP Tour, a trend that will only continue as the talent factory that is the NCAA churns out one precocious prospect after another. That embarrassment of riches presented an intriguing question this season on the AVP: Who was the best team in America?
It’s a question that really hasn’t needed asking since the turn of the 21st century, for there was Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor, then Walsh Jennings and April Ross, then Ross and Alix Klineman — one dominant dynamo after the next. But with both Ross and Klineman out for the 2023 season with babies on the way, it left a gulf, and a question to be answered: Who would take the mantle?
For months, nobody could be quite sure.
Still, more than seven months after the first serve, there is no definitive answer.
Brandie Wilkerson won the first AVP of her career in Miami alongside her new partner, Melissa Humana-Paredes. Perhaps, armed with Wilkerson’s new jump serve, the Canadians were the standard-bearer.
They wouldn’t win again.
Neither would Humana-Paredes and Wilkerson.
The final two tournaments in which every top team played — Atlanta and Chicago, both Gold Series events — went the way of Nuss and Kloth. They won Atlanta without dropping a set and took Chicago with consecutive wins over Cheng and Hughes, and Wilkerson and Humana-Paredes, the same team they vanquished in the Chicago finals in 2022.
By the time the final ball hit the sand in Chicago, the AVP boasted four teams — Cheng and Hughes, Nuss and Kloth, Humana-Paredes and Wilkerson, Betsi Flint and Julia Scoles — in the top 10 of the Olympic rankings, and would have had a fifth had Terese Cannon and Sarah Sponcil stuck together (Sponcil is now prepping for an inaugural season with the Grand Rapids Rise of the Pro Volleyball Federation).
To choose between the top two — Cheng and Hughes, Nuss and Kloth — was a Sisyphean task. Cheng and Hughes finished 2023 with a 16-2 record to Nuss and Kloth’s 16-4. Both won two of four AVPs and finished third in the two they didn’t win. Their head-to-head on the AVP was split at one win apiece. If we were to include the World Championships as a factor, the nod would go to Cheng and Hughes, who won the first USA gold medal since 2009, when Ross and Jen Kessy took home the iconic Stavanger Sword. But when deciding AVP awards, we use exclusively AVP results. And when a decision between two teams is a coin flip, the deciding factor — for me — comes down to the magnitude of the events won.
Nuss and Kloth won Gold Series events.
Cheng and Hughes won Pro Series events.
We measure legacies in tour-based sports on the majors — how many US Opens have you won? Wimbledon? Masters?
On the AVP, for now, the Gold Series are the majors. Given that both teams skipped the Manhattan Beach Open to play the Hamburg Elite16, it came down to the remaining Gold Series events, in Atlanta and Chicago, both of which were won by Nuss and Kloth.
Which is why, ultimately, Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth are the VolleyballMag 2023 AVP Team of the Year.
Kelly Cheng, Sara Hughes
Brandie Wilkerson, Melissa Humana-Paredes
Betsi Flint, Julia Scoles
Taryn Kloth’s dominance on both sides of the ball this season is difficult to overstate. She led the AVP in every meaningful category for her position — among those with the minimum 10 matches played — ranking first in hitting percentage (.516), blocks per set (1.41), total soft blocks (84) and soft blocks per set (1.85). She tacked on 26 aces to just 41 errors, adding another layer to the increasingly unsolvable riddle that is the Nuss-Kloth defense. Much of the credit for that defense is due, of course, to Nuss, who digs more balls than anyone in the world, but that credit cannot come at the disservice of Kloth, who had the most efficient season at the net than anyone on the AVP.
When you’re the No. 1 offensive player and the best blocker, that’s recipe for the 2023 AVP MVP.
The debate amongst players for Offensive Player of the Year is an intriguing one. Phil Dalhausser was voted Best Offensive Player eight times in his career between the FIVB and the AVP. Yet his good friend and longtime partner, Nick Lucena, argued, fairly, that Dalhausser shouldn’t win the award because he was so rarely on offense… precisely because he is such an elite offensive player.
A similar argument could be made for Taryn Kloth.
Like Dalhausser did for so many years, Kloth led the AVP in hitting percentage but finished just 25th in total attacks. A lack of attacks is one of those strange indicators of a tremendous offensive player, unlike in basketball or indoor volleyball, where your best offensive player will lead in attempts. The AVP-leading .516 percentage at which Kloth hit this year is evidence enough that it is, indeed, unwise to give her the ball. It helps, of course, that Nuss is one of the best setters in the world, but that shouldn’t take away from how well Kloth played in 2023, because not only was Kloth hyper-efficient at putting the ball away, she also rarely, if ever, gifted opposing teams free points.
In her 428 total attacks, she hit just 37 errors, a rate of just 8 percent, lowest among the four players in contention for Best Offensive Player. When combining highest hitting percentage with the lowest error rate, you have the perfect ingredients to be the Best Offensive Player.
There is no player on the planet who digs more balls than Kristen Nuss. Her 303 total digs on the 2023 season were 90 less than Betsi Flint’s leading 393, but at 6.31 digs per set, Nuss picked up 1.5 digs more per set, leading the Tour. Among the players who finished top 20 in total digs, only Brandie Wilkerson, Sara Hughes, and Sarah Sponcil had a higher hitting percentage than Nuss’ .420, an indicator that not only was Nuss digging the most of any player on the AVP, she was also terminating those transition opportunities at a high clip — nearly 5 percent higher than in 2022.
If there ever were an award where there might be a unanimous opinion, this might be it.
Taryn Kloth and Kristen Nuss are one of those rare teams who are greater than the sum of their parts on the defensive end. Much of this can be attributed — and is, in every post-tournament interview with Nuss and Kloth — to their coach, Drew Hamilton. He has helped both players maximize their strengths, allowing them to be perfect complements to the other. Is Kloth going to make the huge, dynamic moves of, say, a Brandie Wilkerson? Or pull with the frequency and fluidity of a Kelly Cheng? No. Kloth might be the most disciplined, fundamental blocker on the AVP Tour. She knows she has the best defender in the world patrolling the court behind her. She knows that if she takes her space, with good, strong blocking moves, it is going to take a Herculean effort for teams to consistently side out against them. And it does.
Kloth, in being exactly who Nuss needs her to be, led the AVP in blocks per set (1.41), soft blocks, and soft blocks per set. That’s every single category a blocker would want to lead. All the while, she finished the season with just three — three! — miscellaneous errors, which are attributed to net touches, foot faults, and doubles or lifts. So she inflicted all of that damage while almost never making an error herself at the net.
This category may well one day be named the Betsi Flint Award, as it is hers and hers alone. Her 66 aces led the AVP by 15, with Brook Bauer coming in second at 51. It isn’t the 44-ace lead she had on April Ross at the end of the 2019 season, but such is the standard Flint has set at the service line: A 15-ace lead over second place seems almost ho-hum.
She was a tremendous server before ever working with John Mayer, who had a mean serve himself and has since taught a few others the dark arts of the float serve. But since Mayer began helping out where he could, her float has become a dancing devil, a fast, flat, spinless knuckle ball that can bring her back from any deficit — see: Montreal Elite16 quarterfinals — or break open a devastating lead. While Ross earned the majority of her aces on jump-serves — same goes for honorable mentions Brandie Wilkerson and Julia Scoles — Flint is able to lower the risk while keeping the rewards higher than anyone on the AVP.
This category, along with Rookie of the Year, is going to be one of the stiffest in terms of competition for as long as beach volleyball is an NCAA sport. The amount of young talent making huge strides on the AVP is astounding, but no one made bigger strides this season than Brook Bauer. A year ago, Bauer had to come out of the qualifiers in Tour Series events. This season? She had four top-five finishes in Pro or Gold Series events, added a seventh in Manhattan Beach, and closed the year with a second in Laguna with Megan J. Rice (more on her below). She is now ranked No. 18 on the AVP, a main draw mainstay where a few Sundays likely await her future come 2024.
Who knows what would have happened had Toni Rodriguez not hurt her knee in the Denver Tour Series. Who knows what would have happened had Savvy Simo not called Megan J. Rice with a day to spare prior to the Hermosa Beach Open. Who knows what would have happened had AVP Everything Man Josh Glazebrook not given Simo an extra hour to find an injury sub. And who knows what would have happened had Rice played in the Waupaca Tour Series instead of staying at home in Hermosa to, she thought, cheer on her boyfriend, Troy Field, and spend her birthday at home.
Because this is what happened: Rodriguez did get hurt, Glazebrook granted Simo an extra hour to find someone, Simo called Rice, Rice said yes because she was home and not in Wisconsin, and then they promptly made the finals of the AVP Hermosa Beach Pro Series.
To borrow a phrase: “Boy, that escalated quickly.”
Rice proved her finals run in Hermosa, in her first professional main draw, was no fluke, finishing in the top 10 in Atlanta with Betsi Flint, Manhattan Beach with Brook Bauer, and Chicago with Emily Stockman. Finally playing a second event with the same partner in Laguna, Rice finished runner-up alongside Bauer. A magnificent debut that included a touch of serendipity, and a heavy dose of capitalizing on one opportunity after the next.
Death, taxes, and Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth lavishing all praise and credit to their success upon their coach, Drew Hamilton. Such are the three things we are now assured of in life.
Hamilton is one of the most mysterious men in beach volleyball. He has remained as far out of the limelight as he can, to the point that, when AVP emcee Mark Schuermann attempted to interview him after Nuss and Kloth won Atlanta without so much as dropping a set, he leaned into the mic and said, quietly: “Girls played good.” Then he leaned back and attempted to disappear out of the frame. He won’t take credit for the success of Nuss and Kloth, which is why Nuss and Kloth will take any opportunity they can to heap it upon him.
There’s a primary reason one of the best teams in America has remained in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, rather than making the move to California, and that reason is Drew Hamilton. There’s a reason that Kloth, still relatively new to the beach, has transitioned from a 6-foot-4 outside hitter into a blocker on the beach with some of the best ball control in the world, and Hamilton plays a large role in that. There’s a reason Nuss has some of the most exquisite vision of any player in the world; that’s also a credit to Hamilton.
He won’t take the credit for himself, so allow Nuss and Kloth to do so in their post-match interviews, and allow us to do it here, as Drew Hamilton is the 2023 Coach of the Year.
Aside from the Eric Zaun Award — given to Wyatt Harrison this year — the Most Underrated is my favorite award on this list. There are so many talented players, and it’s often the quiet ones without the flash and sizzle in their games or the viral reels on social media who go unnoticed. This in spite of being supremely talented players with excellent results.
That’s Katie Horton.
Last year was Horton’s first competing full-time on the AVP while traveling to the occasional Beach Pro Tour event. It was an excellent start, with main draws in every event she played and a runner-up finish at the Huntington Tour Series.
In 2023, she more than doubled that success. Her prize money jumped from $5,550 to $13,925 despite only playing one more event. Five times, she finished fifth or better, including in Miami, Hermosa Beach, and, critically, Atlanta. A bit of an everything woman, she blocks, plays defense, can side out on either side, and put together a 20-29 ace-to-error ratio, a rate that made her one of the most efficient servers on the AVP.
And in true Most Underrated fashion, she’s now traveling to a few late Challenge events with Ms. Underrated herself: Carly Kan.
Teegan Van Gunst