They are the king and queen of American pro beach volleyball.
Veterans Phil Dalhausser and April Ross again finished atop the VolleyballMag.com All-Pro Beach awards, taking their respective MVP and Best Offensive Player categories.
“It’s an honor receiving any kind of an individual award from the media,” Dalhausser said. “It’s something that never gets old. It’s pretty darned cool to win awards like this.”
Dalhausser and longtime partner Nick Lucena dominated the men’s competitions, while Ross and first-year partner Alix Klineman did the same on the women’s side.
“It’s such an honor to be recognized in this way by VolleyballMag,” Ross said. “Alix did a great job siding out this season which means I saw more serves than I normally do, so to win the best offensive player again means even more this year.
“And I’m obviously grateful to get MVP. The competition in the U.S. is getting better and better, and it drives me to work harder and smarter. But there are two of us out there and Alix is a huge part of this award, as well as Jen Kessy, our coach. So I’m definitely considering it a team win.”
The second-annual VolleyballMag.com pro-beach awards include men’s and women’s MVPs, Best Offensive player, Best Defensive player, Rookie of the Year, and Breakthrough Wild Card. In addition, we named five top blockers and defenders to the first team, five to the second team, and three honorable-mentions.
VoileyballMag.com’s annual awards are voted on by a panel that included AVP tournament director Jeff Conover; three-time Olympian Holly McPeak; all-time great Randy Stoklos, who has 122 domestic and international wins; VBM contributor and pro beach player Travis Mewhirter; and VBM co-publisher/director of photography Ed Chan.
Eligibility for the awards was limited to American pro beach players who competed in at least seven AVP or FIVB events. This left a number of players ineligible, such as Kerri Walsh Jennings, Tri Bourne, and Brooke Sweat.
Th 6-foot-9 Dalhausser, who turns 39 in January, and Lucena continue to excel, with four wins in seven domestic events, and one victory in six FIVB events. And that was a resounding one, taking the-season-opening five-star event in Fort Lauderdale, one of only three on the 2018 calendar.
Dalhausser is working on building a beach facility in Orlando, Fla. where he lives. He’s found a property, but is currently working on getting plans submitted for the daunting 4-6 month building permit process.
“For all volleyball players, it’s easy to imagine playing with a guy 6-9, someone who can block, someone who can side out, someone who can serve, and someone that can take over a match with the blink of an eye,” Stoklos said. “Congratulations USA’s Phil Dalhausser 2018 MVP you’re still the best.”
Dalhausser’s offensive prowess was undeniable, said Conover.
“Phil has the ability to attack from any point on the court with a height and angle that is virtually impossible to stop as a blocker and puts the defender so out of position compared to other attackers that it essentially becomes a pure guess as to where he’s looking to terminate.”
The 6-foot-1 Ross, 36, and Klineman also won four of seven AVP events, finishing strong in Manhattan Beach, Chicago, and Waikiki. Ross also partnered with Caitlin Ledoux in New York, finishing second in their one-off event. Ross and Klineman won two four-star international events this year, bookending their January Hague win with their October Yangzhou victory. They are currently ranked eighth in the young Olympic qualification season with 1,400 points, leading all American teams.
Holly McPeak acknowledged Ross’ dominance.
“April Ross continues to be the best American player and has helped develop her tall young partner,” McPeak said. They won six in a row to finish the season.”
Conover noted Ross’ ability to take over a match offensively.
“April not only has the heat and precision shots to keep the defense off-balance, but additionally has the ability to attack on the second contact better than anyone so she can basically control the game whether being directly served or not,” Conover said.
Taylor Crabb brought his game up a level this year, wresting the Best Defensive Player award from Lucena. Crabb was recently awarded the AVP MVP award, and finished a close second in the VolleyballMag.com MVP balloting.
He and partner Jake Gibb won two of their six AVP events, taking top prize in Seattle and Chicago. Crabb also finished second in Austin with Tim Bomgren. Internationally, Crabb’s best finish was a fourth-place finish in the Gstaad five-star event.
“All the evidence one would need for Crabb’s argument as Best Defensive Player is the Manhattan Beach Open,” said Mewhirter. “He was a wizard behind Gibb and, had it not been for a swing that went two inches two long, he’d have a plaque on the Pier to show for it. That performance, though, is a harbinger of things to come for the youngest Crabb.”
On the women’s side, Defensive Player of the Year Sara Hughes also made a strong run for MVP, narrowly missing out in this year’s voting.
The 5-10 USC grad earned two first-place and two second place AVP finishes with Summer Ross, and garnered gold in the Moscow four-star and bronze in the four-star Espinho and Yangzhou events. Hughes and Ross are currently sitting in 10th place in Olympic qualification behind Klineman and Ross.
“Hughes’ idol has long been Misty May-Treanor,” Mewhirter said, “and the former USC Trojan is beginning to look eerily similar on the defensive end. With new partner Summer Ross, no American team proved more difficult to score on than this one, and much of that was due to the strides made by Hughes in the backcourt.”
Ed Ratledge earned the Breakthrough Wild Card award after winning his first career AVP event in San Francisco with Roberto “Rafu” Rodriguez on his 140th try at the age of 41. The 18-year veteran also finished third at both Hermosa Beach and Chicago.
“Ed is putting up astounding numbers at the age of 41,” Chan said, “and the team chemistry with Rafu is significant. Along with John Hyden, he has found the fountain of youth, and he and Rafu are poised to continue to turn the corner in 2019.”
The women’s breakthrough award went to Kelly Claes, who had a silver-medal finish in the Xiamen four-star with Brittany Hochevar, as well as second in Manhattan Beach and five third place finishes domestically. The 6-2 two-time AVCA collegiate beach All-American shows impressive promise in only her second full year on the tour.
“I’ve enjoyed watching Kelly continue to mature as a player,” Chan said. “Her silver finish in Xiamen and bronze in Qinzhou show that she’s poised to reach the next level, and look for her to be in the mix during the run up to Tokyo.”
The voting for Men’s Rookie of the Year was tight, but NBA veteran Chase Budinger, who turned 30 in 2018, edged Troy Field. Budinger’s athleticism shone in his second-place finish in San Francisco. Internationally it was a building year for Budinger, needing to acrue the requisite points for direct entry, although he and partner Sean Rosenthal finished 17th in the Gstaad five-star.
“Give me an eight-year NBA Veteran and put him on the sand to play beach volleyball and I will tell you, that is your rookie of the year,” Stoklos said. “Doesn’t matter when you start it’s how you finish.”
On the women’s side, the Rookie of the Year is Sarah Sponcil, who narrowly beat out Brittany Howard.
Sponcil, the 22-year-old who is returning for her senior year of beach at defending-champion UCLA, finished second in Austin with Lauren Fendrick and third in Chicago with Terese Cannon. Internationally she only playing two FIVB events, but that included winning a bronze medal in the Qinzhou four-star with Claes.
McPeak was impressed by the 5-10 Sponcil.
“One of the best all-around athletes in the world,” McPeak declared, “and she made her presence felt on the AVP and FIVB tour. And she still has one more year at UCLA.”