USA back on track? 2018 AVP season provided promising glimpse to the future

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Sara Hughes, playing her usual standout defense at AVP Hermosa Beach, is a big part of the new wave of USA beach talent/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

It’s beginning to peek through, the future of American beach volleyball. Like tiny rays of sunshine on a misty day: a glimpse here, a sliver there.

In 2016 there were no rays, no glimpses. Then, when no USA males made the medal rounds at the Rio Olympics, three of the four oldest players in the field were from the States. The other was Reinder Nummerdor, the Dutch Karch. Only he was leaving his country in good hands, with the bruising duo of Alexander Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen and a 7-foot phenom named Christiaan Varenhorst, who was all of 26 years old in his first Olympics in 2016.

The USA did not, at the time, have a Brouwer or Meeuwsen or Varenhorst, all of whom have appeared in a World Championship final, two of whom won gold on that very stage. Instead, the U.S. had an aging cadre of Hall of Famers, a couple kids named Crabb, an injured Hawaiian in Tri Bourne, and a lot of question marks, the most oft-asked inquiry being: Who could fill in when the old guard — Jake Gibb, Phil Dalhausser, Nick Lucena, John Hyden, Casey Patterson, April Ross, Kerri Walsh-Jennings, Lauren Fendrick, Brooke Sweat — could no longer hold up the sport for an entire country?

What was to come of American beach volleyball?

Frankly, Gibb is tired of the question. He isn’t all together concerned.

“Americans,” he said, “do not take well to losing.”

The 2018 AVP season was a display of exactly what happens when losing becomes even the faintest of possibilities to Americans, especially the young and hungry ones.

They grow.

The first glimpse began early, well before the AVP season even began. January. The Hague. Fresh off her 28th birthday, Alix Klineman became the first woman in beach history to win her first international event. She and Ross lost just a single set, to countrywomen Emily Day and Brittany Hochevar, in the country quota.

Down went the world powers after that — Russia, Brazil, Czech, Brazil again. Nobody in the world, it seemed, could hang with the FIVB’s tallest rookie.

Neither could anyone in the United States.

In Austin, the AVP’s opening event, Klineman and Ross dropped, once again, only a single set. This time, though, it wasn’t Klineman who provided the next glimpse in what’s to come for the United States. It was the three other teams in the semifinals.

Partnered with Fendrick was Sarah Sponcil, a swaggering national champion out of UCLA, matched up with two Hawai’i alums in Katie Spieler and Karissa Cook. Five of the eight individual semifinalists were making their first Sunday. All of them are 28 or younger. Three were products of the nascent and booming sport of collegiate beach volleyball, the fastest growing sport in NCAA history.

That’s the difference, Spieler thinks, for the women’s side. Why we have seen such a boom in depth, why upsets have seen an uptick, why unfamiliar names began popping up late on Saturdays and the occasional Sunday. Why FIVB medals seem to be calling the U.S. home a little bit more of late.

“Huge difference,” she said. “I think if you look back at the qualifiers before the college game, it was like mid-age players who played occasionally and could just win two matches and get into the main draw. But now the qualifiers are just — every team is super good, and that’s because of the college game.

“The depth is there and I think it’s going to continue to produce not only our top teams but just a huge depth of great teams, and that’s only going to bump up the top level, and that’s exciting.”

You’d have to make an effort to ignore the impact the college game has had on the AVP. Every single Sunday this season featured multiple players who competed at the college level. You’ve already become acquainted with the big names, the unmistakably rising stars. By this point you know Sara Hughes, she of the four national championships, now with 2018 titles in New York, Hermosa and Moscow to tack onto it. You know Kelly Claes, another perennial national champ at USC, with five Sundays to her name and very nearly an immortal Manhattan Beach Open plaque to go with her four-star FIVB silver medal.

But you knew those names. And remember: This is a story about growth. For there to be growth, there needs to be new. And, oh, there was plenty of new.

A wave of Waves — Brittany Howard, Corinne Quiggle, Delaney Knudsen, Lara Dykstra — a smattering of Seminoles — Jace Pardon, Brittany Tiegs, Aurora Davis, Tory Paranagua — and essentially everyone who has stepped foot on USC’s campus — Nicolette Martin, Terese Cannon, Allie Wheeler, Falyn Fonoimoana, Alexa Strange, Geena Urango. Not to mention some Georgia State, Grand Canyon, TCU, New Mexico, UCLA, LMU.

The college game has every corner of the country covered.

“Even on the men’s side, I feel it’s been pretty deep,” said Tri Bourne, who returned from battling an auto-immune disease for the final three events of the year, in Manhattan, Chicago and Hawaii. “You have guys like (Eric]) Zaun, (Piotr) Marciniak, (Ian) Satterfield, definitely. Teams like that, where they’ve been consistently in the back of the main draw, now they’re creeping in, so now it’s really saturated in the top half.”

Your concern, however, likely resides less in mid-season AVPs than it does 2020 for the Tokyo. Olympic Games. The sport’s biggest stage, the same one in which the U.S. men have failed to bring home gold since Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers did so in Beijing in 2008.

Who is prepared to make a podium?

At the moment, Hughes-Summer Ross and Klineman-Ross are the obvious candidates. But what about Claes-Sponcil, who are registered for an upcoming event in China? Or Day-Betsi Flint, quietly winning their way through 2018? Or Caitlin Ledoux and a partner of her choice? She’s already proven capable enough, making three straight Sundays on the AVP, making three more on the FIVB, and she has the upside to go along with it, winning Most Improved in 2017, likely to take it again in 2018.

“The Olympics is still my goal,” said Ledoux, who played indoor for Long Beach State. And the Olympics, too, seem to be the goal for Emily Stockman and Kelley Larsen, whose late season surge pushed them into the top 20 in the world by year’s end. Their final seven FIVBs included a bronze in Lucerne, and top 10 finishes in Ostrava, Gstaad, Haiyang, Vienna and Moscow. Along the way, they toppled both the world’s powers and the U.S. — Claes-Hochevar, Carolina Horta-Taiana Lima, Hughes-Ross, Maria Antonelli-Carolina Salgado, and a pair of three-set losses to Brazil’s Agatha and Duda.

A minimum of four American women’s teams can contend with any team in the world.

But where, then, to find the men?

A van, perhaps. Specifically, a Dodge Sprinter. That’s where Zaun, the 2017 AVP Rookie of the Year, could be found, though he’s now in a different van in a different country, on a three-month sabbatical to South America.

Or the NBA, where Chase Budinger was recruited by Sean Rosenthal for one of the year’s most scintillating duos. Budinger is a shoo-in for the 2018 Rookie of the Year, with a final in San Francisco, a quarterfinal in New York, and a stunning upset over one of the world’s best, Evandro, in Gstaad on the resume.

One year?

Beating Brazil’s finest?

Who’s to say what can happen in two more?

Hawai’i, though, is without a doubt the gold mine. Always has been, really, the stomping grounds of Stein Metzger, Sean Scott, Kevin Wong and Mike Lambert, turned over to the Crabbs, Taylor and Trevor, and Bourne.

This season, Taylor dug his way onto the short list of best defenders in the world, alongside Christian Sorum, Bartosz Losiak, Brouwer. He was a swing away from a Manhattan Beach title and, had it not been for an absurd dig from Sorum, would have had his first crack a Major final.

The championships will come.

It is a wonder, though, to where Bourne’s ceiling has risen. After two years of meditating and eating little more than chicken and rice, avoiding exercise and volleyball, he still took a seventh and a fifth. He nearly made a Sunday.

That, after training for hardly more than two months.

Who’s to say where he can be in two years?

Those are questions, however, for the future, and a more pressing one is currently on the minds of most everyone in beach volleyball: What’s to come of the newest player in the game, p1440?

The debut event, in San Jose, approaches, and thus far any player who has requested dispensation from their AVP contracts has been granted permission to play. Several, too, have been granted the same for Las Vegas, a four-star FIVB promoted by p1440 in October.

Perhaps, after an acrimonious initial few months, the two sides will play nice. Perhaps such thinking is a bit quixotic. No matter what happens, the landscape of the sport is changing, and quickly. New faces are quickly becoming “the new face” of American beach volleyball. New tours have been established. New events have been made.

It’s unlikely to slow. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. After more than a decade of the same players holding the torch high for the U.S., change is inevitable, necessary. Atlas can only hold the world for so long, and Phil Dalhausser isn’t built like Atlas.

This season was just the glimpse, a few rays of sun peeking through.

By 2020, a new day, a new era, may have arrived for American beach volleyball.

It’s worth remembering: Americans don’t take kindly to losing.

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