CLEARWATER BEACH, Fla. — A little after noon on Sunday in Clearwater Beach, a small crowd gathered for what many could have easily assumed was a matinee final: Kim Hildreth and Sarah Schermerhorn, owners of five top-10 AVP finishes in 2019, were battling with Kendra Van Zwieten and Kaya Marciniak, longtime pros who are no stranger to finals.
Yet this was no final. It wasn’t even a semifinal. It was the quarterfinals of the AVP America Open Beach Nationals, a $15,000 season-ender for most players in the field, one marked by inevitable Florida heat and incredible depth.
The cream would eventually rise to the top, as it does, even in the deepest of fields.
Julia Scoles and Hailey Harward, victors in Waupaca and the Myrtle Open won another, beating Florida Atlantic’s Erica Brok and Mackenzie Morris, 21-16, 21-14. Eric Beranek and Andy Benesh, Florida locals at this point in their three-month hiatus from California, beat Tim Bomgren and Bruno Amorim, 21-17, 21-18.
While the end results may not have been altogether impossible to predict — the best team, Beranek and Benesh, won, against the best player in the field in Bomgren — but the routes to get to those finals?
Not so easy to predict.
Both genders were replete with upsets and matches that were far closer, and longer, than many may have initially predicted. Such is the chaos that can be wrought on the shallow sands of Clearwater Beach, where athleticism ruled and big swings were rewarded, early and often.
Of the final 16 teams for the men, 12 included at least one player who has made a main draw. The quarterfinals for the women featured a match between what could be argued were the two most talented teams in the field in Kendra Van Zwieten and Karolina Marciniak and Kim Hildreth and Sarah Schermerhorn; the men’s side wasn’t much different, as the two most accomplished players, Bomgren and Piotr Marciniak, matched up in the quarters as well.
“This was an incredibly deep tournament, with guys that play regularly in AVP main draws to the best young players in the nation,” said Benesh, who also won Grass Nationals with Beranek in doubles, and won with Beranek and Taylor Crabb in triples. “The jumpy sand made for some gnarly plays and rallies. It was such a fun event.”
As it can oftentimes go in tournaments as deep as this, and in heat the type provided by Southern Florida, the best matches came prior to the finals. A quarterfinal match between up-and-coming Evan Cory and Logan Webber and eventual champs Benesh and Beranek was, with little doubt, the best of the weekend for the men, and a fun one for fans as four players with bright futures battled it out. The victory, it goes without saying by this point, went to Benesh and Beranek, 21-17, 19-21, 15-13, an excellent test for two teams with loads of untapped potential.
Highlighting the weekend for the women was a marathon of a semifinal between Scoles and Harward and Delaney Mewhirter and Katie Spieler. After winning their first five matches by a combined 122 points, Scoles and Harward alas dropped a set in the semifinals to Mewhirter and Spieler, which was a rematch of their final in Waupaca earlier this summer. Scoles staved off a match point down 13-14 before earning the next two in a row, punching their ticket to their third final of the season.
“Playing with Hailey is like playing with your best friend,” Scoles said. “We have just as much fun off the court as we do on the court.”
Brok and Morris seem to have a similar connection. Their finals appearance may have been a surprise to some, given their lack of professional experience in a field populated by dozens of professionals, but their run this weekend was no gimmick. They’re the winningest pair in school history at FAU, and it was clear this weekend that their games will soon make the jump from college to pro, should that be their choice.
But the college team who is clearly ready for that next step — or simply prepared for the upcoming collegiate season — is the one who won their second big tournament of the year. Harward and Scoles proved, one final time before their seasons at USC begin, that they are prepared for any and all levels of beach volleyball.
“I am just fired up to play given the circumstances with the virus,” Scoles said. “Just thankful for an able body to compete and do what I love. This tournament was such a privilege to play in and compete against so many stellar teams.”