Where do we go from here?
After a weekend that saw an inspirational title from Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb and a clinical dissection by April Ross and Alix Klineman at the AVP Porsche Cup, now the question hovering over all the elite players, and the sport itself is what’s next?
Before we get into that dilemma let’s first review the developments in Long Beach.
If you thought that one of the major storylines of this third AVP Champions Cup event would be the play of a sixth-seeded women’s qualifying team, then go immediately to Vegas and play the slots.
In fact, the most exciting, nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat match had to have been in the women’s quarterfinals Sunday morning, when veterans Kelley Kolinske and Emily Stockman punched and counter punched with the scrappy Friday qualifying duo of Kenzie Ponnet and Sheila Shaw. This was Ali-Frazier IV. The sixth-seeded Kolinske and Stockman eventually outlasted their less-heralded opponents, 21-16, 19-21, 16-14, in the longest and best women’s match of the tourney (1 hour, 8 minutes), but to some degree that was besides the point.
We discovered some new talent.
While April Ross and Sarah Sponcil deservedly get kudos for being the best defenders in the U.S., the 5-foot-10 Kenzie Ponnet, from Grand Canyon University, if she plays like she did this past weekend, will soon be entering into that discussion. It was quite refreshing watching Ponnet and Shaw over the weekend. They had to navigate three matches in the nerve-wracking single-elimination qualifier on Friday in sizzling heat, because their low seed did not get them a first-round bye. And all three of those matches were tight, including two that went three games.
There was no time for Moёt for Ponnet and Shaw when they realized they had drawn Ross and Klineman in the first round Saturday morning, scheduled for 18 hours after their emotionally draining path concluded late Friday afternoon. And they would be going through the main draw as the only team without a coach in their box. Yet, undaunted, they played the reigning World Championship silver medalists every bit as tough as anyone else did on the weekend losing by “only” 15-21, 19-21. Ponnet was all over the court, left side, right side hoovering up balls … And Shaw was a significant presence at the net with a loaded arm.
Once in the contenders bracket, Ponnet and Shaw, had to face yet another World Champs silver medalist in Lauren Fendrick (2017). Fendrick’s partner on the weekend, Emily Day, is herself a nine-time AVP champion. Unfazed, Ponnet and Shaw scrapped and scraped their way to yet another three-set win which teed up their match with Stockman and Kolinske. And while they did not hang on for a victory, despite owning match point, for anyone watching, they truly won the weekend with their unlooked for fifth place finish.
On the men’s side, how could you not be moved by Tri Bourne’s performance?
Six years ago on his 25th birthday weekend, as the 27th seed, he and John Hyden marched through a gauntlet of seven top-notch teams (they beat Brazilian three-time Olympic medalist Emanuel and his partner World bronze medalist Pedro TWICE in that tourney) to absolutely stun the world of beach volleyball taking the FIVB Berlin Open, where among the vanquished was Nick Lucena (playing with Ryan Doherty) in an unexpected All-American final.
Game on. Bourne was anointed the next “great” American player. He went on to win three AVP titles in the 2015-16 seasons, and perhaps most significantly, took a bronze in the FIVB World Tour final in 2016. From that high point, the rest is well documented. An autoimmune disease took him out of tournament volleyball from that September 2016 event all the way until the Manhattan Beach Open almost two full years later.
And, while we were not completely sold on the partnership of Bourne with Trevor Crabb (see last week’s story), Tri did reveal on Amazon Prime after their three-set win over Phil Dalhausser and Lucena in the Porsche Cup final that he played “freer” and more relaxed this past weekend. And so it seemed. They took it to Phil and Nick and grinded out a big third set win, 15-12. Hopefully, they will eventually get the keys to that beautiful red Porsche sports car that was on display on court 1.
Bourne and Crabb took care of both of their chief U.S. rivals for a Tokyo berth during the weekend. Besides vanquishing Dalhausser and Lucena in the final, they beat Taylor Crabb and Jake Gibb on Saturday, 21-17, 21-18 in the quarterfinals. Gibb, a fierce warrior on the court, has not been his typical sideout self ever since last week’s loss in the final to the Floridians for the Wilson Cup.
Gibb’s hitting has been the main problem, and it surfaced again against Dalhausser and Lucena on Sunday in the semifinals where Jake and Taylor lost in two close sets, 19-21, 21-23. Don’t get me wrong, Jake is still a huge presence at the net when it comes to blocking and there is no problem with his setting either. And while Gibb is 44 and a half, and could be forgiven for losing some speed off his fastball; we saw this past weekend that even older players can still bring it on tour. Enter exhibit one: John Hyden. (Smart) teams do not serve Hyden (who played with Jeremy Casebeer), who is two months shy of celebrating birthday number 48.
And speaking of Hyden, where does he go from here? He lives and trains in Tennessee and has his own volleyball fiefdom there, but will he put himself through the rigors of training and travel and competition in 2021? It can’t get any easier at that age to come out as chiseled and anaerobically fit as he is. If we have truly seen the last of John Hyden, he will go down as a first-ballot Hall of Famer, the oldest player to win on both tours, the AVP and FIVB. And if you watched him play with Casebeer this past weekend, he was setting with his hands, playing tremendous defense, and siding out when he did get a serve. A tip of the backwards hat to Hyden if this truly was the end.
While Dalhausser and Lucena fell just short of sweeping the Champions Cup after winning the first two events, there was one unforgettable moment for the two, or at least for Lucena in their first match of the day Saturday while playing three-time Olympic medalist Ricardo and his partner Miles Evans. Nick, all of 6-1 and maybe 165 pounds, if that, dripping wet, blocked the “Wall” himself, the burly 6-7, 250-pound (at least) monster from Brazil. It had to be the most seminal block of Lucena’s life as a part of an otherwise workman-like, 21-16, 21-12 win.
And, what of the 45-and-a-half-year-old Ricardo, where does he go from here? A prideful man, it must not sit well for him that he has to grind through qualifiers in the hopes of making an AVP main draw. He lives in Orlando now, which makes it difficult for him to practice with a steady domestic partner.
Perhaps the player most missed over the last two weekends was Sean Rosenthal, who apparently has had to get surgery for his shoulder. The two-time Olympian, now 40, most certainly has to be in his twilight. In a fully loaded AVP event making Sundays may prove to be difficult.
That being said, if we have a furious race for Olympic spots among the top three American teams and we have FIVB/AVP date conflicts, Rosie might do some damage in the “AVP Lite” events. If the shoulder proves to be the end of the line for Sean there will be tons of wonderful moments to reflect upon, but one stands out for me. It was a Friday night match in Chicago in 2002, loser takes ninth. Rosie was playing with Australian Olympian Mark Williams in a winners-bracket second-round match against Albert Hannemann and Jeff Nygaard. There were not a lot of fans ringing the court, and those that were there were probably inebriated. Sean took a set from Williams, jumped up facing cross court and then in mid-air at the apex of his jump turned and absolutely drilled a ball down the line past Nygaard. I looked around to see if anyone else saw what I saw because I could not believe it myself. That was Sean, a hummingbird in flight. His legend will only grow as time goes on. And here’s to Rosie’s Raiders, you will be missed too (maybe not by Dax Holdren!).
Speaking of legends, there is no better volleyball player in the world right now than April Ross. And if Alix Klineman continues to improve, there will not be a team that can beat them unless they have an off day. The “gap” year does benefit one other team significantly and that is Germany’s Laura Ludwig and her new partner Maggie Kozuch.
Ludwig has been able to channel Tim Hovland and Mike Dodd in becoming the female equivalent of the “Big Game Hunter.” She won Olympic and World Championships with old partner Kira Walkenhorst, and then in Rome last summer, the gold at the World Tour final as the 20th seed with Kozuch. Kozuch is a decorated indoor performer who now gets one more year to figure out the beach equation.
Meanwhile, the reigning World Champions, Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes, were way off their global-beating form from last summer. Was it caused by strict Canadian quarantine measures which kept them off the courts? A hangover from last summer’s success/disappointment over the Olympics being postponed, or all together something else? It was Humana-Paredes, normally as steady as they come who simply did not have a great three-week stretch.
The prism by which we viewed these tournaments was through the Amazon Prime (thank you for a live mic’ed Jose Loiola) and NBC telecasts. It was very nice to learn from the great Misty May-Treanor during her NBC and court 1 appearances, as well as Jeff Alzina’s coaching point of view from court 2.
Less informative was the time given over to shark-related material. Also, I would be curious from those of you who read these missives, let me hear from you (firstname.lastname@example.org).
I fear that the beach game is being inundated with numbers and stats. Information worth preserving is whose been getting served (that is first and foremost) and the numbers there-in, as well as aces and blocks. To me, kills is a reflection of whose getting served, which is typically the weaker offensive player, and hitting percentage is also misleading. Some advanced analytics such as in-system passing would offer up more in my opinion.
So, as we look ahead to next year, there are some real concerns.
One we raised last week is where will the Olympic qualifying tournaments be played and how many will there be? It may be pass the hat time for World Tour promoters. Not only do they need to provide prize money, meet all of the FIVB technical requirements, construct stadiums … but now they will need to institute Covid-19 proofing all throughout their compound footprint.
And that is not cheap.
Ask the AVP, which did a boffo job over the last three weekends. If those strictures do not make things tough enough, these same World Tour promoters may not be able to allow fans in, which means that the already tight fiscal margins they operate under will be further stressed by no income from paying customers. And with few or no fans, sponsor activation is limited or non-existent and by the way there is a global recession going on. (Sigh).
I am not so concerned about the Beach Majors, as they seem to have a good level of support from sponsors, but it is the other events, especially in virus hot beds like Brazil and China that worry me. We shall see but we will need to buckle up for sure, it could be one wild ride.
Feuer has also worked for Prime Ticket/Fox Sports West as an executive producer where he produced AVP broadcasts in 1989-1990, and later, pioneered the popular “AVP Classics.”