Editor’s note: Travis and his partner, Adam Roberts, are just back from an FIVB tournament in Bulgaria and are playing AVP Atlanta.
ATLANTA, Georgia — Morale, as a good friend of mine would say, is high in the American volleyball world right now.
Just days after April Ross and Alix Klineman won a gold medal on the beach, the USA women won their first gold medal indoors. Beyond the two gold medals, Tri Bourne, who never expected to be in the Olympics in the first place, led the entire Games in hitting percentage, either men or women.
There has been the media blitz, network mornings shows, ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange, and for dessert — or has this all just been the appetizer? — the AVP is back, making its 2021 debut on Thursday in Atlanta, Georgia.
It’s not just back in the weird COVID manner it was in 2020, with small draws, no fans, and a three-event season in three weeks: It’s back back.
It’s back in Atlanta, site of the first Olympic Games in which beach volleyball was a sport.
It’s back with fans — paying fans.
It’s back with a full field at the Atlanta Station venue, a 16-team main draw preceded by a qualifier so large it was split into two days.
It’s back with a new owner, Bally’s, and a new streaming channel, NBC’s Peacock. For that matter, if you want to watch, you have to get Peacock Premium.
Beach volleyball, y’all, is back.
Below are the top storylines to follow in AVP Atlanta
Welcome back to the beach, Taylor CrabbThe collective heart of the American beach volleyball community broke all at once when Taylor Crabb tested positive for COVID-19 in Tokyo. Despite being both asymptomatic and vaccinated, Crabb was removed from the Games, replaced by his good friend, Tri Bourne, which became a heartwarming story that temporarily numbed the heart-wrenching one of Crabb.
As good as Bourne was — and is — it is Crabb who is likely to become the face of American mens’ beach volleyball when veterans Phil Dalhausser and Jake Gibb officially retire from the game. And it’s Crabb who is back on the beach. After getting clearance to leave Tokyo, Crabb returned to his hometown of Honolulu for a little decompressing, but also to prepare for the upcoming AVP season.
And the AVP is, at heart, what Crabb is trying to build.
“For beach volleyball specifically, everybody talks about the Olympics,” Crabb said a little more than a month ago. “That’s the overall goal. But they look past that we have a season. We have a tour. The NBA is more important than the Olympics. To win that championship, and then becoming an Olympian is a bonus. Our season gets looked over. Everything is just focused on the Olympics, just get there. That’s what I hope to see change, is that we have our season, our change, and it’s just as important, winning our season, then on top of that, becoming an Olympian. Our season should be just as important.”
Now that season begins, in Atlanta. And if you’re in Atlanta, watching on stadium court as Crabb and Jake Gibb begin what is likely their final year together, give them a standing ovation.
If there’s a player who deserves it, it’s Taylor Crabb.
Is this the Last Dance of Phil Dalhausser and Jake Gibb?
Almost immediately after 41-year-old Phil Dalhausser and 45-year-old Jake Gibb lost elimination matches to Qatar and Germany, respectively, at the Tokyo Olympics, both announced their retirement from the FIVB. Dalhausser joked that his wife, Jen, might divorce him if he were to play another FIVB. Gibb said that he was “done. I’m going to go home and play some AVP tournaments. I’m going to go coach my kids’ soccer games.”
It’s entirely possible both blockers continue to play AVP tournaments after this season, much in the same way former Olympians Sean Rosenthal and Casey Patterson do. But it’s also possible this is the last full AVP season in which we see Dalhausser and Gibb competing at the same time.
Theirs has been an iconic rivalry, one of the best in American beach volleyball. For four consecutive quads, no other American has blocked in an Olympic Games. No other American has gotten close to dethroning either of them atop the beach volleyball hierarchy.
This year has a feel somewhat similar to Michael Jordan’s last season with the Chicago Bulls, in 1998, coined ‘The Last Dance’ by then-coach Phil Jackson and later documented in an incredible series by ESPN.
The 2021 AVP season could very well be the Last Dance of Phil Dalhausser and Jake Gibb.
April Ross and Kelley Kolinske competing together
If 2021 is the Last Dance of two American greats, is Atlanta the first tango of the next potential American partnership? April Ross, who is somehow finding the energy and mental bandwidth to compete in Atlanta after winning gold, chatting on every major American media outlet, ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange, is playing with someone other than Alix Klineman: Kelley Kolinske.
Now, before anyone gets carried away, it isn’t all that surprising that Klineman is opting out. It wouldn’t have been all that surprising if Ross opted out. The Olympics are positively insane, a nearly-month-long excursion in Tokyo that was, quite literally, beach volleyball around the clock. Klineman takes extra precaution with her body, and to turn around and compete in a blur of a week after winning gold isn’t exactly cautious.
Kolinske’s partner for this past quad, Emily Stockman, is taking off, maybe for just this event, maybe not, and she and Ross are a natural fit for at least a one-off tournament. Kolinske is one of the best blockers in the U.S., and Ross is quite evidently the best defender. If both were free agents this weekend, it makes perfect sense for them to play, both as a potential winning team this weekend and a potential Olympic contender come Paris 2024.
So don’t go too crazy just yet. The chips are a long way from falling for new long-term partnerships. But it will be fun to watch Ross and Kolinske play together, either as a one-off or a peek into what might be to come.
Other new main draw pairings to watch at AVP Atlanta
April Ross and Kelley Kolinske is really only just a small sampling of the completely new look of partnerships on the women’s end. Karissa Cook has partnered with Kelly Reeves at the 5 seed, which left Reeves’ usual partner, Terese Cannon, available. Cannon has picked up Molly Turner at the 7. Turner’s partner during the AVP Champions Cup, Katie Hogan, is now with Kim Hildreth, and Hildreth’s longtime partner, Sarah Schermerhorn, has picked up Megan Rice (not LMU star Megan Rice). Atlanta will also feature the debut of Geena Urango and Falyn Fonoimoana, who were briefly college teammates at USC, as well as UCLA standout Lexy Denaburg and Brazilian veteran Maria Clara Salgado. And, of course, my favorite team in the world, Delaney Mewhirter and Brooke Sweat, after a second-place finish at the AVP Next Gold event in Atlantic City — Delaney, I shall remind you, remains the breadwinner of our household — are directly into the main draw as the No. 12 seed.
Essentially: The women’s side is a brand new field. Even old teams are sort of new, as Crissy Jones and Zana Muno, after a year playing with different partners, are back; Emily Day and Betsi Flint reunited after Flint’s maternity leave; Sara Hughes and Brandie Wilkerson remain the American-Canadian pair who must split when the FIVB rolls around.
The men’s side is mostly normal, aside from the debut of Tim Bomgren and Jeremy Casebeer, although there is the weird partnership of Bill Kolinske and Miles Evans, who play together internationally but not domestically. Kolinske is competing with John Hyden, while Evans is defending for Ricardo Santos… but then Kolinske and Evans are signed up for next week’s two-star FIVB in Prague.
Injuries, injuries everywhere
You might think that after nearly two years off of domestic beach volleyball, the players would be quite healthy. You’d think wrong. The qualifier field has been decimated with injuries: Maddison McKibbin and Riley McKibbin are both out — a metal plate in Maddison’s shin is acting up; Riley had surgery on a cyst on his ACL — James Shaw is getting surgery on his ankle; Katie Spieler tore her ACL, as did her cousin, Torrey Van Winden; Lindsey Sparks will miss the remainder of the year after Pottstown knocked her out as well.
Seain Cook, Shaw’s usual partner, is healthy, but couldn’t find a replacement blocker in time, despite being a phenomenal defender who should have been picked up in minutes. Steve Roschitz also recently announced that he is out for the season, with a rare condition called Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. He’s already had surgery, but he can’t compete this year. This leaves his usual partner, Pete Connole, a free agent, and Connole scooped up the speedster Silila Tucker as his defender. Tucker actually made his first main draw with Roschitz, in Chicago of 2018, and he’s from Texas, which makes him and Connole, who lives in Texas, an easy pairing.
Other qualifier teams to watch at AVP Atlanta
Note: I’m only covering five women’s teams and five men’s teams here, including Connole and Tucker above. As a rule, I try to cover 10 different qualifier teams in every preview. If I didn’t include a team, it doesn’t mean that team isn’t a team to watch; these 10 are just the first 10 that caught my eye…
- Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth — I think this is a top-five team on the AVP Tour, and I’m happy to have that debate with anybody who cares to engage with me. They won literally every college match they played, and almost every other professional event they’ve entered thus far. If you haven’t watched them yet, watch them in Atlanta.
- Annika Rowland and Teegan Van Gunst — I haven’t written much on these two yet, but I’ve made a promise to myself that I will soon. They were tremendous indoors at Georgia Tech as well as their one beach season at Georgia State, and have been a steady presence in the low-main draw, upper-qualifier tier for a few years now. They recently took a third at the AVP Next Gold in Atlantic City, and are a team to keep an eye on to make a substantial jump this season.
- Megan Kraft and Savvy Simo — Bias alert! I try to be as transparent as I can here, so I admit, I’m a billion percent biased when it comes to rooting for Savvy Simo, who has been a wonderful addition to the SANDCAST crew. But she’s also a magnificent defender, and she has a precocious blocker in USC standout Megan Kraft. They took fifth at the AVP Next Gold in Atlantic City, beating a host of excellent teams to do so.
- Lili and Larissa — Peruse the results of every Florida tournament in the last two years, and you’ll find one common denominator: Brazilians Lili and Larissa, winning almost everything. They both had great careers on the FIVB, and Larissa is something of a legend, with three Olympic appearances and a bronze medal in 2012.
- Caitlin Moon and Raelyn White — Land mine alert! Moon and White, both rising sophomores at Florida State, are seeded deep in the qualifier. But seeding means nothing with the College Mafia, and these two just don’t have many points to their name yet. White made the CCSA All-Tournament team with Sara Putt, and while Moon didn’t see much playing time in her freshman season, she did make an appearance on court one against Florida Gulf Coast, winning with Alaina Chacon.
- Avery Drost and Miles Partain — If Miles Partain wasn’t being corrupted by the Dark Side of the force — i.e. indoor volleyball — I’d peg him as a legitimate contender to compete in Paris 2024. That’s how much I love this kid’s game. He’s that good. Alas, he’s doing the responsible thing, getting an education, playing indoor at UCLA, and thus can’t play beach volleyball year round. Even with him splitting time, I still think he’s one of the best defenders in America, and he’s playing with an experienced and talented veteran in Avery Drost.
- Mark Burik and Cody Caldwell — Caldwell has one of the highest upsides of the up-and-coming blockers in the U.S., a former national champ at Loyola University Chicago with a huge arm, huge serve, and clean hands as a bonus. He’s been, oddly enough, playing defense lately, but he’s a presence at the net, and will be a considerable team with Mark Burik.
- Evan Cory and Logan Webber — I’ve been hinting about Evan Cory for a long time now, but I’ll say it officially here: Cory’s time has come. He’s been steadily rising on the beach, but splitting his time indoor at Lincoln-Memorial has limited his growth. Now that he’s graduated, dedicating his time fully to the beach with his coach, Joey Keener, he has exploded with Webber, winning consecutive AVP Next Golds before taking a fifth in Atlantic City. They’re straight into main draw in Manhattan Beach next week, but I’d love to see Cory get a main draw through a qualifier, which is an experience like no other.
- Robbie Page and Hagen Smith — The comeback tour is on! After taking a few years off the beach to build up his tea company, Robbie Page is back on the AVP Tour. He’s picked up Hagen Smith, who might be the perfect complement for him, a gritty defender with an enormous hitting window who barely let any balls go down when I played with him — and Page is seven inches taller than me! This is a good team.