Our preview of AVP Austin, which will have a different look this week

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AVP Austin 2019 preview-Jake Gibb
Jake Gibb celebrates his win at AVP Huntington Beach/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

The 2019 domestic pro beach volleyball season got underway two weeks ago and it was a recipe for AVP success, including great crowds at Huntington Beach, excellent weather, and a strong field with a sprinkling of Canadians and Brazilians.

This week the tour heads to Austin, but since this is an Olympic qualifying year, a number of teams will instead be playing in the four-star FIVB event in Itapema, Brazil. Possible good news for the AVP: There’s always the possibility that teams that fail to qualify in Itapema may fly at the last minute to Austin.

This will be the 12th time the AVP has stopped in Texas’ capital city, where there is no shortage of beach volleyball diehards.

This is our look at the top five teams per gender, with an eye on a few teams to watch in the qualifier. Jake Gibb and Kim DiCello have offered to assist us in our team analysis.

Men’s main draw
No. 1 — Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb:
Gibb and Crabb have earned the top seed for AVP Austin after winning Huntington Beach after taking fifth in two FIVB events, last year’s four-star p1440 in Las Vegas and then a three-star in Sydney.

“We’re just off our offseason,” Gibb said, “So everything’s pretty finely-tuned as far as our strength training and our court reps, now it’s just about honing our competition reps.

They came out of the contenders brackets to win the tournament after a third-round loss to Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb.

“We were a little unpolished in Huntington,” Gibb admitted. “We lost early and had to bounce back and battle through a lot of matches. That’s our biggest focus.”

No. 2 — Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena:  Dalhausser and Lucena have had an up-and-down 2019, with a silver-medal finish in the four-star FIVB Doha, and a disappointing 25th place in the four-star FIVB Xiamen. They were fifth in AVP Huntington, losing to Chase Budinger and Casey Patterson (18-21, 17-21) and Crabb and Gibb.

“I think they are one of the best defensive teams in the world,” Gibb said. “Just a unique and special team that way, together they cover a ton of court. They’re a really tough team to compete against.”

No. 3 — Ed Ratledge and Roberto “Rafu” Rodriguez: They were seventh in Huntington after losses to Chase Budinger and Casey Patterson and Tim Bomgren and Troy Field.

“Ed and Rafu were a new team last year that came on, won a tournament, and have quite a unique way of approaching the game, which is very effective.” Gibb said. “The way that I would classify them is ‘very entertaining.’ They like to bring a lot of fire, a lot of trash talk, and all the good stuff that comes with it.”

No. 4 — Chaim Schalk and Jeremy Casebeer: They, too, were fifth in Huntington, with wins over Michael Brunsting and Ty Loomis and Billy Allen and Stafford Slick but losses to Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb and Bomgren-Field.

“I would say that Chaim and Jeremy are one of the most athletic teams on tour,” Gibb said. “They’re a new team, so everyone’s still trying to figure them out. They’ve only played one tournament together.”

No. 5 — Tim Bomgren and Troy Field: They surprised many to reach the semifinals in Huntington, upsetting Ratledge and Rodriguez and Casebeer and Schalk before succumbing to Chase Budinger and Casey Patterson.

“Tim Bomgren’s a big question mark,” Gibb said, “because he’s playing defense for the first time. He really proved that he could, by making it to the Huntington semifinal.

“And then you have Troy Field, who is one of the highest jumpers on tour, I think he has a 47” vertical, he’s super-young, gifted, and talented. They’re a unique team as well.”

AVP Austin 2019 preview-Kim DiCello-Katie Spieler
Kim DiCello and Katie Spieler celebrate together at AVP Huntington/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Women’s main draw
No. 1 — Betsi Flint and Emily Day:
Day and Flint enter their second year together as a proven force, with 2018 AVP wins in Seattle and San Francisco, plus a third in Manhattan. They won the three-star Haiyang event, but lost to Canadians Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes in Huntington in the third-place match.

“Betsi and Emily are a really fun to compete against,” DiCello said. “They’re a great serving team, they have solid ball control, and they play well together.

No. 2 — Caitlin Ledoux and Geena Urango: Last  year Ledoux played with five partners in the seven AVP events, Urango with three. They’ve played with each other exclusively since AVP Chicago, with a seventh in p1440 San Jose, fifth in the FIVB two-star in Phnom Penh, and second at the three-star in Chetumal, Mexico.

Most recently they finished fifth in NORCECA Varadero and 13th in Huntington Beach.

Urango’s serve is one of the more potent weapons on the tour, DiCello said.

“Geena was voted best server on tour last year, she really gets after it with her jump serve, the two of them have really good ball control, and they move the ball around well. They’re a low-error team, they keep the ball in play.”

No. 3 — Brittany Howard and Kelly Reeves: Reeves and Howard return together for 2019, after earning a third (San Francisco) and fifth (Chicago) domestically, and a pair of fifths internationally (Zhongwei, Qinzhou). They finished ninth in Huntington, with losses to Sara Hughes and Summer Ross and Kelly Claes and Brandie Wilkerson.

DiCello hasn’t had the opportunity to play against Howard recently, but enjoys Reeves’ intensity.

“Kelly is a great defender, she’s really scrappy in the backcourt, I love the hustle she shows when she’s competing.  It’s fun to play against her, she brings a lot of energy to the court as well. I haven’t played against Brittany much because I was out on maternity leave last year, when she had her best year on tour. From watching her last year she’s continuing to get better all the time.”

No. 4 — Karissa Cook and Jace Pardon: One of 2019’s new teams, Cook and Pardon were one of Huntington’s surprises, improving on their 11th seed to finish fifth after upsets of Ledoux and Urango and Kelly Claes and Brandie Wilkerson.

The pair is undersized by main draw standards, with Cook at 5-foot-11, Pardon at 5-10.

“Karissa and Jace are a solid side-out team, DiCello said. “They’re another low-error team. They put a lot of pressure on teams with their serving, their solid sideout game, and they’re both really good defenders.”

No. 5 — Irene Pollock and Terese Cannon: A new and untested team for 2019, Pollock served as a volunteer assistant for UCLA, which won the NCAA title last weekend, while Cannon was busy dominating the net for arch-rival USC.

Pollock, a 6-1 defender, played with Amanda Dowdy last year, with a 2018-best third place finish in Seattle. On the international stage, her best finish was bronze in Nanjing.

The 6-3 Cannon was one of the most feared blockers on the NCAA circuit for USC, who finished second at last weekend’s National Collegiate Beach Championships. Last year she and UCLA’s Sarah Sponcil surprised many with their third place finish at the AVP Championships in Chicago.

Pollock, a Fort Worth native, is sure to garner plenty of home-town support, DiCello said.

“I can’t speak to Cannon, because she came onto the tour when I was on maternity leave, but Irene is a super-physical athlete, she’s really talented, she’s really hard-working. I have a lot of respect for Irene and her game, and I know she loves playing at home in Texas.”

No. 6 — Kim DiCello and Katie Spieler: DiCello and Spieler played their first event together in Huntington, finishing 13th, defeating Kim Smith and Allie Wheeler but losing Brittany Hochevar and Carly Wopat and Jessica Gaffney and Molly Turner.

DiCello also finished ninth in the FIVB three-star in Chetumal in her first tournament back after giving birth to son Luca.

Austin is one of Spieler’s favorite stops, the site of her season-best third place finish.

“Our partnership is still new,” DiCello said. “We teamed up three weeks ago, and Huntington Beach was our first tournament together, we’re learning fast, we’re up-leveling quickly, and really happy with the team ball we’re playing. We’re excited to see what we can do in Austin.”

AVP Austin 2019 preview-Maria Clara Salgado
Maria Clara Salgado digs at AVP Huntington Beach/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Any AVP qualifier is a beast. The single-elimination format doesn’t allow any margin for error, and there are always several dangerously under-seeded teams throughout the draw.

Rather than talk about the top qualifiers, which tend to be the same teams every tournament, here are a few that are well worth watching, teams that add intensity and fire to the qualifier, adding drama to the qualifier.

The Austin qualifier is a little safer than most because it’s not held on a large natural beach like Huntington, Hermosa, or Manhattan, so the logistics of finding enough quality courts to host a one-day 80-team men’s qualifier and 64-team women’s qualifier forces the AVP to limit the field to 48 teams per gender.

On the men’s side this is less of an issue, as it’s unlikely that any of the reserve teams are good enough to qualify.

On the women’s side, however, there are a number of athletes that don’t have a ton of points due to NCAA participation that could make waves in the qualifier from UCLA, LSU, and Florida State that will likely have to wait for the Hermosa qualifier.

Here are three suggestions on teams to watch.

Men’s qualifier
Spencer Sauter and Ben Vaught:
We profiled Sauter previously after he won a 2019 Ford Fiesta on the “Price is Right” game show. Sauter, a 6-8 blocker from Penn State, has made seven main draws and is a force at the net.

Vaught, a 6-3 southpaw from Cal Baptist, has made nine main draws, and is a solid all-around defender that moves the ball around well and is tough to read.

The pair are seeded first in Thursday’s qualifier. In Huntington Beach’s main draw they lost to Eric Beranek and Curt Toppel and Avery Drost and Eric Zaun but defeated Duncan Budinger and Kyle Friend.

Christian Honer and Logan Webber: This team, seeded 15th in the Huntington qualifier, finished 13th in the main draw. The result is a career-high finish for both.

In the qualifier, they defeated AVP veterans Aaron Wachtfogel and Bill Strickland, Marshall Brock and Jake Rosener, and second-seeded qualifiers Bruno Amorim and Skylar Delsol to get in.

In the main draw, they lost to Mark Burik and Ian Satterfield and Maddison and Riley McKibbin, but defeated Chase Frishman and Piotr Marciniak.

Honer, an undersized 6-1 defender, plays fearlessly with 24-year-old enthusiasm. Webber, who previously competed for unheralded Cincinnati Christian University, was a blocking force. With the dearth of physical blockers on the tour, my guess is that an enterprising main draw defender with points will snatch up Webber this year.

Chris Austin and Kris Johnson: This could be the most difficult team to side out against in the men’s qualifier. Austin, a cagey 6-2 defender, set UC Irvine to an NCAA men’s indoor championship, so he’s no stranger to pressure.

Johnson, a 6-11 blocker, played middle for Cal Baptist and was a top candidate for the USA men’s national squad. He is an imposing physical presence with the ability to swat high line shots at great altitudes.

Sure, he’s raw, he’s only played four beach events, but their work with the p1440 development program should pay dividends.

If they stick with it and Johnson can improve his skills and ball control they have a huge upside. In Huntington they lost in the first round to Aaren Rice and Kevin Villela (14-21, 21-18, 7-15).

Women’s qualifier
The women’s qualifiers are getting to be as balanced and unpredictable as the men’s. It used to be that the top-seeded teams got in on an extremely regular basis, but thanks to the influx of NCAA beach volleyball, teams come into the qualifiers with top-flight coaching and preparation.

Sheila Shaw and Mackenzie Ponnet: Shaw, a 6-1 blocker, played with Lara Dykstra last year, making all seven draws with a season-best fifth place finish. This year she has united with Mackenzie Ponnet, a 5-10 defender, making four main draws in San Francisco, Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, and Chicago.

Shaw is an experienced blocker with a quick swing, while Ponnet excels in volleyball IQ and manages to be in the right place at the right time.

This team finished 25th in Huntington Beach, losing to Traci Callahan and Maria Clara Salgado.

Maria Clara Salgado and Traci Callahan: There are a few volleyball names that make you sit up and pay attention. Sato. Zaytsev. And Salgado. Of course, Maria Clara doesn’t have the offensive firepower of twin sister Carolina Salgado, currently ranked fourth internationally.  Nor the blocking prowess of brother Pedro Salgado, ranked 13th internationally. But yes, she does have the ball controls skills that her mother Isabel drilled into her from the age of 12.

Last year Salgado earned a pair of ninths on the FIVB tour (Lucerne three-star, Moscow four-star).

And the name Callahan may not be familiar, as she previously competed under the last name of Weamer, with domestic fifth, sevenths, and ninths in 2014. She has played sparingly of late, competing in one event in 2015 and 2016, taking 2017 and 2018 off. She looks to be one of the fittest players on the tour now.

The pair far outstripped their No. 48 seed, finishing seventh after main draw wins over Kerri Schuh and Janelle Allen, Kelly Claes and Brandie Wilkerson and Jessica Sykora and Brittany Tiegs, but losses to Emily Day and Betsi Flint and Kelley Larsen and Emily Stockman.

Based on those results, you would have to think that this team would be a lock to qualify and do some main draw damage, and could make it out of the qualifier by New York.

Meghan Mannari and Taylor Nyquist: Most qualifier teams don’t have a lot of continuity. There just isn’t a lot of incentive to play together and build the multi-year chemistry that some of the main draw teams have.

Mannari and Nyquist have played together since 2015, encompassing 14 pro beach events and who-knows-how-many amateur events. They’ve garnered thirds on the NVL and made two main draws. That kind of teamwork is probably worth two points a set.

Mannari, a LSU product, is undersized at 5-9, but is one of the top-level defenders in the qualifier. Nyquist, a 6-0 blocker, does an excellent job of reaching over and has a heavy swing.

The pair hails from Texas and are sure to bring a swell of hometown support.

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