AVP Austin: Travis Mewhirter breaks down qualifier field and then some

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Katie Spieler will play with Amanda Wiggins at AVP Austin/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Travis Mewhirter is a former sportswriter who gave up his full-time job at a newspaper so he could move to Southern California to play more and be around more beach volleyball. He competed in the AVP Huntington Beach and is going to Texas for this week’s AVP Austin.

This is the one.

Perhaps it was surprising to scroll through the entry list for the AVP Austin Open, and then keep scrolling … and keep scrolling, all the way to 66 teams for the men.

Sixty-six teams? In Austin?

Yes. Sixty-six teams. In Austin.

There’s a reason for this. Aside from the fact that Austin is the capital of the largest state in the country and one of the greatest cities in America in terms of, well, anything from great music, night life, scenery, museums, but this is the qualifier that appears, on paper, somewhat reasonable for the masses.

The big dogs — Taylor Crabb and Jake Gibb, Casey Patterson and Theo Brunner, Ryan Doherty and John Hyden — are gone, off to Rio de Janeiro for a four-star FIVB event. This allowed the top three qualifying teams — Kevin McColloch and Roberto Rodriguez-Bertran, Chase Frishman and Mike Brunsting, Maddison McKibbin and Reid Priddy — to slip into the main draw.

Which means Thursday’s qualifier, once an indomitable affair, is wide open. Suddenly, buying that $400-plus plane ticket, and paying for a hotel, and Ubers or rental cars, unless you’re just road-dogging it, which if you are, good for you, seems like an OK investment.

So let the entries pour in, all the way to 66, five more than the Huntington Beach Open, which has annually been the site of the largest qualifier for a 16-team draw.

Aside from massive, one word can perfectly sum up this qualifier: Parity.

Anybody’s bid: I only see one team that could be considered somewhat of a lock to make Friday’s main draw: Ed Ratledge and Eric Zaun, who really shouldn’t even be in the qualifier anyway, snubbed by the forever-ambiguous “wild card,” which was awarded to Priddy and Maddison McKibbin.

This tournament is almost a glorified CBVA, as there is only one ringer and legitimately 20 or so teams with decent odds to make it in. I’ll break down each of those in the “favorites” and “dark horses” columns, which is a bit of a misnomer, because, mathematically, you shouldn’t have 20 or so favorites and dark horses to qualify for four spots. But I’m not so good at math …

Eric Zaun is playing with Ed Ratledge/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

The Austin AVP men’s favorites

No. 1 seed: Ed Ratledge and Eric Zaun Welcome to the AVP Tour, Eric Zaun.

After three seasons on the NVL, in which he won the Breakthrough Athlete and Rookie of the Year, as well as three tournaments, and made another four finals, Zaun was one of many to attempt the transition to the AVP.

He is the only one to successfully do so thus far, qualifying in his first attempt, in Huntington Beach, to finish ninth. Zaun and Ratledge were impressive, taking both Theo Brunner and Casey Patterson and Trevor Crabb and Sean Rosenthal to three sets apiece.  Anything less than another ninth would be somewhat surprising. 

No. 2 Dan Buehring-Matthew McCarthy; No. 3 Ben Vaught-Branden Clemens; No. 4 Jon Drake-Chris Luers — What an enigma these guys are. All of them.

Buehring and McCarthy are the second-seed, sure, but both of them have only made it through one qualifier in their careers, which came in Chicago of 2015. Aside from that, all of their main draw appearances have come via points.

Vaught and Clemens broke through to the main draw for the first time just two weeks ago, in Huntington Beach.

Drake and Luers have yet to make a 16-team draw together (they made Manhattan and Chicago last year, both of which are big draws). 

This showcases the parity in this qualifier, that the teams seeded 2 through 4 are perhaps more inexperienced in main draws than teams 5 through 20. 

No. 5 seed: Jorge Martinez and Spencer SauterMartinez spent all of last year as the No. 1-ranked player on the CBVA, qualified for Manhattan Beach with Mike Boag, and should have qualified for Chicago had it not been for the newly implemented score freezes. His partner, Sauter, a former indoor player at Penn State, has already tasted main draw, at the 2016 Manhattan Beach Open with Buehring.

No. 6 seed: Paul Lotman and Alejandro ParraLotman has played in two Olympics. Parra has been in 10 main draws in the last two years. They’re an odd pair, two massive human beings with thunderous hits, serves that could knock you over (Lotman has nearly done this to me), and blocks that will give even the best offensive players fits.

Why two defenders haven’t split them up is anybody’s guess, really. Maybe they just enjoy being that team that bounces every ball and attracts the biggest crowds.

No. 9 seed: Jake Rosener and Garrett Wessberg — Another pair of blockers, with a similar set of weaponry: hard serves, harder hits, big windows. Rosener’s defense will actually surprise many, as he digs hard-driven balls as well as most defenders.

Still, this is more of an “I’ll side out better than you will!” team than it is a scrappy one.  Hey, the best defense is a good offense.

No. 11 seed: Orlando Irizarry and Ian Satterfield — If I were a betting man— and my breathtaking lack of success in Vegas tells me I should not be a betting man– these are my guys. They’re as good as anybody in this qualifier and, because they’re the 11 seed, would get incredible betting odds – low risk, high reward.

Satterfield is far more talented than his BVB would suggest. He played in six AVP qualifiers last year and was knocked out in the final qualifying round four times, the last being a heartbreaker in Manhattan Beach – 16-21, 23-21, 14-16 to Ed Ratledge and Adam Roberts.

His partner, the Puerto Rican Orlando Irizarry, has fared a little better. He made the 2016 New York Open with Roberto Rodriguez-Bertran, and has had a fair amount of success in NORCECAs.

I think this is the one Satterfield does it.

The NVL transfers

No. 13 seed: Piotr Marciniak and Raffe Paulis — Another NVL transfer here with Marciniak, who was awarded the NVL’s Best Offensive Player three years in a row, from 2014-2016. Of course, it didn’t hurt that his partner, Skylar DelSol, was also awarded Best Setter.

Marciniak has eight NVL wins to his name, and Paulis, a 6-foot-2 defender, has made four AVP main draws in the past two years, which might make them the most accomplished 13 seed ever for an AVP qualifier.

No. 20 seed: Jeff Samuels and Dave Smith — Dave Smith has been playing in main draws before Samuels could spell “main draw.” Seriously. The guy’s been playing on various professional tours since 1994. Last year, both he and Samuels were playing NVL, though Samuels, after making five semifinals on the NVL, wanted to see how he fared against the country’s best, on the AVP Tour.

Dark horses

No. 12 seed: Tim May and Travis WolosonMay probably has the best serve — a jump spin I’d love to see on a radar gun — in the qualifier and Woloson is a crafty left-sider with a devastatingly effective line shot. The only reason they’re a dark horse, as opposed to a favorite, is because they don’t necessarily complement one another. They do the same things well, and the same things not so well. They’re talented, but so are a lot of teams.

No. 18 seed: Dillon Lesniak and Tal ShavitLesniak plays for the U.S. Virgin Islands. I don’t really know what that means, to be totally honest with you. I don’t think anybody does. But he gets to travel around the world and play in some pretty sweet locations, against fairly high-level talent, and he looked excellent at the Huntington Beach Open, so whatever happens on the Virgin Islands seems to be working.

Shavit, meanwhile, is an Austin native, a diminutive lefty who looks like he’d probably be very good at Crossfit. He was also the only one to take a set off of Ratledge and Zaun in the Huntington Beach qualifier.

This is going to be a very small, very ball-control-oriented, very scrappy team that will inevitably frustrate the living hell out of a team that just can’t seem to get the ball to hit the sand. 

No. 32 seed: Kyle Friend and Myles MuagututiaMuagututia played football at Stanford, so not only is he way more athletic than anybody reading this far down the column, but he’s also way smarter. He and Friend, a former pro indoor player, recently won an open CBVA in Long Beach, with a similar talent pool to this qualifier.

And then there’s the “Land mine,” everybody’s favorite part, the totally mis-seeded team that could break the brackets into a million pieces. That would be No. 39 seed: Elias Aparcedo and Dana Camacho — Before Adrian Carambula captivated the beach volleyball world with his towering skyballs and over-on-ones and quick sets and awesome, street-ball style, there was Dana Camacho.

Camacho could get zero serves in a game and still wind up with more kills, because when he plays defense, he’s actually in his best offensive position. Lazy shots are easy one-overs. Swings right at him are, again, easy one-overs.

If there were some kind of beach volleyball video game, Camacho would be the guy you unlock with all the cheat codes, and all of your friends complain that you can’t play with that guy because somehow it’s unfair. That’s Dana.   

Xi Zhang is playing with Kimberly Smith in Austin/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

The Austin AVP women’s favorites

I must admit I don’t know nearly as much about the women as I do the men. I have played and trained with or against nearly every team in the qualifier, so I know them better than I would the women who, for obvious reasons, I do not play against. This is my way of apologizing ahead of time …

This should actually be a really, really fun qualifier to watch, as we’re seeing our first generation of collegiate beach volleyball players enter the professional ranks. While the names everyone knows — Sara Hughes and Kelly Claes — are in Rio for the FIVB event, I’m genuinely excited to see Arizona’s Witt sisters, Madison and McKenna, and USC’s Nicolette Martin and Allie Wheeler, among others. Typically, qualifiers are a relatively predictable affair. Austin should be anything but.

No. 1 Katie Spieler and Amanda WigginsSpieler is one of the aforementioned “next generation” that beach volleyball fans should be excited to watch. Fresh out of Hawaii, Spieler has actually been playing in main draws for the past few years, making at least one in 2014, 2015, and 2016, with a seventh-place finish in Chicago. Her and Wiggins, who made five out of six main draws last season, were both bounced from the Huntington qualifier, but they are the one seed for a reason.

No. 2 Bre Moreland and Kerri SchuhThis is a team I would absolutely never bet against. Moreland has put in more hours of training than any women I’ve seen (granted, I can only consistently see Huntington Beach, so I am absolutely biased to those who train there) and Schuh had enough confidence in Moreland that she willingly dipped out of the main draw and back into the qualifier to play with her.

By the end of the year, if not sooner, this will be a regular main draw team.

No. 3 Aurora Davis and Bree ScarbroughAfter a one-event split, the two young Floridians, who played the final six events of the 2016 season together, have reunited.

I’m big on team chemistry, and I’m also big on teams that have been there. Davis and Scarbrough have both.

No. 4 Taylor Nutterfield and Claire SmalzerHome field advantage!

I don’t know how much of a factor this plays in beach volleyball, if any at all, but I figured I had to point out that they both live in Austin. They were knocked out in the final qualifying round in Huntington, but they have made two main draws in their last four tournaments, and there’s something to be said for that.

No. 7 Kimberly Smith and Xi ZhangZhang has had a pretty ho-hum career. She’s only been awarded, oh, the best player in the world (2008) and best defensive player in the world (2010) and beaten Kerri Walsh-Jennings and Misty May-Treanor in their primes. So, yeah, she could be playing with a fifth grader and I wouldn’t really care: She’s a 7 seed nobody would ever want to see.  If all goes according to seeding, there should be one heck of a play-in match between Zhang and Smith and Moreland and Schuh. 

No. 8 Nicole Bateham and Agnieszka PregowskaThe AVP’s newest gimmicky time-filler between sets on stadium court should be to spell (or pronounce) Agnieszka Pregowska. Luckily for me, I get to cheat and just copy and paste it in here.

Jokes aside, though, this is a legit team. Pregowska has made FIVB main draws, which is generally far more impressive than making it on any other tour. And Bateham beat her just last year, on her way to her first main draw, in the Manhattan Beach Open, where she didn’t just qualify and call it a day, but went on to win a pair of main draw matches.

Really, I just want to see this team make it so we’re all treated to Mark Schuermann’s inevitable butchering of Agnieszka Pregowska.

No. 10 Nicolette Martin and Allie WheelerI covered the USA Volleyball Collegiate Beach Championships this past weekend at Hermosa Beach, and when I saw this relatively little defender named Nicolette Martin matching up against USC teammates Sara Hughes and Kelly Claes, I gave her absolutely no chance. And I was really, really wrong.  She dug everything, sided out almost every ball, and very nearly shocked her good friends, taking them to three sets, which is an accomplishment in itself. So yes, I’ve learned my lesson: Nicolette Martin is exceptional. 

No. 18 Madison and McKenna Witt — One of the best collegiate beach pairs in the country, the Witt sisters are alas graduating to the AVP Tour. There is far too much sibling success on the AVP — think McKibbins, Bomgrens, Crabbs — to say it’s not a factor.  This is a fairly steep qualifier, and at No. 18, they have an uphill climb, but they’ve done it before, qualifying in New York in 2016 as the 26 seed.

Also in the field, don’t sleep on Avery Bush and Christina Vucich, who lost narrowly to Sarah Pavan and Carolina Salgado in Huntington Beach 21-14, 21-18. NVL transfers Anne Osburn and Megan Rice have played together since 2015, including a win at NVL San Antonio last year, while Priscilla Piantadosi-Lima and Carolina Salgado have experience as well as the Brazilian connection. And the last seed in the qualifier, Juliann Faucette and Melissa Sadler, is the pro beach debut of former national teamer/Texas star Juliann Faucette.

Travis Mewhirter

I’m sure I missed many top-flight women’s teams. I wouldn’t claim otherwise. Feel free to yell at me, either in person — I’ll be in Austin, playing with my good friend J.D. Hamilton — or on cyberspace. Tell me who I missed and why they should have been included so I can keep my eye on them for the next one. You can reach me at mewhirtert@gmail.com, or on Twitter @Travis_Mew.

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