In the first of three AVP Hunger Games — er, qualifiers at the Champions Cup — teams of every type made it through: the tried and true (Billy Allen, Stafford Slick), the brand new (Ed Ratledge, Skylar del Sol), the relatively recently established (Karissa Cook, Jace Pardon) and the up and coming (Traci Callahan, Crissy Jones).

To label Friday’s play in Long Beach, California, at the first Champions Cup a qualifier is a bit of a misnomer. Every team on the men’s side had at least one player who had previously made an AVP semifinal, while there were five players who had made a final in the past year alone. The women’s end wasn’t much different: Three of the first four teams eliminated had players with finals experience.

The AVP recognized as much: Those who took 15th place finishes still split $3,000. It made for a wildly entertaining day — and big numbers for any player who was streaming on their social media accounts for the fanless event — that felt more like a Saturday main draw contender’s bracket.

“Those are the teams you’re playing, and to pound your way through, that’s essentially what it was,” said Ratledge, who is playing in just his second tournament with del Sol. Even he seemed a bit surprised — pleasantly so — at just how quickly he and the 29-year-old defender have come along.

Two days prior to Friday’s competition, they beat David Lee and Reid Priddy in practice, “and I said ‘Huh, I guess we’re OK! I hope Rafu [Rodriguez] doesn’t get his jump serve going because that’s going to be tough to stop, and he knows everything about my game that I don’t want him to know, I sure hope we can win that first one at least,’” Ratledge said. “That was kind of my thinking going in.”

That mindset worked just fine, as Ratledge and del Sol won the battle of the exes, over Rodriguez and Piotr Marciniak — Ratledge formerly played with Rodriguez, del Sol with Marciniak — upset No. 2 Miles Evans and Ricardo Santos, and quelled a hot upstart team of Eric Beranek and Andy Benesh.

“Skylar’s been in a couple main draws, but to bust your way through this? And kind of kick the crap out of a couple teams doing it?” Ratledge said. “There were some close times, but we were smooth, we were real smooth, and we held leads, didn’t relinquish them. I can’t complain about the result and I can’t complain about the way we did it.”

So while there were breakthroughs, to dub anything a true upset would be a bit of a fallacy. Unexpected victories, on paper, like that of No. 12 Benesh and Beranek over No. 5 Avery Drost and Ryan Doherty (19-21, 21-16, 15-12), or No. 11 Ty Loomis and Miles Partain over No. 6 Maddison McKibbin and Riley McKibbin (21-18, 21-13) can hardly be labeled as upsets — just excellent beach volleyball matches in a deep field where seeds are little more than numbers.

AVP Championss Cup 7/17/2020-Molly Turner
Molly Turner gets into the sand for a dig/Photo by Mpu Dinani

Photo by Mpu Dinani, AVPThe parity is simply too abundant to declare anything necessarily a surprise.

“Qualifiers are always epic, but this one was like having back to back quarterfinal-level matches to try to survive,” said Cook, who qualified with Pardon after beating Katie Spieler and Delaney Mewhirter (21-13, 21-14) and Kenzie Ponnet and Sheila Shaw (21-15, 16-21, 17-15).

Their final match is example enough. Cook and Pardon won Austin last year, while Ponnet and Shaw made the semifinals in Hermosa Beach. And there they were, in the final round of a qualifier.

“I sort of forgot how amazing it feels to have the chance to earn your way into the main draw,” Cook said. “It definitely makes the chance to play tomorrow that much more special.”

Joining Cook and Pardon on Saturday will be Callahan and Jones, who competed in their first AVP tournament together on Friday. Rob Espero interviewed them both later Friday and that video is at the end of the story

They topped Kim DiCello and Kendra Van Zwieten (21-16, 21-11), Amanda Dowdy and Zana Muno (19-21, 21-15, 15-8) and Kelly Reeves and Terese Cannon (18-21, 22-20, 15-9)

“The thing that’s nice about me and Crissy is that last year, she had to qualify a lot, because it was her first year. Last year I had to qualify a lot because it was my first year coming back. We are familiar with the qualifier, one or done,” Callahan said. “Coming into it, we had confidence knowing we could go all the way, but in a qualifier, you really have to focus on the here and now, in the moment, and if you get ahead of yourself, you will be in trouble. We really focused in and dialed in on each match individually.”

AVP Champions Cup 7/17/2020-Ted Grissom
Official Ted Grissom wears a face mask/Robert Beck, AVP

Saturday’s play begins at 8:15 a.m. Pacific, with Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena vs. Ratledge and del Sol, Theo Brunner and Casey Patterson vs. Jeremy Casebeer and John Hyden. has all of Friday’s results and Saturday’s schedule. Click here for the men’s matches, and here for the women’s.

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