Jeff Conover sits at his desk at the AVP office in Costa Mesa. Overlooking the room is a panorama of an AVP stop I’ve yet to see. I point to it, ask where that picture was taken.

He gives one of those looks you give someone when you can’t tell whether they’re serious or not.

“Chicago,” he replies.

I shrug.

“Never been to Chicago.”

“You’ve never been to Chicago?”

This has been the look I’ve gotten all year. When I told players I’d never been to the venues in New York, or Seattle, or Chicago — or really even San Francisco, seeing as we played off-site last year — the reaction is the same: Eyes widen, incredulity spreads across their faces, the name of the site is said either in bold or italics.

Of the seven stops on the AVP Tour this season, three typically come immediately off the players’ tongues as their favorite: New York, Seattle or Chicago.

I cannot claim to count super well, but when reviewing my informal polling of players throughout the season when asking their favorite stop — Manhattan Beach is excepted in this poll, as everyone unanimously points to Manhattan — Chicago is likely the most frequent mention.

It could be due to any number of things — deep-dish pizza, most likely — but regular sites, like Chicago, seem to be gaining an identity. Manhattan is home of the epics, San Francisco the site of rookie victories, Austin the land of Dalcena and Ross.

Chicago?

It’s a bit wonky, really.

In 2015, when the AVP returned for the first time since 2009, the lovable Ty Tramblie, in his 13th season without ever having made an AVP semifinal, let alone a final, alas earned his first career victory alongside Brad Keenan.

The next year, the women’s final was the most unlikely of matchups, between teams seeded No. 4 — Lauren Fendrick and Brooke Sweat — and No. 9 — Betsi Flint and Kelley Larsen — while seeds 7, 6 and 13 all claimed a fifth or better.

Those winners, Fendrick and Sweat, even lost their first match of the tournament, avenging that loss in the quarterfinals four matches later.

In 2017, we were witness to Phil Dalhausser playing defense, and Nick Lucena putting up his mighty block…and making the finals doing so.

Hell, they nearly won the whole thing doing so.

Things, quite simply, get a little weird in Chicago.

What will 2018 bring?

AVP Chicago, men’s preview

Raffe Paulis, Jeff Samuels: The Kings of the 1 Seed, these two are on their second straight tournament as Q1. It worked out well enough the first time, with two straight-set wins before a three-setter in the final round to make the main draw in Manhattan Beach. Now they’re back as the top dogs in Chicago, with a significantly smaller field than in Manhattan.

Ben Vaught, Branden Clemens: The reunion of Caribou and Benny Boo has been just about perfect for both partners, a valuable lesson in the value of partnership chemistry, of which few have more of than this team. Since getting back together, they’re 3-for-3 in qualifiers, with three main-draw wins as well. They’ll be looking for at least a fourth in Chicago.

Bobby Jacobs, Mike Boag: Bobby Jacobs is getting out of California! Chicago will mark the first time the 32-year-old is playing a professional event outside of the Manhattan-Huntington-Hermosa cluster, and it’s not too difficult to see why. Jacobs and Boag are 2-for-2 this season, qualifying in Hermosa then Manhattan, and with Chicago featuring another big draw, they’ll be a favorite to make it in.

Adam Gustafson, Kyle Radde: One of the few AVP Next wild cards to do something productive in the Manhattan main draw, Gustafson and Radde gave Jeremy Casebeer and Reid Priddy a good run, losing 20-22, 16-21, before beating fellow wild cards Chris Luers and Adam Minch. In their third match, they nearly upset Eric Zaun and Piotr Marciniak, losing 15-13 in the third of what was a tremendously entertaining match.

Cole Fiers, Eric Beranek: Beranek is vying with Caitlin Ledoux for most partners played with in a single season, and also most success given said partner hopping. Beranek has qualified for three events with three different partners this year, and could very well make it a fourth with Fiers, a lefty out of Stanford who is making the transition back to the net after defending for Andy Benesh.

Paul Araiza, David Lee: Lee couldn’t help but laugh when reviewing his first career main draw match, against Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb in Manhattan Beach.

“That,” he said, chuckling, “is a different level.”

But Lee seems to have grasped the qualifying level, winning three matches in straight sets with Paul Araiza for his first AVP main draw. There’s no reason why the two-time Olympic medalist won’t be able to do it again in Chicago.

Paul Lotman, Miles Partain: I’m such a big fan of this team purely because of the wild contrast in styles and personalities. On the one hand you have Lotman, a physical indoor player with a booming jump serve and a window the size of a UPS truck. Then there’s Partain, a crafty, wristy lefty who’s as humble as he is shy, as unassuming as he is precocious. Their first crack together, in Seattle, went well enough, falling in the final round to Mike Brunsting and Eric Beranek, and that was a small draw. With the draw opening up in Chicago, the path should, theoretically, be lighter, though that’s not to say the two need an easier path anyway.

Garrett Peterson, David Smith: This is sort of like the qualifier version of the erstwhile John Hyden-Tri Bourne partnership. In Smith, you have a crafty, ball-control wizard veteran who uses a minimum of six bottles of sunscreen per match. In Peterson, you have a kid who can jump all over the place, swing overtop just about anybody, and has as much raw talent as anybody in the qualifier. Smith — and Justin Phipps before him — are perfect teachers to mold an athlete with as much promise as Peterson.

Troy Schlicker, Nate Yang: Both players have been so close to making it for the majority of the year. Schlicker had a tough loss in the final round of Hermosa, losing in three to Cole Fiers and Andy Benesh. Yang, meanwhile, has been on the wrong end of far too many close matches. They’re both due for a breakthrough.

Austin Martinez, Drew Hamilton: Like Peterson above, Martinez has all the raw tangibles you’d want in an athlete. It wasn’t all that long ago that he posted a video of him doing a “honeydip” dunk, finishing by hanging on the rim with the crook of his elbow. And, like Smith, Hamilton is a savvy veteran whose best playing days are certainly not behind him. This is a land mine to be sure.

AVP Chicago, womens preview

Delaney Knudsen, Jessica Sykora: Since Paulis and Samuels are the Kings of the One Seed for the men, it’s only fitting that there be queens, and Knudsen and Sykora have undoubtedly earned the tiara. This will be the third straight qualifier in which they are the top seed, and it’s worked out well enough so far, as they’ve only dropped a single set in their previous six qualifying matches.

Sarah Sponcil, Terese Cannon: The Sarah Sponcil AVP career arc has been a fascinating one to observe. She made her debut straight into the main draw with Lauren Fendrick in Austin, where the two challenged April Ross and Alix Klineman in the first of many thrilling finals. She and Fendrick were straight in the next two as well, in San Francisco and Manhattan Beach.

Now, in her third AVP tournament, Sponcil, who qualified for the most recent Norceca, is alas in an AVP qualifier, partnered up with USC’s Terese Cannon, who has made consecutive main draws in Hermosa and Manhattan.

Nicolette Martin, Tory Paranagua: A confession: many of the womens players I write about I haven’t actually seen play. The first time I saw Paranagua play was in her final-round match in Manhattan, where her and Jace Pardon won 21-10, 21-13. After seeing her play, I like this team at least 100x more because she’s a lefty blocker, and lefty blockers get bonus brownie points in these write-ups. That, and she’s playing with Martin, one of the steadier presences of the younger generation of AVP players, with a pair of fifths and three out of four main draws.

Brittany Tiegs, Mackenzie Ponnet: Ponnet and Tiegs have had success in reverse this season, with Tiegs enjoying the better half of her season in the first few events and Ponnet in the most recent three tournaments, all of which she has made the main draw. What’s funny is that the two have neither played with nor against one another on the AVP Tour, so it’ll be a new experience, perhaps something to test out with the off-season upcoming.

Jessica Gaffney, Katie Pyles: If anybody underestimated Gaffney prior to Hermosa – I, for one, overlooked the 84 seed — those days are no longer, as she and partner Iya Lindahl became the highest seed in AVP history to make a main draw, winning four matches in 10 sets. The 22-year-old out of Cal didn’t make it through in Hermosa, and in Chicago she’ll be on her third partner in as many events with Pyles, who recently finished her collegiate beach career at Grand Canyon.

Claire Wolfe, Lauren Dickson: It’s been three events since these two have played together, but in their small sample size this season — Austin, New York, Seattle — they’ve had a good showing. Akin to the college football playoff committee’s evaluation, one of the things I look at when evaluating a team is the quality of their losses, and these two really don’t have any bad ones. They lost in the final round of New York to a solid team in Christina Matthews — she’s since been out with an ACL injury — and Brittany Tiegs and fell in a close one in Seattle to indoor standouts Litara Keil and Cassandra Strickland. It’s taken a good team to knock them out of every qualifier thus far, and this one is the lightest of the bunch.

Annika Van Gunst, Teegan Van Gunst: College beach volleyball has to have the highest twins-on-the-same-team percentage. Arizona had the Witt sisters — congratulations to Madison on her nuptials this past weekend, by the way — UCLA is represented by the McNamaras, New Orleans has the Corcorans and Georgia State is led by the Van Gunsts. They went 13-8 on the top court this season, beating the top pairs from Pepperdine, TCU and FAU.

Heather Lowe, Agnieszka Pregowska: Land mine! It’s not often you see a player who won an FIVB with Jen Kessy buried seventh from last, but there Lowe is, buried deep in the qualifier alongside Pregowska, who’s made three main draws this season. Lowe hasn’t played in a professional event since an NVL in 2015, but something about the fact that she’s played upwards of 150, with six figures of prize money, tells me she’ll be just fine in Chicago.

Elise Zappia, Carly Wopat: I don’t mean to get all hyperbolic on you here, but this may be the best bottom seed in AVP qualifier history. Usually the bottom seed is Mr. or Mrs. Irrelevant, just a team that signed up for no other reason than just because. This is not one of those teams. Zappia won a national title with UCLA and has already experienced a main draw, and Wopat, a finalist for the 2014 Honda Award, was a three-time All-American at Stanford.

Some bottom seed this is.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Love it, Travis! “A crafty, ball-control wizard veteran who uses a minimum of six bottles of sunscreen per match”? Penetrating sports journalism and very readable.

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