HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — The field and the sand are deep. And when the final ball hit the beach Thursday night at AVP Hermosa Beach Open, the eight qualifying men’s and women’s teams represented quite an interesting mix.
The men: Kyle Friend and Myles Muagututia, Andy Benesh and Cole Fiers, Eric Beranek and Lucas Yoder, Spencer Sauter and David Vander Meer, Branden Clemens and Ben Vaught, Michael Boag and Buddy Jacobs, Travis Mewhirter and Hagen Smith, and Paul Lotman and Dave McKienzie.
The women: Delaney Knudsen and Jessica Sykora, Meghan Mannari and Taylor Nyquist, Cassie House and Molly Turner, Jessica Gaffney and Iva Lindahl, Hailey Harward and Kathryn Plummer, Devon Newberry and Lindsey Sparks, Emily Hartong and Alexa Strange, and Falyn Fonoimoana and Priscilla Piantadosi-Lima.
At the start Thursday going after the $79,000 combined field were 109 men’s teams and 86 women’s, the largest qualifying field on the 2018 AVP Tour playing on what most consider the deepest sand anywhere.
Lotman and McKienzie, 2012 indoor Olympians who were pro teammates in Puerto Rico in 2012, were seeded second in the qualifier but had never played together and practiced just one. The pair had only had the opportunity to practice together once.
“I had a pretty good picture of how we would play,” McKienzie said. “We’re both indoor players, we have similar games, we hit a lot, we fit together well because we’re not used to setting balls super high, so that helps us out.”
They beat Kristopher Back and James Schmidt in two Thursday before sweeping Drew Hamilton and Daniel Lindsey and then Shane Donohue and Adam Roberts.
“Our volleyball is getting better and better, steadying out a little bit, I think the qualifier is good for us because it gives us a chance to figure some things out and get comfortable playing together,” McKienzie said.
“It’s pretty physically demanding, especially for the teams that have to play four matches,” Lotman said. You’re burning a lot of calories, a lot of energy in this sand. More so than any other tournament. It’s pretty taxing on the body, especially when it’s getting hotter in the middle of the day, it’s nice that it cooled down a bit at the end.”
Mewhirter and Smith were another new team at Hermosa that qualified. The main draw is the second for both this year: Mewhirter finishied 13th with Raffe Paulis in Austin and Smith ninth with Lucas Yoder in San Francisco.
They practiced just twice, since Smith just returned from a trip to Spain on Sunday, but was sidelined with a fever. He had an IV on Monday, was able to put in half of a practice on Tuesday and a second practice on Wednesday. Mewhirter, of course, is a frequent VolleyballMag.com contributor and one of the hosts of the SANDCAST podcast.
Mewhirter, who has played with nine different partners in the last 12 events in the last two years, acknowledges that he’s found something in Smith.
“It’s so nice having Hagen back there as a defender. Every time I look back there, I expect that it’s going to be up, which is a really nice feeling to have as a blocker.
“Our chemistry started well, it was never bad, but it’s still improving. I love his attitude, he’s my favorite partner, and I’ve played with a lot of partners, so that’s saying a lot. We just have to figure out each other’s set.”
Thursday, they were seeded 10th and swept Kevin Beukema and Jeremie Holmes, went three to beat Justin Phipps and Bill Strickland and three more to beat John-Michael Plummer and Christropher Vaughan when they were down 13-11 in the third but scored the last four points.
“Every point, every set we’ve played, it’s gotten a little bit better,” Smith said. “I’m just finding my legs again. It will be a lot better tomorrow.”
Conversely, Clemens and Vaught have plenty of experience together. The youthful pair, at ages 24 and 21 respectively, have played together for nine consecutive events in 2017-2018 but separated briefly in New York. Unable to find success in New York and Seattle apart, they have reunited in San Francisco and now Hermosa, making the main draw in both events.
Vaught accepts full blame for the split.
“That was my complete mistake. I made a stupid, stupid decision. We have such good chemistry together,” Vaught said. “Our playing styles complement each other so well. I broke it up for whatever dumb reason that I did, it was just a bad move by me.”
Clemens sees the good in reuniting, especially after sweeping Kaleb Jenness and Christian Phung and Duncan Budinger and Kevin McColloch and going three to oust Patrick Bolton and Drew Punjabi.
“We got back together, we make a good team, we qualified for both of the events that we’ve played in since,” Clemens said. “If anything, maybe it was good. It lit a fire underneath us to realize that we had a good thing, and to work harder at it.”
Vaught had never had a regular partner other than Clemens and found the experience apart valuable.
“The one thing that I learned from this is how to deal with partnerships. He was my first real partner. I learned a lot about what I need to look for in a guy, how to work with a partner, for me it was a great learning experience.”
In the women’s bracket, top-seeded Knudsen and Sykora made main draws in Seattle and New York, including a main-draw upset of Ali McColloch and Geena Urango in Seattle.
Thursday, they swept Jenna Belton and Chanti Holroyd, Skylar Caputo and Torrey Van Winden and Heidi Dyer and Gigi Hernandez.
“You’re so close, but you’re still not in the main draw, so there’s a lot of pressure,” the 6-foot-4 Sykora said.
“It’s huge pressure,” Knudsen said. “When you’re the one seed, everyone gets to play you as if there’s nothing to lose. We have to be ready to play against everyone’s best every game. That’s what makes it harder.”
Sykora said that not only were there more qualifier teams here, but many are college players who train nearly year-round.
“In Hermosa, you see a lot more college teams out there, there’s a lot of youth,” said Sykora, 30. “The college teams have been practicing all season long, but we’ve been just as diligent. We just have to take care of our side. We have tall, and we’ve got fast, that’s all we need to take care of business.”
Eighth-seeded Mannari and Nyquist have competed together for the better part of three years, most on the NVL tour, where they earned six third-place finishes. Their only AVP appearance of 2018 was in Austin, where they lost the play-in match to Strange and Fonoimoana 23-21, 19-21, 12-15.
“It was super-bitter losing in Austin, and I never want to have that feeling again,” Nyquist said. “We were so close.”
Mannari and Nyquist, who live in Texas, had to adjust to the wind, the deep Hermosa sand, and the AVP freeze rule.
“Wind is not normally a factor in Texas, Mannari said.
“In Texas, we really don’t have wind,” Mannari said. “There are some days where we have wind, it’s something you have to get used to. You kind of figure it out as you go. You can definitely use it to your advantage, and there are some balls where we did that.”
The sand is different, too.
“We came out here yesterday to get some touches,” Nyquist said. “In Texas, we play at bars, and a lot of times the sand is super-shallow and super-jumpy. Obviously it’s an adjustment. You have to be well rested before-hand, and really aware of your body. It can humble you really quickly. You go in super-hard for a hit, and you get trapped by the sand.”
After being surprised by the freeze rule in Austin, they realized you have to play one point at a time. Thursday, they swept Francesca Gettings and Jacqueline Ribeiro, Alexis Filippone and Sammy Slater and Isabelle Carey and Megan Muret.
“With the freeze, we can freak ourselves out easily, so instead of worrying about getting to Friday, it was, ‘Let’s get through this match, this game, one point at a time.’ Once we start getting ahead of ourselves is when we stop playing our game, and getting frustrated,” Nyquist said.
Harward and Plummer joined forces for the first time this year. Harward is an outside hitter/libero for Long Beach State, while the 6-6 Plummer is an All-American outside/right side at Stanford.
Plummer had only played one previous AVP event in Manhattan 2016, so the pair was seeded 46th. Harward has qualified here two years in a row. They practiced together twice.
“Today it was really fun to play with Kathryn again,” Harward said. “We played a couple of tournaments last year, but she’s such a stud, it’s really fun to play behind her block.”
They had to win four matches to get in. Plummer certainly knew their first foes, beating former Washington standouts Carly DeHoog and Courtney Schwan, before they swept Lexi McKeown and Kate Privett, Kaitlyn O’Leary and Erin O’Connor and then Agnieszka Pregowska and Corinne Quiggle.
“These qualifiers are so difficult,” Harward said. “You’re put wherever you’re put, the points can change within a day’s notice if there’s an AVPNext, so you don’t even know who you’re playing until the night before.
“You just have to take what you get, and we even had a play-in match this morning. We had four matches, where some teams had three, so we were kind of bummed, but you have to roll with the punches, and beat every team to get in.
“It helped that it was overcast today, so the sand wasn’t as hot, and the air was cooler, but sure, four matches is brutal. I think I mostly feel it in the legs for sure, but I’ve been training every day in Hermosa, so you get acclimated a little bit. You’re never fully acclimated to the sand here, but it helps to train here.”