The long awaited kickoff of the AVP season begins Thursday in Huntington Beach, Calif., and because the FIVB canceled its five-star event that was scheduled for February in Fort Lauderdale, this is the first 2019 pro beach event on American soil.
It also comes on a weekend in which the NCAA is conducting its women’s beach championship in Gulf Shores, Ala., so while there are 101 men’s teams entered, just 57 women’s teams will play in the AVP event.
There should be some great matchups on Huntington Beach. Here’s my take:
The Usual Suspects
Taylor Crabb and Jake Gibb: Is there a more exciting defender than Taylor Crabb? Could he be quicker than Nick the Quick? What is clear is that the younger Crabb is gaining experience and confidence. Veteran Gibb, an underrated blocker, still sets the sauce as well as any big man not named Dalhausser, and who hits high angle at a nearly unstoppable height.
The duo is coming off a ninth at last week’s FIVB four-star in Xiamen, losing to eventual silver-medalists Pablo Herrera and Adrian Gavira of Spain. Domestically in 2018 they finished with two victories, two seconds, a third, and a fifth in Hawai’i, where they earned the FIVB “King of the Court” crown.
With Gibb’s impeccable block timing and Crabb’s defensive skills, it’s a good bet that they’ll be on the NBCSN broadcast of the finals at 8 p.m. Pacific Sunday.
Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena: Dalhausser is the best American men’s player in the short court era. Period. Nobody else brings it from the service line, sets a beautiful 28.5’-foot high up and down set every time, and bombs it from the heights like Dalhausser does. And sure, he’s 39. And sure, he’s thought about hanging it up so he could chill on the sofa with his fam while playing Halo. And maybe he’s lost a step. Or maybe the world’s caught up.
But he’s Phil. And when Phil decides to play, decides to make a run for Olympic gold, he’s all in.
And Nick? Nick has a dizzying array of shots and spikes, varying heights and timing to confound blockers who believe that they should be owning the 6-foot-1 defender.
They have competed in two FIVB events this year, with a silver medal in Doha and a disappointing 25th in Xiamen. Granted, they had a gnarly pool with the likes of Brazil’s Andre Loyola and George Wanderley, plus Poland’s Piotr Kantor and Bartosz Losiak.
I’m counting on Phil and Nick to make the finals, with no clear winner except the fans.
Ed Ratledge and Roberto Rodriguez: Effective. That’s the one word that describes this team. Because on paper, you wouldn’t look at this team twice. The 6-8” “Rat” and his noodly lefty armswing hitting on two, and Rafu playing steady backcourt ball. They don’t look like they’re firing on all cylinders, but they are. Their chemistry is superb, they’ve got the experience, and they’ve been there and done that, most notably in San Francisco 2018.
Their beta is high, because they could out-weird their way into the finals, or they could be overpowered for a ninth.
Chaim Schalk and Jeremy Casebeer: Schalk, the man without a country, former Canadian and now nearly American, will partner with Casebeer, who not only has the sport’s best abs, but has one of the most potent serves in the game, capable of hitting either line with power and accuracy.
Schalk is a solid defender who makes good reads and can put together runs.
This team isn’t out of it until the final ball hits the Huntington Beach sand.
Billy Allen and Stafford Slick: Reunited for 2019, Billy and Stafford are back at it after breaking up the band in 2018. Stafford is a 6-8 ball-bouncing, goggle wearing, big blocking force at the net. Billy is a 6-2, 37-year-old veteran who quietly gets it done.
You won’t hear him on adjacent courts, but you will hear his SOB-Volleyball Vacations friends and fans screaming encouragement.
The pair came home from the Sydney three-star with bronze, but couldn’t get past the first round of playoffs in Xiamen.
In 2017 they won Seattle, finished second in San Francisco and New York. They know how to get it done.
April Ross and Alix Klineman: In 2018, Ross was the most dangerous defender on the planet. In 2019, German Laura Ludwig might have something to say about that as she smiles for the photographers while scooping up balls right and left after taking a break for motherhood. But no one plays with Ross’s confidence and intensity. Nobody pounds serves or cranks transition sets as hard and effectively.
Klineman is still becoming a dominant blocker on the world tour. Her learning curve is accelerated because she’s playing with Ross and gets Every. Single. Serve. She seems to improve each time out, and her ability to reach high and hit unblockable balls improved markedly in 2018.
Already this year the A-team has won an FIVB event in Yangzhou, and taken fourth at The Hague, and was fifth in Xiamen.
Barring that unlikely match where they have an off match and their opponents are spot on, count on seeing them in the final.
Summer Ross and Sara Hughes: Unless you’ve been hiding underneath a volleyball, you know that 2019 is an Olympic qualification year. And at this moment, the A-team and Ross-Hughes are by a significant margin the two best USA teams.
Ross is probably the best setting blocker in the world, and Hughes’ huge vertical wins her fans almost as much as her huge smile.
The pair just jet-setted back from Xiamen after finishing fourth, a USA-best finish.
It’s a dull, boring, and pedestrian pick, but I’ve got the A-team up against Summer and Sara in the final. And I’m not picking a winner.
Emily Stockman and Kelley Larsen: This pair finished 2018 strong when they won King of the Court in Hawai’i and in 2019 have had two FIVB thirds (Aalsmeer, Lucerne), earning enough points to keep them out of the dreaded qualifier in Xiamen, where they finished 17th.
Their seed climbed steadily in 2018, look for more of the same in 2019.
Betsi Flint and Emily Day: One of 2018’s new teams came through domestically to win both Seattle and San Francisco. They also won FIVB gold in Haiyang.
Day is one of the hardest hitters on tour, while Flint is one of the most balanced defenders on tour. Expect their teamwork and standings to improve.
Caitlin Ledoux and Geena Urango: Ledoux played with nine partners in 13 events in 2018. She stopped on Urango long enough to finish second in San Francisco and third in Hermosa Beach.
Ledoux’s imposing block and Urango’s fearsome serve (she was tops on the AVP tour in aces) will score them plenty of points. Both have demonstrated the ability to go deep on Sunday. What’s more, Urango took the nod for most improved in 2016, while Ledoux took the honor in 2017. This is a team that knows how to play spoiler.
“Stranger Danger” new teams for 2019
Casey Patterson and Chase Budinger: This is one of the new pairs for 2019, born of the myriad of Olympic realignments. Budinger brings athleticism in spades, NBA-bred mental toughness, and the will to win. Patterson brings Olympics experience and is one of the first of the new breed of powerful defenders.
They have tested their partnership already in 2019, finishing ninth in The Hague but failing to make the main draw in Sydney and Doha.
Budinger is only in his second full season and continues to put it together. He’ll continue to improve throughout 2019, nothing is beyond this team’s reach.
Tim Bomgren and Troy Field: Bomgren started and finished 2018 with a bang, earning a second with Taylor Crabb in the AVP opener in Austin and another second with Schalk in the final full draw Chicago event. Field, the exciting high flyer, also had his best finishes in Austin and Chicago with a pair of ninths.
Bomgren will switch to full-time defender, with Field blocking. Practicing is difficult for them because Bomgren lives in Minnesota, but the two plan to get a couple of training blocks leading up to Huntington Beach. Bomgren will stay on the right, while Field will switch to the left.
Sean Rosenthal and Ricardo Santos: You just can’t bet against this team. They’ve got more Olympic experience and medals than anyone in the draw. Santos has a full complement of Olympic medals and is possibly the best blocker of the open era. Rosenthal has Olympic experience, knows how to win, and has Rosie’s Raiders.
Sure, they’re not spring chickens — Rosie is 38 and Santos 44 respectively — and they might not win warmups in the finals, but they’ll figure out how to win even if Santos isn’t bringing a lot of English to the table.
Sean has plenty of highlight-reel athleticism in him, and Santos still hits one of the heaviest balls in the world.
Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes: These Canadians had a disappointing 2018 by their standards, but it was still a year that would turn all of the American teams green with envy. They dropped from third to ninth in season-ending FIVB points, but still managed some spectacular results, winning gold in Xiamen and Gstaad.
What’s more, this team is significantly under-seeded and has two years of experience together.
Kelly Claes and Brandie Wilkerson: With partner Sarah Sponcil at the aforementioned NCAA gathering trying to win another title for UCLA, Claes needed a one-time teammate.
In the 5-10 Wilkerson, she gets a Canadian who plays like she’s 6-3. Wilkerson won last season’s FIVB/p1440 four-star in Las Vegas and this year’s FIVB three-star in Chetumal with Heather Bansley.
Claes and Sponcil finished second in The Hague and third in Qinzhou, so she’s no stranger to the medal stand either.
Blocking is not a problem, but defense could be a concern. Either way, this is a team I want to watch.
Katie Spieler and Kim DiCello: It surprised me that Spieler and Karissa Cook broke up. They seemed to have a rare synergy playing together. All aspiring NCAA beach players should be required to watch Spieler tape. The 5-5 defender has to do everything better and sharper than her taller counterparts. No matter who she plays with, she gets served every time.
Of course, she makes it up with spectacular defense and a never-say-die attitude. And she is one of the nicest people you’ll meet..
DiCello is back after mom duty and a bit of castor oil. The 6-foot blocker has been hitting the weights, doing the work, and even dabbled in competition this year, finishing ninth in Chetumal with Irene Pollock a mere four months after childbirth.
This team is stronger than they are on paper, and are definitely a threat to make Sunday.
Brittany Hochevar and Carly Wopat: Take an athletic beach veteran in Hochevar, add a world-class indoor athlete in Wopat and you have a threat to world peace. Following a left MCL injury, Wopat chose to seek the Olympics on the beach rather than indoors. They’re coming off a second-place NORCECA Cayman Islands finish and are looking for more.
This pair is probably not ready for prime time in Huntington, but count on Wopat to improve every time out and have the Potential with a capital “P” to be a major factor by the end of 2019.
The qualifier is a tournament of its own. Single elimination, one day, seeking that elusive chance for a main-draw payday. For most teams, it takes a year of playing just to jockey into the right seeding position so as not to play a top team in the early rounds.
Qualifier volleyball is some of the most interesting of the weekend; if you have time Thursday, come on down, you’ll be glad you did.
Bruno Amorim and Skylar Delsol: Typically my favorite teams have the speedy athletic but undersized defender. That’s so with Delsol, a fiery redhead (aren’t they all?) who has the skills and vertical to match. Think Ty Tramblie minus the golden locks and you’re not far off.
When you think of Bruno, think power. He’s a guy that plays professionally indoors and hits the bejesus out of the ball. He also balances that with the athleticism to make flying digs, and is only in his third season.
That’s my popcorn match, although I’ll be manning a camera instead of snacking.
David Vander Meer and Bobby Jacobs: A lot of folks get married in Vegas. David is the only one I know who got married (to Tiffany Burke) on a beach volleyball court in Vegas, so that kind of devotion to the sport is impressive.
Nuptials aside, Vander Meer is one of the most dynamic defenders out there, limited primarily by his 5-9 stature. Despite that, he made three AVP main draws in 2018, in Austin, Hermosa and Manhattan.
When I watch Jacobs, I see all the tools, a physical blocker good at all aspects of the game capable of reaching the next level. He’s only really in his third season, having played four events in 2017 and five in 2018. Jacobs is a guy to watch if he can put the competition time in.
Marty Lorenz and Raffe Paulis: If there was a fantasy pool for the qualifier (and there ought to be), and I had to pick one team to make it out, I’d spend my hard-earned dollar on these guys. They’re a veteran team, with no holes in their game.
Lorenz has career-best thirds (Mason 2015 and San Francisco 2016 with Ty Loomis). He made five main draws last year, with ninths in San Francisco and Hermosa Beach.
Both have proven games and ought to make it out.
Lara Dykstra and Cassie House: Picking the top qualifier seed as a “dangerous qualifier?” I’ll defend my choice given that the pair have already played three events together, including winning FIVB one-star gold medals in Battambang, Cambodia, and Langkawi, Malaysia. Their third event? A fifth-place at a one-star in Goteburg, Sweden, where dangerous European teams showed up in droves attracted by the $1,000 cash prize. Kind of like a CBVA Open.
They obviously built chemistry together and are on a roll. Nobody’s a lock in a California AVP qualifier, but they’re the favorite.
Bree Scarbrough and Pri Piantadosi-Lima: No slight to Bree intended, because she is a physical, well-rounded blocker, but Pri flat-out knows how to win. I’ve watched her for nearly 15 years, and she’s a baller. She’s 39, and probably doesn’t jump as high as she used to, but qualifiers are more about heart and desire than they are about vertical reach. If you want to watch someone that loves to play for the sheer joy of it, catch one of Pri’s matches.
Heather McGuire and Christal Engle: Here’s a pair of dangerous veterans in the qualifier. Both are coming off an extensive break, both have not competed since 2016. They were staples in the main draw previously, with McGuire accumulating $115k of prize money and Engle $71K. Players with those kind of stats find ways to win.
Devon Newberry and Peri Brennan: If you want to see the future of beach volleyball, watch their match. Devon, 18, and Peri, 16, have bright futures. Newberry finished fourth in the FIVB U19 World Championships, and Brennan is an AAU gold champion. Both are UCLA beach commits.
The AVP will again stream its daily coverage on Amazon Prime with Kevin Barnett and Camryn Irwin returning to the broadcast booth. They’ll be joined by Dain Blanton, who will then be part of the Sunday NBC coverage with Chris Marlowe and Kevin Wong. For more information on the tour, visit AVP.com.