It’s the first domestic tournament of the season in an Olympic qualifying year, so as you might expect, a lot of buzz during the first day of competition at the AVP Huntington Beach Open surrounded new partnerships Friday, both those that did well, and those that still need some time to find their rhythms.
Two new men’s pairs, Jeremy Casebeer and Chaim Schalk and Chase Budinger and Casey Patterson, did so well in their first AVP outing that they will kick Saturday off in the winners bracket alongside No. 8 seed Trevor Crabb and Tri Bourne and second-seeded Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena.
Crabb and Bourne earned that coveted spot by defeating top-seeded Taylor Crabb and Jake Gibb in the third round, meaning the elder Crabb gets to start the 2019 season with a 1-0 lead in the Crabb versus Crabb battle.
On the women’s side, though many new partnerships made their domestic debuts, the returning pairs mostly won out.
Troy Field and Tim Bomgren made a promising debut as partners having only managed to squeeze in a few practices before first serve Friday morning. And yet, 25-year-old California native Field and 31-year-old Minnesotan Bomgren downed Olympians Sean Rosenthal and Ricardo Santos (another new partnership) in three sets in the second round.
“Going against two Olympians, you’re thinking about a lot,” Field said, “but Tim really did a good job of bringing in his experience that he’s had over the years and calming me down, making really good adjustments on defense and on offense and on serving.
“One of the biggest points was, I thought in the third set I’d kind of go after my serve a little bit, he told me, ‘Why change anything? We’re doing great already.’ And we ended it with a float serve ace.”
Field and Bomgren then met Phil and Nick in their next match but could not knock off the No. 26-ranked team in the world, so their journey will continue in the contenders bracket Saturday.
Three of the four top seeds remain in the women’s winners bracket heading into Saturday, with the exception of No. 3 seed Kelley Larsen and Emily Stockman, who had the misfortune of meeting Canadians Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana Paredes in the second round and getting sent to the contenders bracket.
The Canadian squad may only have enough AVP points to earn the No. 14 seed in Huntington Beach, but they’re the sixth-ranked team in the world and have six FIVB tour medals to their name. So it’s no surprise to see them steamroll their first two opponents in Huntington Beach and hold both teams to less than 15 points per set.
Other than Pavana and Humana-Paredes knocking off the No. 3- and No. 11-seeded squads, there were relatively few major upsets in the women’s winners bracket.
Kelly Claes and Brandi Wilkerson, who paired up just for this one event since Claes’ partner Sarah Sponcil is busy competing with UCLA in the NCAA beach volleyball championships in Gulf Shores this weekend, came in as the No. 5 seed, but were banished to the contenders by Traci Weamer Callahan and Maria Clara Salgado, who in turn lost to Emily Day and Betsi Flint.
Wilkerson and Claes were seemingly unperturbed by their first-round loss and were just happy to be playing together, even with Claes having to step out of her usual blocking role and play defense.
“I knew it was going to be so much fun playing with her,” Wilkerson said. “So creative, so outgoing, such a gamer.”
Despite that relative lack of true upsets (not bracket-busting international ballers like Salgado and Pavan/Humana-Parades) in the women’s tournament, there were plenty of fun storylines to follow.
In yet another illustration of just how strong women’s beach volleyball is becoming at the junior level, two teams featuring high school athletes made it to Saturday’s main draw through the qualifier, and neither team went two-and-out.
Eighteen-year-old twins Audrey and Nicole Nourse downed Kim Smith and Allie Wheeler in the first round before losing to Brittany Howard and Kelley Reeves in their second match.
“The Nourse twins are crazy talented. They work hard, and they’re just like feisty fighters, they’re gamers,” said Howard, who just happens to coach Audrey and Nicole. “They come out and work hard every single day in practice and they don’t give away free points in matches. They scramble and are really feisty, and they’re really fun to play against and they’re fun to work with.”
But Howard. the 6-foot-3 former Stanford indoor All-American, said the fact that she’s their coach didn’t change the dynamics of their second-round match, which No. 7-seeded Howard and Reeves won 21-11, 21-17.
“For me it’s not playing people that I coach, it’s just playing two talented girls that are going to come out and you can’t really tell them apart and you’ve got to know when they’re switching sides because they’re going to do some tricky stuff and you’ve just got to be ready to play,” Howard said.
“(Brittany’s) definitely one of the players we look up to on the tour,” Nicole Nourse said. “She’s really tall, so it was interesting playing against her, but yeah, she’s a great player.”
The loss to Howard and Reeves sent the Nourse twins into the contenders bracket, where they met Huntington’s other youthful squad, Meg Kraft and Delaney Maple. They’re both just 16 years old, making them the youngest team to qualify for a main draw ever, according to the Amazon Prime broadcast crew.
And it was Kraft and Maple who got the win over the Nourse twins to live to play again on Saturday. (Meanwhile in Gulf Shores, USC may be mourning an unexpected first-round loss in the NCAA championship to Stetson, but the Nourse twins and Kraft and Maple are all committed to the Trojan beach volleyball program, so there’s that to celebrate.)
At the end of the day, Claes spoke for many of the Southern California-based players when she said, “I love being able to play at home, ’cause family and friends can come out.”
Sunday, though, expect things to get a lot more serious as even highly ranked, regarded, and seeded teams face elimination in the contenders bracket, and the competition gets even more fierce in the march to Sunday’s semifinals.
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