HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. — After two windy and wet and positively wild, in all of the best ways, AVP tournaments to begin the season, professional beach volleyball is coming home to Southern California this weekend. The AVP is back in Huntington Beach for the first time since 2019, unless you count last fall’s Tour Series, a watered-down event that was held a few miles south of the actual Huntington Beach Pier.
There is positively nothing watered down about this event. It’s back at the Pier, one of the best locations on Tour, and the field is beyond full. This weekend will feature potentially the thickest field of the season, with no Volleyball World conflicts pulling athletes away. Quite the opposite has happened, in fact: International players either with visas or in the process of attaining them, have made an already-full field even fuller.
It has made for an event rife with storylines.
“Bemvindo” Alison, and welcome to the AVP, Sam Schachter
Yes, you read it correct that the No. 4 seed in Thursday’s qualifier is Alison Cerutti, he of three Olympic appearances, two Olympic medals — silver in 2012, gold in 2016 — and 28 gold medals on the FIVB. If he were the four seed in the main draw, it might seem low. But the qualifier? He might be the most decorated man in an AVP qualifier (Larissa’s bona fides still outrank him, and she’s still in the qualifier; more on her below). No wild card was given — kind of surprising, kind of not — to Alison, so he and Eric Beranek, back after a lengthy absence due to injury and illness, will need to win three matches on Thursday to advance into the main draw.
Such is the path required by my international partner, Sam Schachter, and me. Schachter, Canada’s top defender, is making his AVP debut this weekend. His only professional appearances in the United States have gone well enough, with four wins in five attempts on the National Volleyball League with Josh Binstock.
AVP champions decorate qualifier field
Aside from the cadre of international players jumping into the qualifier, there is no shortage of American talent buried in there as well. Jen Keddy and Carly Kan won an AVP as recently as December, yet here we are, six months later, and both are in the qualifier — Keddy with Kaitlyn Malaney, Kan with Jess Gaffney. Down the entry list is Kim DiCello, a mostly retired mom who is playing alongside former Long Beach State standout Nicci Reinking. If you count Tour Series wins as AVP wins, then Larissa and Lili Maestrini, the top seed in the women’s qualifier, are another pair of AVP champs. If you don’t include Tour Series, it’s still relevant that the Brazilians made the finals in Chicago as recently as 2021, and won three Tour Series in 2022.
Between Larissa and Alison, the two have six Olympic appearances, three Olympic medals, more than $3 million in prize money, 90 international wins, and two cemented spots awaiting in the Hall of Fame.
On the men’s side, Ed Ratledge is the lone AVP champion sentenced to the gauntlet of the qualifier, blocking for JM Plummer in their first event together.
The return of the College Mafia
Two weeks ago, USC, in the midst of what justifiably would have considered a rebuilding year, won a third straight NCAA Championship. And with that, all of the highly-trained, finely-tuned NCAA athletes became free to compete on the AVP once more. The result is, as always, a messy, messy qualifier. Buried as the 30 seed is Lexy Denaburg, UCLA’s top blocker, and veteran Maria Clara Salgado. It’s a brutal first round draw for Katie Horton and Brook Bauer, who finished fifth in the season-opening event in Miami and are, by all accounts, an elite team. All four of those players could likely play on a Sunday this season, yet they’ll meet in the first round of the qualifier.
Molly Turner will alas get her partner, Maddie Anderson, back after a 25-12 season on court one for Florida State. The two won a silver medal at the Dubai Challenge last fall and could also very well make a Sunday this season. Stanford’s Xolani Hodel and Charlie Ekstrom have also returned to the AVP. Hodel has been picked up by Allie Wheeler, while Ekstrom is playing alongside Madison Shields, USC’s court 2 standout who was fantastic in the cardinal and gold.
There are many others, many of them, but to list them all would be to cover nearly half the qualifier.
Will Avery Drost win his first AVP?
As far as the main draw goes, one of the most intriguing storylines I’ll be following is Avery Drost, who has received the promotion of his career in getting picked up by Phil Dalhausser. Drost has defended successfully before. He finished third in AVP New York in 2016 defending for Bill Kolinske and took a seventh behind my puny block in New Orleans a few weeks ago. The last time Dalhausser and Drost partnered up, they won the USA Volleyball King of the Beach event in 2020, where Dalhausser, after winning his pool, selected Drost for the semifinals and finals. So they have that going for them. (I feel obliged to include the fact that my wife, Delaney, won the women’s side with Kelly Cheng).
If ever there is a time for Drost to come home with a long-awaited AVP title, this season with Dalhausser is that time.
Click here to see the AVP qualifier brackets and main draws.