It was mid-May and somewhere around 2 p.m. in Austin, Texas, which is another way of saying that it was hot. Really hot.
The type of dry heat in which you can see the little heat waves rising off the ground. Jeff Conover stood by the qualifier bracket, sweating through a gray AVP polo. The qualifier was running behind. Way behind, perhaps an unanticipated consequence of the newly implemented freeze rule, which was just in its third tournament as a rule.
The qualifier began at 8 a.m.
There were still four rounds to go.
This was Austin of 2017. Sixty-six mens teams signed up for the qualifier, every match of which would be played at the main site, while the women were moved off-site. Every team had to play at least four matches, some, should they have made it through, would have played five.
Conover mentioned that this was borderline unsafe, to ask a team to play four, maybe five, matches, potentially 15 sets of volleyball in heat that verged on triple-digits, and then ask them to wake up first thing the next morning and do it again.
Something had to change. The AVP could either expand the main draw, which would require either an influx of prize money or a dilution of it, or it could cap the qualifiers.
They went, justifiably and likely wisely, for the latter.
You will notice that the qualifier for Austin of 2018 was capped at 64 teams, and New York to 40. Maybe you wondered why.
Facilities without natural beaches have limited real estate. Sites like Austin, New York, Seattle, San Francisco and Chicago will not have the net availability that Hermosa, Huntington, and Manhattan do. A qualifier can only move so fast. Without lights, there’s no chance a 64-team qualifier could be finished in New York.
That, and as Conover mentioned: It’s borderline cruel and unusual punishment to demand an athlete play for upwards of 10 hours in suffocating heat, jumping half a thousand times, and then wake up the next morning and be expected to compete against the best in the country.
Capping the qualifier solves all of those problems while introducing a potential additional benefit: The AVP Next tournaments should see an influx in participation.
If you want to play in qualifiers, and you need points, the only avenue through which to do so will be through AVP Nexts. In capping the qualifiers, the AVP is producing a trickle-up effect, with players –- for the most part –- first needing to cut their teeth on the first rung of the ladder before they can advance to the next, which in this case is now the qualifiers.
It’s not a perfect system but it’s a better system than requiring players to play five matches prior to a main draw with less than 10 hours of rest.
Onto the preview for AVP New York.
(A note: I’m going to change up the style of these, because if I don’t, I’ll end up just writing about the same teams and individuals over and over and over again. So each tournament, I’ll try to write about 10 teams or players I haven’t yet, unless there’s new or intriguing information about players I have previously written about. If you see a notable team that is not on here, here’s a link to the Austin preview.)
(One more note: In Austin, I wrote that Andrew Dentler is from New Jersey. This is a highly regrettable offense to a Pennsylvania native, though it has produced the delightful result of me henceforth calling him Big Jersey. But you should know that he’s not from Jersey. He’s from Pennsylvania.)
Ty Loomis, Piotr Marciniak: This team has a win and a semifinal on its resume and point total … and is still in the qualifier! Good heavens. If nothing else speaks to the brutality of a qualifier, that’s it. Marciniak is one of the best blockers out there, period, let alone among blockers in the qualifier. And Loomis is still Loomis: a phenomenal server, buttery setter, consistent side out player. He won AVP San Francisco for a reason. Marciniak made the AVP Hermosa semifinals for a reason. This team could just as easily take a third as they could get knocked out of the qualifier in the final round.
Such is the anarchy of an AVP qualifier.
Ben Vaught, Jeff Samuels: New team alert! Vaught played all of last season with Branden Clemens, and the two were excellent together, making five main draws, building up a fair amount of momentum and promise into 2018. They had a brutal draw in Huntington -– they played a Brazilian team -– and had a disappointing finish in Austin, losing in the third round of the qualifier. When you’re not finishing as you’d like, the grass always seems quite lush elsewhere. To Samuels, who has swapped partners and positions with regularity since moving to the AVP from the NVL, Vaught went. Which brings us to…
Branden Clemens, Raffe Paulis: They played a bigger money CBVA together last year and won without dropping a match. So they’ve already won together, which makes sense why they’d give it a go in one of the toughest qualifiers to date. Both are physical players with big windows, and Paulis would hand set a pass even if it wound up in New Jersey and bring it back in system if need be (I know, he did this plenty for me in Austin). Skill-set wise, most everything about this team makes sense.
Chris Luers, Bruno Amorim: Luers! I’m finally writing about you! I almost didn’t want to, because every time I forget to write about you, you make it through. So if you don’t make it through the qualifier in which I’m alas giving you some ink, I take blame. But a fun fact here: Only two male players have made it through both the Huntington and Austin qualifiers.
Luers is one, advancing with Jon Drake in Huntington and then Amorim, a 6-foot-5 blocker with a jump serve that might knock you over, in Austin.
The only other player? DR Vander Meer, another guy from the Michigan/Ohio area.
Marty Lorenz, Pete DiVenere: Above average pickup for DiVenere, a 47-year-old living in South Carolina who hasn’t played in an AVP event in nearly a decade. I don’t know much about DiVenere after that, aside from the fact that I hope he’s playing lots of golf in South Carolina, home to almost all of my favorite courses.
As for Lorenz, most of you know his name. He played with Adam Roberts, Loomis, Eric Zaun, Mark Burik and Chaim Schalk last year, but he battled injuries throughout and took a good bit of time off after Chicago to rest and recover and rehab. Now he’s easing his way back into it. Will we see peak Marty in New York? Not likely, but it won’t take long.
Marc Fornaciari, Brian Tillman: They landed one of the bigger upsets in AVP Austin, toppling Clemens and Vaught, 21-19, 12-21, 15-10 in the third round. That, and they’re both East Coast guys, Fornaciari in North Carolina and Tillman in Pompano Beach, Florida, so they deserve a little recognition for an East Coast tournament. If nothing else, no team will put down more Red Bulls than this one.
Dillon Lesniak, Garrett Wessberg: This is a super-sneaky good team. Lesniak, who plays NORCECAs and the occasional FIVB for the U.S. Virgin Islands, hasn’t yet – yet – made a main draw, but it seems to be a matter of time more than anything. He’s good enough, with excellent ball control and vision on offense and controlled digs and consistent transitions on defense. Wessberg has made a main draw, in Hermosa Beach with Jake Rosener last year, and they’ve played well in the few AVP Nexts they’ve played together thus far in 2018, winning this past weekend.
Miles Partain, Adam Wienckowski: Miles, as many of you know, alongside his brother, Marcus, became the youngest team in AVP history to make a main draw in Hermosa Beach. This was no fluke, just as it was no fluke that Wienckowski, alongside Jonathan Justice, won the USAV Beach Collegiate Challenge a few weeks ago despite not actually being enrolled at Florida State yet. This team, which will have some of the finer ball control of any in the qualifier, will be a fun one to watch –- and incredibly frustrating to play –- and it shouldn’t be a surprise at all if they pick up a few wins.
Peter Connole, Brad Connors: Connole is 6-foot-7 and one of the better all-around athletes in the qualifier. He played basketball at the University of West Florida and made the NVL’s final main draw in 2016 in Port St. Lucie. Connors, as the 58 seed in Austin, nearly landed a first-round upset over Gabe Ospina and Paul Lotman, pushing them to a 15-10 third set loss.
Florida has good volleyball. These two, though seeded low, are proof. While we’re on the topic of Florida guys…
Brandon Joyner, JM Plummer: The last time we saw these two on a domestic tour they were in the NVL Long Beach semifinals, narrowly losing to Dylan Maarek and Andrew Dentler in three sets. It was the second time Plummer, the 2016 Breakthrough Athlete and Fan Favorite, had made it to a professional semifinal.
The same year that Plummer won Breakthrough and Fan Favorite, Joyner won Most Improved. It’s unfortunate that there’s no conversion system from NVL to AVP points, though it also makes it kind of fun because now there’s a land mine deep in the seeding ready to produce a little chaos in the early goings.
Notable omission: Sarah Day and Nicolette Martin, after finishing fifth in Austin, are skipping New York because of a back injury. They should be ready to play by Seattle.
Melissa Humana-Paredes-Sarah Pavan: Good luck everyone. It’s only one of the best teams in the world playing in an AVP qualifier. One thing I’m curious about here is if the rest of the qualifier teams would actually prefer Humana-Paredes and Pavan to earn a wild card berth, and only have three teams come out of the qualifier rather than four. This is, barring an injury, as much of a lock to make it through a qualifier as any.
Heck, it wouldn’t be all that surprising if they win the whole event.
Bre Moreland, Allie Wheeler: These two ended the 2017 season together on a pair of main draws in Manhattan and Chicago, where they finished 17th in both. And after both finished outside of the main draw in Austin, it seems to only make sense to put the team back together again for New York.
Terese Cannon, Corinne Quiggle: Cannon played with Nicolette Martin at USC, and in their first year out, the two made main draws in three of the four events they played in. Quiggle, meanwhile took a seventh in Hermosa Beach alongside Brittany Howard. With Martin scooped up by Sarah Day and Howard enjoying tremendous success with Kelly Reeves, it makes sense that these two would turn to one another for New York.
Christina Matthews, Brittany Tiegs: Tiegs’ finish in Austin is a deceptive one. Sure, she took ninth, meaning she won only one main draw match with Jace Pardon. But that win came against Katie Spieler and Karissa Cook, who eventually made the semifinals, and her two losses were to champs Alix Klineman and April Ross and another semifinalist team in Lane Carico and Karolina Marciniak.
That is an absurdly difficult road for a tournament.
Now she’s teamed up with Matthews, a 6-foot-2 Florida-based blocker who made main draw for the season-opener in Huntington Beach.
Summer Nash, Pri Lima: The classic partnership formed out of one person knocking the other out in the tournament before. Lima, playing with Jessica Sykora, beat Nash, who was partnered with Cami Manwill, in the second round of Austin. I’m not sure what happened with Sykora and Lima, but they split for New York, and so Lima and Nash, who made main draw in Huntington, turned to one another for the East Coast trip. As for Sykora…
Jessica Sykora, Delaney Knudsen: Sykora, a 6-foot-4 blocker from Tempe, Arizona, is now teamed up with Delaney Knudsen, who blocked for Avery Bush in Austin and is returning to defense for New York. Knudsen took a ninth in San Francisco with Branagan Fuller last year and has come tantalizingly close to main draws in Hermosa, Manhattan and Austin since.
Maybe a return to defense is the trick.
Katie Lindelow, Christina Glenn: These two were playing on the court next to me against Nicolette Martin and Sarah Day in the final round of Austin. All I heard the entire match was Texans going nuts over Lindelow and Glenn, who both live in Austin, and I didn’t really understand why until I checked the scores the next day: They won the second set, 22-20, and pushed Martin and Day, who wound up taking fifth, to three sets.
Granted, I didn’t get to actually watch the match, but any qualifier team who can push Martin and Day to three is an excellent volleyball team.
Avery Bush, Taylor Nyquist: Another team formed out of one player knocking out the other in the previous tournament. Nyquist, a Dallas-based blocker and a former NVL Breakthrough Athlete, beat Bush in the third round of Austin in three sets but lost a heart breaker in the finals to Alexa Strange and Falyn Fonoimoana.
And with Knudsen turning to Sykora, Bush, who made a main draw in Huntington Beach with Christina Matthews, turned to Nyquist.
Emily Hartong, Sasha Karelov: I don’t want to make assumptions here, but I’m fairly certain that Hartong is the only player in the tournament to lay claim to a Korean Volleyball Pro League Championship, where she was also awarded the league’s Best Outside Hitter as well as the unofficial title of “best foreign player of the year.” She lost in the first round of Austin, and is playing with Sasha Karelov, who is also seeking her first AVP main draw.