More money, more points, and more good players.
The field will be loaded when the AVP returns to the Big Apple this week for its Gold Series New York City Open.
And, thanks to a break in the FIVB schedule, the top Americans will be on hand as they pursue a share of the $300,000 total purse at Hudson River Park with the skyscrapers in full view.
Beach volleyball fans will get their first domestic look at two new teams and two new players as Theo Brunner and Reid Priddy, Ryan Doherty and John Hyden, Miles Evans and Brooke Sweat make their domestic debuts for 2019.
And although the men’s teams have stayed steady, there’s been a shakeup on the women’s side as Brittany Howard and Kelly Reeves have split. Howard is now with Katie Spieler and Reeves has teamed with Allie Wheeler.
And Sweat is flourishing with her new partner, Kerri Walsh Jennings. While Walsh Jennings has three Olympic gold medals an a bronze to her credit, Sweat three weeks ago had her biggest career win, a gold medal at the four-star FIVB event in Jinjiang, China. They followed that up with a fourth place finish last weekend at the FIVB four-star in Ostrava, Czech Republic.
Her first international victory is one Sweat will never forget.
“It was amazing. It was just something that I’ve been working for, and to do it with Kerri was really neat and something really special, something that I will remember,” Sweat said. “We were up 20 to 19 in the second, and we were serving, so we actually earned the point to win the match.
“You start to get nervous half way through that second set. You have the lead and you’re just trying to stay the course. On that last point, Kerri got a great touch on the block, and I was able to run it down and set it up for her, and she just made a perfect shot over the block.”
And with it they won the tournament and the $20,000 prize that went with it.
“When that went down, I immediately had goosebumps,” Sweat said, “and it was like a moment of ‘We’re here, we can do this, it’s time to go.’ It was what we were working for, so it felt really good.”
For Sweat, a Floridian who hasn’t played on the AVP tour since 2017 — playing a domestic tour event is a rare treat.
But she won’t play with Walsh Jennings, whose battles with the AVP are well documented. Instead, the 33-year-old Sweat will play with Canadian dual-citizen Brandie Wilkerson. Wilkerson normally competes for Canada with Heather Bansley, who is not a citizen and cannot compete on the US domestic tour.
Accordingly, they haven’t practiced together, but plan to get in some reps in Thursday afternoon before the main draw starts Friday.
“I’m guessing Brandie will be playing on the right,” Sweat said, “She’s a lefty and can two-ball. We want to have some fun. We want to win, of course, but the last three weeks my sole focus has been with Kerri and FIVB, and I’m not going to take away from that.
“Brandie messaged me and asked if I was playing AVP this year, and asked if I would be interested in playing New York with her. I responded, ‘Absolutely, let’s do it.’”
Spieler began the season with Kim DiCello, with a 13th in Huntington and a ninth in Austin. She is excited to play with Howard.
“Both of us were looking to make a change,” Spieler said. “Kim is such a great player and person, but it just didn’t really feel like we found a connection on the court that well. Brittany and I are roommates, we met in the players tent in Chicago two or three years ago, and we were both looking to move to the South Bay the next year.
“We never practiced together, never really talked volleyball at our house, but it just happened to be that we both ended up not having a partner for New York, and we’re like, ‘Why don’t we practice?’ And it went well, and I’m really excited. She’s an awesome player, and I feel lucky that I get to play with her. We’re just seeing how it goes.
“We’ve practiced together five times now, we played a really fun CBVA open over the weekend to get a ton of reps in, and it was really fun. I’m really excited.”
Brunner and Priddy don’t yet have the necessary points for direct entry in to the main draw of a four or five-star FIVB event. So they are barnstorming to try and break into that top tier of three USA teams that can make the main draw of the events of their choice. They’ve had to miss both AVP Huntington and AVP Austin in order to try and gather points when the other USA teams are playing elsewhere.
They played FIVB events in The Hague (finishing 25th), Sydney (ninth), Kuala Lumpur (2nd), Itapema (5th), and Ostrava (25th).
“We’ve been flying all over, trying to up our international standing a little bit,” Brunner said. I think in Malaysia and Brazil we hit a new level of quality for our partnership. We struggled a little bit in Czech. That was a full five-star field of teams. For some reason we both weren’t feeling well for whatever reason. It seems like all of the U.S. men didn’t travel well or something, everyone was off.
“I think it will be a progression, but there will also be a lot of ups and downs, there’s a lot of parity. Even Phil and Nick got a 25th this year in a four-star, that’s out there.
Brunner feels that the duo has only begun to tap their full potential.
“We just have to stick with it,” he said. “We still have a lot of room to grow. That’s one of the big reasons that I wanted to play with Reid, I think we have huge potential. He’s very committed, he’s put the work in, and we keep tweaking things and working and searching for improvement.
“I think we can really keep improving over the next couple of months, I would like to make the World Tour Finals by the end of the year.”
Brunner, 34, played at UC Santa Barbara, but grew up in nearby Ridgefield, Conn., and is excited about the opportunity to play in front of friends and family.
“It’s awesome. The AVP just keeps getting better and better each year, so to have our first tournament in the gold series, New York, and that’s kind of my home tournament,” Brunner said. “I’ll have a lot of friends and family there.”
Most exciting for Brunner is that his wife Ioanna and 8-month old daughter Isidora will attend. It’s the first time Isidora gets to see her dad play in person.
“I’m super-fired up,” Brunner said. “She’ll have a blast. She loves big crowds.”
When the qualifier begins Thursday, it will likely be the strongest opening-day of the year.
Main-draw staples like Piotr Marciniak and Chase Frishman and Mark Burik and Ian Satterfield are in the qualifier.
Austin surprise finalists Kim Hildreth and Sarah Schermerhorn, who came out of the qualifier, are back in the qualifier. What’s more, the women’s qualifier is especially loaded now that school is out and many of the top NCAA pairs seek to gain experience at the professional level.
Here’s a look at three teams from both sides who could advance to Friday.
Jessica Gaffney and Molly Turner: Gaffney, a 6-foot-1 blocker, played at USF for a year and at Cal for two years. Gaffney is building upon an impressive resume for a 23-year-old. She set an AVP record in Hermosa 2018 by being the lowest-seeded team (84th, with Iya Lindahl) to advance to a main draw.
Last fall she and Agnieszka Pregowska came out of the qualifier to finish fifth at p1440 San Jose, as well as earning a ninth-place finish at the FIVB two-star Zhongwei event with Corinne Quiggle. In Huntington, the pair advanced from the qualifier to finish ninth, while they lost their final qualifier match in Austin and finished 17th.
Delaney Knudsen and Emily Hartong: Knudsen, a 5-10 defender from Pepperdine, is partnering with Hartong, a 6-2 blocker, for their first event together. Most recently Knudsen was a volunteer assistant for Pepperdine beach. You know she picked up a wealth of information from coaches Marcio Sicoli and Jon Daze, some of the best minds in the business.
Hartong, 27, played at Hawai’i, and is one of the most physical players in the qualifier draw, and can flat-out drill a ball in the infrequent cases when she receives serve. Hartong has made three domestic main draws and is hungry for more.
Turner is also an NCAA veteran, earning AVCA All-American honors at Grand Canyon while running up a 22-3 match record. If you walked by her court, it would be easy to overlook her at 5-8 until her defense and shot array catches your attention. This team will continue to build its way into the main draw by the end of the season.
Morgan Martin and Julia Scoles: Speaking of Hawai’i, these Sandbows alumnae have strong potential.
Martin, a 6-1 blocker, won a team-high 37 matches for the Sandbows in 2018 behind a complete set of skills.
Scoles, a former indoor All-American at North Carolina, has retired from indoor volleyball to focus on a pro beach career. She has one of the heaviest arms in the tournament, and went 30-5 for the Wahine last year, primarily at the No. 2 pair. These ‘Bows could leave a tropical storm in their wake.
Although the women’s qualifier likely have the greatest potential to do damage in the main draw, the men’s qualifier is deeper from top to bottom, akin to a virtual mine field.
Miles Evans and Marty Lorenz: Evans, a rangy 6-4 defender, has competed primarily on the FIVB tour with Billy Kolinske, competing in 21 events since 2018. His career-best finish is a third at the p1440 event in San Jose, a result that belies his steadily improving defensive skills.
Lorenz, a 6-5 blocker, spent most of 2016-2017 firmly ensconced in the main draw. He hasn’t been able to recapture the magic of a third-place finish in 2015 with Ty Loomis, but he’s one of the top blockers in the qualifier, steady, and experienced.
Currently seeded 16th in the qualifier, this is probably the most under-seeded team in the men’s draw.
Steven Irvin and Hagen Smith: This team will be a tough out for anyone in the qualifier. The 6-5 Irvin hails from Stanford, where he was a two-time second team AVCA All-American. He’s played sparingly, competing in only 13 events, but has the requisite physical and ball-control skills.
Smith, another MPSF outside who also set at UCLA, is a 6-foot defender. And sure, just about every paragraph about Hagen mentions the fact that his dad is hall of famer Sinjin Smith. And although Hagen didn’t inherit his father’s height, he did receive his athleticism in spades, and makes his share of acrobatic digs. Smith is strong, brings plenty of altitude to the net, and has two career-best ninth-place finishes.
This team might not make it to the dance, but they’ll could cause trouble along the way.
Marcus and Miles Partain: The Partain brothers surprised the beach world when they became the youngest pair to reach a main draw at AVP Hermosa Beach in 2017. The 6-2 brothers (19-year-old Marcus is right-handed, 17-year-old Miles is left-handed) didn’t play together last year, as Marcus took the year off.
Both compete for Pacific Palisades, are verbally committed to UCLA, and are setter/opposites. They’re cool under pressure and have undeniable chemistry. Seeded 24th, they are a dangerous team that should contend for the main draw.