Return of legendary Ricardo Santos spices AVP New York qualifying

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The AVP's New York stop is one of three new Gold Series stops, featuring increased prize money and points/AVP photo

The AVP returns to New York City for a third consecutive year.

But Thursday’s tournament marks the first of what the AVP is dubbing the “Gold Series,” a triumvirate of events with increased prize money, points, and a little something extra for the fans. The three events this season to be featured in the “Gold Series” are New York, Manhattan Beach and Chicago.

With no FIVB events to compete with, both the mens and womens field are stacked with all of the top teams.

Yes, it is that Ricardo Santos.

The man seeded an outrageous Q35 in AVP New York is the same 6-foot-7 Brazilian blocker who, alongside legendary defender Emanuel Rego, made up one half of perhaps the greatest beach-volleyball team in history.

It is the same Ricardo Santos who was dubbed the best offensive player on the planet three years in a row –- 2005, 2006, 2007 — and, in those same years, took care of the blocking duties for the team that was awarded the best team in the world. 

It is the same Ricardo Santos who won a silver medal in Sydney, shockingly losing to American Cinderellas Dain Blanton and Eric Fonoimoana, and a gold in Athens.

It is the same Ricardo Santos whose name Phil Dalhausser mentioned, without hesitating, when asked by Billy Allen and John Mayer on the excellent podcast, Coach Your Brains Out, what player he enjoyed blocking the most.

If Alison, the tremendous Brazilian blocker and 2016 gold medalist at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, maintains his current pace of success, he may one day be considered to be better than Santos.

He cannot be considered there yet.

That is the legacy Santos has created.

And it is that same Ricardo Santos who will be in New York City this weekend, playing in an AVP qualifier.

When Reid Priddy and Chaim Schalk partnered up in Huntington Beach, claiming a Q32 seed, it would have been easy to presume them to be the most decorated qualifying team ever. Here was Priddy, a four-time Olympian who commands the utmost respect from any volleyball player, domestic or international, split-blocking with Schalk, a 2016 Olympian representing Canada.

They aren’t even the most decorated qualifying team of the spring.

It would also be easy for qualifying teams to laugh in self-pity. “I’ve got to play that guy?” I get it. Nobody wants to fly to New York City, spend too much money on overpriced hotels, drop even more money on overpriced food and overpriced coffee, and lose in two sets because a couple of Olympians, one whose legacy is etched deeply into volleyball lore, wanted a crack at the AVP.

But Santos playing in the United States, alongside a talent like Schalk, is exactly what the AVP needs.

Throughout American beach volleyball history, there have been perhaps two legitimate rivalries: Sinjin Smith and Karch Kiraly –- do yourself a favor and watch the quarterfinals between the two in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics –- and Brazil and the United States.

Santos and Rego vs. Todd Rogers and Dalhausser; Santos and Rego vs. Jake Gibb and Sean Rosenthal.

Those were the matches the beach volleyball world, regardless of nationality, would pause to watch.

Three-time Olympic medalist Ricardo Santos will play in the AVP New York qualifier on June 8th/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Santos is far out of his prime. He’s 42, and he is not aging nearly as well as John Hyden, who may be the only volleyball player alive to confound Mother Nature.

In his only tournament this season, the FIVB season-opening event in Fort Lauderdale, Santos failed to break pool.

But should that diminish any tingles of excitement fans should feel if Santos and Schalk qualify and play one of the top-seeded American teams on Friday morning?

Absolutely not.

But there is the tricky matter of qualifying. As Schalk, who lost in the final round in the Huntington qualifier, can attest, that is not as simple as it sounds, even to a pair of heavily decorated Olympians.

If everything remains as is –- no promises with AVP entry lists –- Ricardo (Brazilians go by first names) and Schalk will play the 30 seed, which happens to be a buddy from New Orleans named Shawn Ledig and his partner Kameron Beans.

After that will be a match that, if the AVP is paying any attention, should be on center court, with announcer and introductions and the works. It will be a main draw-level match: Piotr Marciniak and Roberto “Rafu” Rodriguez-Bertran vs. Schalk and Ricardo.

I don’t know what Rafu has done to anger the Volleyball Gods, but he has evidently committed a sin of egregious proportions. I’ve never seen anybody with such breathtakingly bad luck as Rafu.

In Huntington Beach, as the top seed in the qualifier, he drew Schalk and Priddy in the first round and lost in a thrilling three-setter (you can find the match on the NYVarsitySports YouTube channel).

Now Rafu not only has Schalk in the first round again, but Schalk gets to play his natural position (defender) behind one of the greatest blockers to ever play the game.

Perhaps Rafu needs to build a Tom Hanks-type shrine to Wilson. Something. I don’t know. But the guy cannot catch a break from the Volleyball Gods that be.

This is not to say he cannot win. No, not at all. Marciniak is a world-class blocker in his own right, and Rafu, who became the first 16 seed to beat a 1 when he and Kevin McColloch stunned Casey Patterson and Gibb in Seattle last season, is a phenomenal volleyball player.

They can win. And whoever does should no question claim that portion of the bracket.

Brunsting and Frishman take on the NVL:  There are other potential bracket-busters as well, though none, obviously, quite the size of Ricardo.

At Q32 is John Michael, or “JM” as he is known in most volleyball circles, Plummer is playing alongside Brad Connors. JM has been on the NVL for the past two years, earning the “Breakthrough Athlete” and “Fan Favorite” awards for 2016, in which he took a career-best third place finish.

I don’t know much about Connors aside from the fact that he beat me in NVL Virginia Beach last year, and that he played with Dana Camacho and lived to tell the tale.

If they win their first round, they’ll meet No. 1 seed Mike Brunsting and Chase Frishman in a much more difficult test than what Brunsting and Frishman are likely used to seeing in the first round. Should Brunsting and Frishman win, their second round would be no easy feat either, as they will more than likely meet Chris Long and Kyle Stevenson, another NVL duo who played a lot of excellent volleyball at the Laguna Beach Open.

Coming through the bottom of that bracket should be either Jeff Samuels –- another former NVL player –- and Spencer Sauter. Together, they might be the tallest, best-blocking team in the qualifier. If it’s not Sauter and Samuels, odds are it will be Jon Drake and Chris Luers, Ohioans who had a strong finish to 2016 but haven’t quite been able to muster the same magic.

Don’t forget about Texas: When I previewed the AVP Austin qualifier, I ignored a scrappy team from Texas by the names of Francisco Quesada-Paneque and Troy Schlicker, and I was yelled at via Facebook messenger and email, and then we all had some beers and laughed about it in Austin when they made me look silly. 

I overlooked them, and they cruised through the qualifier, never dropping a set, and nearly snuck one by Billy Allen and Stafford Slick in the main draw.

So no, I won’t forget about the Austin boys again.

If everything shakes out by seed – this is the bracket mostly likely to do so, in my not so expert opinion – they will meet Maddison McKibbin and Priddy for the qualifying spot.

McKibbin and Priddy claimed a fifth in Austin, and Priddy is improving at an exponential rate as his indoor skills are taking to the beach.

It would take a sizable upset for them to lose.

Parity abounds: If there is such a thing as an easy road in a qualifier – there is not – the final quadrant would be the closest approximation to that. There are no Brazilian legends or four-time Olympians. There is no clear-cut favorite, as there is with Brunsting and Frishman’s portion of the bracket.

There is an abundance of parity, which should produce some of the more exciting matches of the qualifier.

Mike Boag and Mark Burik, at Q4, are the on-paper favorites. Burik has been a steady main draw presence for the past several years, and this will be his first qualifier since Huntington Beach in 2015. Boag made a main draw in Manhattan last season and came tantalizingly close in Chicago, losing in the final set in the final round.

Ben Vaught and Branden Clemens, at Q5, are Burik-Boag’s likely opponents in the final round. The hometown heroes in Huntington, Vaught and Clemens are a combined 42 years old. They have little experience but a boatload of precocious talent.

Justin Phipps, always a wild card, is lurking as the 21 seed, and there’s No. 12 Alejandro Parra and Paul Lotman, the hard-hitting giants who don’t seem to mind that they’d both probably increase their odds of success if they scooped up a defender.

Now, I won’t be in New York. I loathe New York as much as New Yorkers seem to loathe the presence of other human beings. I’ve been twice. One trip involved snow. The other involved a Maryland Terrapin loss to Baylor at Madison Square Garden, a bar tab that reduced me to tears the next morning, and a headache that couldn’t be cured by all the Pedialyte in the land.

I’ve had my fill of New York, thank you very much.

So I leave you with one request: Somebody, anybody, livestream Ricardo-Schalk vs. Marciniak-Rafu.

The women: I mentioned this disclaimer in my preview of Austin, but I’ll do so again here, because I think it’s worth repeating: I do not know nearly as much about the women’s side of things as I do the men. I know more than I did prior to Austin, but if I missed something, which I’m sure I did, feel free to yell at me, either via email (mewhirtert@gmail.com), Facebook, Twitter (@Travis_Mew), or in person when you fly back to Southern California.

That said, here goes nothin’.

Canadian Sarah Pavan will compete in the AVP NY qualifier with Lane Carico, shown her in the AVP Huntington qualifier/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

It has long been a rule of mine that I do not feel sorry for professional athletes, but it was also difficult for me not to feel at least a smidgeon of sympathy for Lane Carico and Sarah Pavan. They were tossed back into the qualifier because Sara Hughes and Kelly Claes were awarded a wild card.

It makes perfect sense for the AVP to grant Hughes and Claes a wild card, especially in New York. The Big Apple was where they made their first main draw, in 2015, and it is also where they have made back-to-back semifinals. Barring a monumental upset or an injury, they would have cruised through the qualifier anyway, but it’s a risk that the AVP would have been unwise to take.

Unfortunately, this leaves Carico, another young star and the AVP Newcomer of the Year in 2013, and Pavan, the 2015 FIVB Blocker of the Year, in the qualifier.

And here I’ll give Carico some credit: She didn’t play the points game. She could have scooped up a blocker –- or another defender and played a peeling, scrappy game –- with more points than Pavan’s 75 and been comfortably inside the main draw. I don’t know exactly how the partnership shook out, but for some reason I always respect players who just play with their best partner, regardless of points. 

Normally, this is the portion of the story where I’d mention the favorites, but honestly, there are too many that it wouldn’t make sense to dub any one of them a “favorite.” It would be far too diluted.

I think that, with this type of talent pool, it is only a matter of time before the AVP bumps the draws to 24 teams.

That’s my hope, at least, because I can’t bring myself to pick against any of the top four teams –- Carico-Pavan, Alexandra Klineman-Jace Pardon, Aurora Davis-Bree Scarbrough, Karissa Cook-Katie Spieler –- because they’re all excellent volleyball teams that create matchup issues for anybody.

But how could one possibly ignore Kim Smith and Xi Zhang, or USC stars Nicolette Martin and Allie Wheeler?

Kerri Schuh made it through the Huntington Beach qualifier and is now partnered with Pri Piantadosi-Lima, a Brazilian who won eight NVLs in three seasons.

Taylor Nutterfield, the No. 8 seed alongside Simone Priebe, has advanced to the final round of both qualifiers this year. Given the overall depth of the women’s field, that is by no means an easy feat. 

At No. 9 is Bre Moreland, who made main draw in Huntington Beach, and Litara Keil, a 6-foot-1 middle out of LMU.

I could do this for almost every team in the qualifier: Branagan Fuller played in six main draws in 2016 and, partnered with Brandie Wilkerson, is the 16 seed; the 18th-seeded Knudsens, Delaney and Lindsey, are perpetually knocking on the door, and Delaney, a former Pepperdine Wave, has already made two main draws; Lara Dykstra made it through the Austin qualifier and is now the 22 seed; Pepperdine’s Corinne Quiggle and Brittany Howard, another up-and-coming duo from the college ranks, could very easily break through as the 26 seed, same as No. 29 Terese Cannon and Jo Kremer could.

The point is the women’s side is awash with talent. All 12 teams automatically in the main draw very much deserve to be there, and it could be argued that another dozen or so in the qualifier do as well.

The bump in prize money for three events in the “Gold Series” is a promising sign that the AVP is growing.

Perhaps the draws will, too.

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