AVP Porsche Cup: Will new partnerships continue to thrive in final tournament of the series?

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AVP Porsche Cup 7/30/2020-Miles Evans
Miles Evans digs in the Wilson Cup/Mpu Dinani, AVP

Among the frequent congratulations and excited responses that Miles Evans received when the news broke that he’d be competing in the AVP Champions Cup with Ricardo Santos also came, in droves, the same, tired question: How are you going to do it?

Santos lives in Florida, Evans in California. Santos’ first language is Portuguese; Evans’ is English. Santos, a four-time Olympian, has played almost exclusively with Olympians on the AVP — Chaim Schalk, Reid Priddy, Sean Rosenthal, with Ty Loomis being the only exception — Evans has not yet reached that rarified air.

Evans was never concerned with the disparity between the two. Sure, there were differences. He couldn’t, and wouldn’t, deny it.

But, he reasoned, they’re both good at volleyball. They’d figure it out.

“We’ll have three or four practices before the AVP,” Evans said after he and Bill Kolinske won Waupaca in Wisconsin the week before the opening Monster Hydro Cup. “That’ll be just enough.”

Last week, during the Wilson Cup, the second in the AVPs three-part Champions Cup series, it proved to be exactly enough. Evans and Santos won three straight three-set matches to qualify, over Kolinske and Mark Burik, Eric Beranek and Andy Benesh, and Billy Allen and Stafford Slick. Down 7-11 in the third set against Slick and Allen, they rallied, winning 17-15 to qualify for their first main draw as a team.

In doing so, he proved himself right — they figured it out fine, thank you to everyone who asked — and he also wasn’t the only one. Every team that made it through last Friday’s qualifier for the Wilson Cup was in the exact same situation as Santos and Evans: In week two of their partnership. Corinne Quiggle and Allie Wheeler, Ty Loomis and Miles Partain, and Lauren Fendrick and Emily Day were all competing together for just the second time. And all of them found their own unique chemistry, making it through a qualifier stacked with teams who have competed together for years.

Where Evans and Santos had at least known, for most of the off-season, that they’d be competing on the AVP together, Quiggle and Wheeler scrambled last minute to assemble their team. Just as it went with Evans and Santos, week one was the trial tournament, a learning experience that did not result in a main draw. Just as it went with Evans and Santos, week two was a thrill ride, as Quiggle and Wheeler qualified, making their first main draw as a team.

“Honestly it’s so epic,” Wheeler said. “I love the thrill. It was awesome. We had a lot of great games, a lot of great battles.”

One of those battles came against the now two-time champs in this series, April Ross and Alix Klineman. They’ve lost just three sets in the entire series. One of those came at the hands of Quiggle and Wheeler, in the first round of last Saturday’s main draw.

“That was one of the things we changed was being accountable on our side, controlling the energy on our side,” Quiggle said.

Few in beach volleyball do a better job of controlling, or at least creating, energy than Loomis. While Santos is a bit of a stoic giant of a man, and Wheeler and Quiggle focus mainly on their side of things, well, Loomis covers the entire beach. His chirping is ubiquitous. He’s constantly throwing sand. Yelling this. Squawking about that. And it’s wonderful — everything that his young Jedi padawan of a partner, Miles Partain, is not.

After qualifying, an exuberant Loomis spoke for a bit into his livestreaming camera. He asked Partain to say a few words. Partain shrugged and laughed, face flushing. Where the 18-year-old Partain is quiet, focused, shy yet dominant, Loomis is loud, in your face, bringing the energy. That combination has resulted in one of the most delightfully surprising storylines of the series: Loomis and Partain, two defenders, one in perhaps the final year in his career, the other just beginning, and they’re thriving.

Fendrick and Day, meanwhile are as different from any of the three aforementioned teams as you could get. Neither are new on Tour, as Quiggle, Wheeler, Evans, and Partain are, but neither are in their career twilights, either, as Santos and Loomis are. They’re just experienced, talented volleyball players, joined by the unusual circumstances of a truncated season and a pregnancy for Day’s usual partner, Betsi Flint.

Yes, it has been a few years since Day played defense — she split with Summer Ross up to 2014 — but it hasn’t been long since she’s served a ball, or sided out. That’s half the battle of defense, anyway. Day converts the digs she gets, of which she’s getting more, and her and Fendrick produce enough trouble from the serving line to create opportunities. Welcome to the John Mayer School of Volleyball. Those opportunities compounded to the point of not just qualifying, but making the Wilson Cup semifinals.

Sometimes chemistry just works, and it’s almost impossible to explain. It worked for four vastly different types of teams in just their second week as partners.

Who will it work for in this weekend’s Porsche Cup?

AVP Porsche Cup 7/30/2020
Traci Callahan dives for the net serve/Mpu Dinani, AVP

Teams to watch in the Porsche Cup qualifier
Traci Callahan, Crissy Jones —In two weeks of this AVP Champions Cup, Callahan has set a new career best finish (fifth at the Monster Hydro Cup) and tied a previous career high (seventh). Say what you will about the field being limited in number, but there is no asterisk on these finishes. A smaller field doesn’t make it any easier. These are fully loaded fields, where any one win, be it in the qualifier or main draw, is a quarterfinal quality win. They had a tough break last week, drawing Canadians Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes in the first round — they played them tough, losing 17-21, 21-23 — before getting Monster Hydro Cup finalists Sara Hughes and Brandie Wilkerson.

Now they’re back in the qualifier. They at least get a bye this time. Though the results didn’t quite show it in the Wilson Cup, Callahan and Jones are still playing excellent volleyball.

Piotr Marciniak, Rafu Rodriguez — Whether Marciniak could go or not this week was a legitimate question for a few days. He pulled out of the Wilson Cup just three points into the qualifier, after a swing down the line left Marciniak wincing, shaking his hand. Nothing is broken, and while it’s still probably smarting a good deal, Marciniak appears good to go. Having a hurt partner might actually do a little bit of good for Rodriguez. Few on the AVP are better point scorers with their serve, and if Marciniak isn’t 100 percent, he might turn it up a few notches. We haven’t gotten a good look at this team yet, and while they’re the No. 12 seed, I still don’t think it’s a 12 seed anybody would be particularly excited about playing, hurt finger and all.

Karissa Cook, Jace Pardon — While we’re on the topic of injured players, it’s good to see Karissa Cook back on the entry list. She is, it should go without saying, a phenomenal player, but she’s just a great human being in general, and it sucks to see her lose a third of her season because of an elbow flare-up prior to the Wilson Cup. With Cook back in — Emily Hartong played excellent as a relief pitcher in the Wilson Cup — the qualifier dynamic changes quite a bit. This is still the team that I think is the most capable of winning or making a semifinal out of the qualifier, and it helps, too, that with Cook back in, they get a bye in the qualifier. It’s good to see Hartong make the most out of her opportunity, and for Pardon to play well on just a week’s notice with a new partner. It’s good to see Cook get to finish this miniature season with one more event. It’s just good all around with this team of three.

Mark Burik, Bill Kolinske — These two guys have been knocking on the door of a big AVP finish for a long, long time. Kolinske’s had a few, most notably a semifinal in the Manhattan Beach Open with Eric Beranek in 2019, and Burik made a semifinal in New Orleans in 2016 — the same tournament he nearly blinded Stafford Slick. It’s possible Burik simply angered the Volleyball Gods, when he skipped that semifinal to play an FIVB in Fuzhou, China, with Ian Satterfield, but this is as good an opportunity as any for him to atone for that grievance.

He and Kolinske are two experienced, talented volleyball players with one of the highest combined volleyball IQs you can get in a team. Between Burik’s arsenal of serves and Kolinske’s sneaky blocking, they’ll have little trouble earning points. They nearly stopped Miles Evans and Ricardo Santos in their tracks in just their first match as a team last week. Another week of practice could be the ticket to their first main draw as a team.

One final note
Sara Hughes and Brandie Wilkerson are due.

I don’t know what these two did to the beach volleyball referee’s union — I don’t think there is actually such a thing, but just go with it — but clearly they’re paying some kind of penance for it. Hughes and Wilkerson have been hosed, two straight weeks, at critical junctures of critical matches by two of the worst calls I’ve seen in volleyball.

Before I go further, I must note: Refs are human; they’re trying their hardest, and mistakes happen.

The first came in the final of the Monster Hydro Cup. Up 20-16 in the finals against April Ross and Alix Klineman, a 50/50 play at the net resulted in Hughes covering, Wilkerson setting, and then Hughes hitting. The ref blew the whistle, calling four touches on Hughes and Wilkerson. The contact at the net between Klineman and Wilkerson looked simultaneous, and if it wasn’t, it was too close for any human eye to tell the difference. At that point in the match, let the girls play. Do Hughes and Wilkerson have to put a ball away and win that first set, regardless of the reffing? Absolutely. But it certainly didn’t help the cause.

Last week, in the semifinals against Melissa Humana-Paredes and Sarah Pavan, down 18-19 in the first set, the ref called a lift on Hughes when she was swinging. It was a weird contact, sure, but when you make a call, and all four players on the court, as well as the commentator in the booth, have no idea what was called or why, it’s best to just let the women play.

I’m taking Hughes and Wilkerson to win the Porsche Cup purely on reffing karma alone.

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