What a difference a year, and a wrinkle in the Olympic qualification system, can make.
A year ago, AVP Austin featured one of the lightest fields of the year. Gone were Theo Brunner and Casey Patterson, Taylor Crabb and Jake Gibb, Ryan Doherty and John Hyden, as well as Chaim Schalk.
What was left in Austin was the world’s most dominant team in Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena and then an eclectic mix of new teams –- John Mayer and Jeremy Casebeer, Trevor Crabb and Sean Rosenthal, Maddison McKibbin and Reid Priddy –- odd teams –- Derek Olson and Curt Toppel, Ty Loomis and Ty Tramblie, Whitney Pavlik and April Ross –- and, yes, a local Texan team or two in Amanda Dowdy and Irene Pollock and Troy Schlicker and Francisco Quesada-Paneque.
That was Austin of 2017.
That is not AVP Austin of 2018, where the pre-qualifier starts Wednesday. The tournament begins in earnest Thursday with finals set for Sunday.
Whereas Austin of 2017, given the number of teams missing, was circled and starred and asterisked and whatever else people do to mark their calendars to signal “WIDE OPEN FIELD,” Austin of 2018 may present the most difficult AVP of the season for the men.
The draw is small, with just 16 teams making it through, and yet only one team, potentially Priddy and Casebeer, might be missing for a four-star event in Brazil. Typically, a four-star event would be an appealing tournament for our internationally-aspiring teams and players, particularly one in Brazil, where beach volleyball is king. But a tweak in the Olympic qualification system, which reduced the number of finishes required in the two seasons leading up to Tokyo 2020, provides more incentive for teams to stay home and not travel as frequently or desperately.
The women, however, present a different story, with five teams –- Hughes and Summer Ross, Claes and Hochevar, Day and Betsi Flint, Kelley Larsen and Stockman, Nicole Branagh and Kerri Walsh-Jennings –- registered for that same event.
Similar to last year for the men, the women will have a clear favorite in Alix Klineman and April Ross. The men’s field, though, is as difficult as an AVP will get this season.
Odds to win
Phil Dalhausser-Nick Lucena: -400
John Hyden-Theo Brunner: +1000
John Mayer-Trevor Crabb: +1,500
Billy Allen-Ryan Doherty: +1,600
Casey Patterson-Stafford Slick: +2,000
Taylor Crabb-Tim Bomgren: +2,200
Sean Rosenthal-Chase Budinger: +2,500
Ed Ratledge-Eric Zaun: +5,000
The Field: +10,000
This is what I wrote last year: “This tournament is almost a glorified CBVA, as there is only one ringer and legitimately 20 or so teams with decent odds to make it in.”
That is not the case in 2018.
There are about 8-12 ringers. The first 16 teams on the entry list in the qualifier have at least one player who has made a main draw. Maddison McKibbin, the No. 1 seed and now the biggest Reid Priddy-Jeremy Casebeer fan in the world, won an AVP less than a year ago, and now he and Riley McKibbin are back in the qualifier.
Why are they Priddy-Casebeer fans all of a sudden? Priddy and Casebeer are registered for the aforementioned event in Brazil. If they make it through the qualifier, they’ll remain in Brazil, and the McKibbins will move into the main draw and the rest of the qualifiers will be bumped up one spot.
Much of AVP Austin hinges, oddly enough, on one match across the world.
Note: I don’t write myself into these, so if anybody cared, well, sorry. Also a note: While I can write about every team that could make it, that would extend this story by about 3,000 words, and I don’t wish that evil on anybody. I picked 12 teams to write about. If I missed you, I encourage you to make me look dumb and qualify.
AVP Austin: Favorites
I’m limiting this to four teams, because you can only have four teams make it through. Limiting this to four teams may be as difficult as qualifying itself, because realistically there are about 8-12 who could be reasonably labeled as favorites. Now, judging on how Priddy and Casebeer played in Huntington Beach, I’m just going to assume they win their lone qualifying match, meaning the McKibbins are in and they’re no longer a favorite, because they’re already in main draw.
If I’m wrong, I apologize to the VolleyGods for cursing Priddy and Casebeer and the McKibbins with an assumption like that.
Mike Brunsting, Jeff Samuels: Team double-block is back! Both of these guys are main draw regulars, and both are excellent side out players, and both are also talented blockers. Samuels, alongside a towering skyball that wreaks havoc against lesser opponents, is also a surprisingly solid defender because he’s so darn long. Most digs he gets up he’s going to put away.
Mark Burik, Ian Satterfield: Satterfield has come a long way since this event a year ago. Last year, he made his first main draw under the lights alongside Orlando Irizarry, coming back from a deep deficit to Ben Vaught and Branden Clemens. Since, he’s established himself as one of the more promising up-and-coming blockers, with a veteran partner in Burik.
Ben Vaught, Branden Clemens: Brutal draw for these two in FIVB Huntington, where they matched up with a gnarly Brazilian team. Vaught was called for a fairly ridiculous lift to lose in the third set of the final round here last year, so he’s going to want to exorcise those demons. These two have probably played more volleyball in the off-season than any other team in the qualifier.
Myles Muagututia, Kyle Friend: After a snafu with the American Samoa federation, which wouldn’t release Muagututia to play for the United States in Huntington, hence their absence, these two are back, and I’d say might be the most underrated American team. Friend has fully made the transition from indoor to beach, and they run a fun, shooty, ball-control offense, and both can absolutely bomb serves.
AVP Austin: Contenders
Adam Roberts, Spencer Sauter: These two jumped out to a 7-2 lead over the young Russians in the first set of the second round of the contenders bracket in Huntington Beach. Yes, they let it slip away and wound up losing, but that’s an FIVB podium-quality team they put on the ropes early. Roberts is a veteran’s veteran, having played in more AVPs than any American on tour. Sauter is an up-and-coming blocker out of Penn State who touches a ton of balls off the block and sides out with efficiency and few errors.
Paul Lotman, Gabe Ospina: We haven’t seen either of these guys in a bit, but if their finish last year was any indicator, they’re going to be another team to keep an eye on. They took a third in NVL Long Beach and made it through both the Manhattan and Chicago qualifiers. It’s a physical team, as Lotman comes armed with a formidable jump serve and a heavy swing, and Ospina will touch almost any shot that makes its way over Lotman’s block.
Garrett Wilson, Kacey Losik: Our SANDCAST wildcards! Watching Wilson play can be maddening to those who don’t quite understand his game. At no point does it look like Wilson is ever giving more than one percent effort, which is why basically every team picks on him – yet he just keeps putting balls away. Losik’s ball control and consistency are remarkable for an 18-year-old, as is his ability to show up in big moments. That combination is why these two nearly stunned Mexico’s top team in Huntington Beach.
Troy Field, David Ryan Vander Meer: The combined vertical of this team might be somewhere around 100 inches, especially in Austin, where the sand is packed and everybody rips balls all day long. Alright, fine, maybe 100 is a bit of an exaggeration, but seriously, just watch them play and count how many shots they hit. You might be able to do it on one hand. They’ve never played together, but their styles –- athletic, hustle, grind it out, hit hard, serve aggressive –- will mesh well.
AVP Austin: Land mines and teams to know
Andrew Dentler, Dylan Maarek: Maarek is my dark horse for AVP rookie of the year. He’s that good. Dentler, a New Jersey native, won Pottstown last year and has been in and out of various main draws, including Huntington Beach, for a few years. He began representing France this year, finishing 49th in Huntington with Jeremy Silvestre. They’re leading the Pacific AVP Next region for a reason.
Mike Boag, Skylar del Sol: del Sol’s tryout earlier in the year with Trevor Crabb may not have gone as planned, but there’s a reason Crabb turned to del Sol when he needed an international partner. del Sol is a phenomenal volleyball player, probably the best setter in the qualifier who may also have the best serve in the qualifier. Boag, too, has trained regularly with Chaim Schalk over the off-season, developing into a big presence at the net.
Troy Schlicker, Rafaa Quesada-Paneque: I didn’t write about these guys last year and everybody got really mad at me and then they qualified and made me look really silly for not writing about them. Home field advantage can’t be ignored, especially in a place like Austin, where the qualifier is even mobbed with locals supporting their boys.
Hagen Smith, Lucas Yoder: Both of them are already excellent beach volleyball players, even though they’re both fresh off the indoor scene, Smith at UCLA and Yoder at USC. In an AVP Next earlier this year, they beat Boag and del Sol in the quarterfinals and then Eric Zaun and Sauter before pushing Sean Rosenthal and Chase Budinger in the finals.
Odds to win
April Ross, Alix Klineman: -300
Kelley Larsen, Emily Stockman: +100
Betsi Flint, Emily Day: +500
Lauren Fendrick, Sarah Sponcil: +1,000
Kelly Reeves, Brittany Howard: +1,500
Caitlin Ledoux, Kendra VanZwieten: +2,000
Allison McColloch, Geena Urango: +2,200
Lane Carico, Karolina Sowala: +2,500
The Field: +10,000
A few things before we get started on the qualifier preview.
- Welcome back Angela Bensend! The longtime partner of Geena Urango, Bensend, a former standout for LSU who is from Texas, struggled with nagging injuries last season. It’s good to see her name back on the entry list.
- Make time to watch Sarah Sponcil. After starring for John Mayer at LMU, Sponcil transferred to UCLA and helped lead the Bruins to a national championship, their first on the beach. She’s the early favorite for rookie of the year. Go watch and you’ll see why.
AVP Austin: Favorites
Sheila Shaw, Lara Dykstra: Dykstra was in the qualifier in five of the six tournaments she played in last year, and she made it out of four, with her only qualifier loss coming to Lane Carico and Sarah Pavan –- an absurd team to be in the qualifier -– in New York. She is one of the dozens of women 25 and under who have a long, bright future ahead of them, particularly when partnered with Shaw, who has made it to three quarterfinals in the past two years.
Aurora Davis, Bree Scarbrough: Like Dykstra, New York was the only main draw these two missed last year, losing to USC stars Nicolette Martin – more on her in a minute – and Allie Wheeler. Aside from that, it was steady, with five consecutive main draws, including a ninth in Chicago, which included a momentous win over Carico and Klineman. What’s more, they’re coming off a victory last weekend at the FIVB one-star in Thailand.
Nicolette Martin, Sarah Day: Martin is going to set the record for tournaments played in a single year. If that’s not her goal this year then it should be considered at least an ancillary ambition or something. She’s a machine. Her and Day won the first AVP Next of the year, in February, then she took second with Summer Nash, third with Bre Moreland, fifth with Day, and then a 33rd in Huntington Beach after receiving a wild card to main draw.
On the side, she’s also picked up a CBVA win with Allie Wheeler, and a second and third with Day.
This is her –- at least –- ninth tournament of the year … and the first tournament of the AVP season.
Bre Moreland, Briana Hinga: The SANDCAST wildcards for the women are hereby dubbed the “Killer Brees.” I’m obligated to give at least one nickname per tournament, so this is it. On a more serious note, though, these two are just consistent. Moreland made the final three main draws of 2017, and Hinga was main draw for all six she played.
In Huntington Beach, they knocked out a Finnish team en route to a 25th place finish, tied for the best of any American qualifier team.
AVP Austin: Contenders
Kim Smith, Mackenzie Ponnet: Alongside Team Gucci Vibes, Kelly Reeves and Brittany Howard, Smith and Ponnet qualified for a trio of NORCECA events, and they took first in Aguascalientes, second in La Paz and fourth in Varadero.
Not exactly the team you’d like to see in the qualifier.
Allie Wheeler, Corinne Quiggle: In her first three years at Pepperdine, Quiggle went 73-15. In Wheeler’s junior year at USC, partnered with Martin, she went 36-5.
And now they’re playing together.
Wheeler made it through every qualifier she played in last season, and Quiggle, alongside Howard, her blocker for a year at Pepperdine, finished the year with a seventh and a thirteenth at Hermosa and Manhattan, respectively.
Another excellent pair of college players in what is becoming a long, long line of them.
Kerri Schuh, Janelle Allen: This team has the biggest secret weapon in beach volleyball on their side: The cutest fan. Allen’s son, Ketch, who is 1 but looks 5 and has to be in the 1,000th percentile for height, is always present for mom’s and dad’s matches. It makes sense that this team probably has the happiest child in the world rooting for them, because I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Schuh or Allen anything less than 100 percent enthusiastic about whatever it is they’re doing.
They’re just two happy people who also happen to be really good volleyball players who also happen to have a happy young fan in tow.
Falyn Fonoimoana, Alexa Strange: You know Falyn’s last name, no different than you know Hagen Smith’s. But just as Hagen is much more than simply Sinjin’s kid, same goes for Falyn, the niece of Olympic gold medalist Eric Fonoimoana. Fonoimoana and Strange won the Laguna Open this past weekend, which is annually the deepest CBVA field of the year, hardly any different than a lower level AVP or a stacked AVP qualifier. That came after a strong showing in Huntington Beach, in which they went three sets in four consecutive matches, including a thriller in a blustery match against the Witt sisters.
AVP Austin: Land mines and teams to know
Jessica Sykora, Pri Lima: It was only four years ago that Lima won five of six NVLs. She may not have won any AVPs in 2017, but she made main draws in New York, Manhattan and Chicago, while Sykora took a 13th in Hermosa alongside Lindsey Knudsen.
Avery Bush, Delaney Knudsen: Team Onesie! Maybe. Knudsen’s signature touch last year –- a one-piece bathing suit -– will hopefully carry over to 2018, because it’s kinda awesome. Regardless of how they dress, these two are both excellent volleyball players. Knudsen made main draws in San Francisco and Chicago, and when she didn’t make a main draw, she pushed the qualifier to the final round. Bush, meanwhile, teamed with Christina Matthews in Huntington Beach a few weeks ago and made her second career main draw.
Summer Nash, Camie Manwill: Nash, a 25-year-old out of San Diego State, and Manwill recently took second in the Laguna Open. Both made at least one main draw last year – Nash in Manhattan Beach, Manwill in Seattle and San Francisco – and could very well make another few this year, perhaps beginning in Austin.
Claire Coppola, Kristen Nuss: I watched Nuss and Coppola, LSU’s star sophomores, last weekend at the USA Volleyball Collegiate Beach Championships, which they won in three sets over Florida State. These girls can ball. Nuss –- and I hate to make such lofty comparisons so early, but I digress -– plays a lot like Sara Hughes: phenomenal ball control, sides out with remarkable efficiency, digs everything she should, rarely makes an error. And Coppola is not an easy block to get around, either.
This is the land mine nobody should want to see.