Oh, this is rich.
The karmic energies of the volleyball world would have it no other way: Ed Ratledge was going to play Eric Zaun, and that match was going to happen as quickly as possible.
As in: The very first match of the very first tournament either of them played after splitting up. Earlier this week, I spoke with Adam Johnson, one of the all-time great defenders who narrowly missed both the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, and we talked about, among other things, the ’96 Olympics, and how inevitable it was for Karch Kiraly and Sinjin Smith to play one another in what would become one of the most epic volleyball matches of all time.
“It seems like, in a normal AVP tournament, if you dumped your partner or your partner dumped you, somehow you guys were always going to play each other,” Johnson said. “That was the match that everybody wanted to go see. That’s the match that everybody is still talking about.”
This is in no way on the level of Smith-Kiraly, but any time two former partners play one another in a split-up that can be described as less than amicable, the seeds of a rivalry are being sowed.
The timing of the Zaun-Ratledge split up is, well, quizzical. They were coming off a tournament in which they beat Billy Allen and Stafford Slick, which preceded perhaps the surprise of the tournament, a three-set win over Casey Patterson and Theo Brunner.
They took fifth, their second such finish of the season, and their only losses came against the two teams –- Jake Gibb-Taylor Crabb and Allen-Slick –- that would play in the final.
Statistically speaking, 2017 is already Ratledge’s best season of his lengthy career. The 6-foot-8 blocker has never finished better than fifth, and has only matched his total of quarterfinal finishes in 2017 once, in 2008, and it took 17 events to do so.
Ratledge is arguably playing the best ball of his career, essentially a lock for the comeback player of the year. Zaun, in his first year on the AVP, is making a strong case for newcomer of the year.
They were a splendid complement to one another, Ratledge an aquiline blocker with an aggressively relaxed demeanor, Zaun a fiery, physical defender with an unshakable swagger.
And then, after three events – a ninth in Huntington, a pair of fifths in Austin and New York – they went their separate ways, Zaun off to younger –- and ostensibly greener –- pastures with 26-year-old Marty Lorenz, and Ratledge to the seasoned and frighteningly physical Reid Priddy.
But I’ve gotten ahead of myself.
Before that juicy first-round matchup, there is a qualifier to be played.
Men — A top-heavy affair: For whatever reason, Seattle is annually the site of the smallest qualifier. Just 24 teams made the trip to the northwest in 2016, and just 32 – a massive dip for 2017 qualifiers, which have topped 60 twice – will be doing so Thursday.
But small doesn’t necessarily mean bad. Not at all. The condensed size of the qualifier will actually portend much better volleyball in the final round, as the top teams won’t have to waste energy on one or two extra matches against teams that, realistically, they’d never lose to.
That’s why the final rounds, despite that they feature the most talented teams, tend to be some of the ugliest, most lopsided matches. One team is simply too gassed to keep up.
That shouldn’t happen in Seattle, and it especially shouldn’t happen because the gap between the top-8 teams and the next 24 is fairly significant. As qualifiers go, this one should be a straightforward chalk-walk through the finals.
Then the real fun will begin.
Chase Frishman and Mike Brunsting are forever hanging around as the top No. 1 or 2 seed in every qualifier. Seattle of 2016 is the last tournament in which they failed to qualify, when they had the displeasure of facing the laughably underseeded Roberto Rodriguez-Bertran and Kevin McColloch. I’d be floored if a team scores more than 17 against them in this one.
No. 2 Derek Olson and Jeff Samuels are back together after losing in the final round of the Huntington qualifier to a fully healthy McKibbin team. No shame in that loss. Olson has done a bit of bouncing around since splitting up with Jeremy Casebeer after Seattle of 2016. He’s supremely talented, an excellent defender who digs as well as most any American defender and sides out at a clip that would suggest he is taller than 6-foot-1. He just hasn’t had any partner stability, playing Austin with the points-game-playing Curt Toppel – and managing to hit sets that were routinely sprayed somewhere near Houston and Dallas – and going uno-dos-adios in New York with Kevin McColloch.
His partner, Samuels, has been teetering on the edge of an AVP breakthrough all season long. He qualified in the season-ending event of 2016, in Chicago, but was bounced in the final round in Huntington, the penultimate round in Austin, and the finals, in three sets, in New York. If there’s a site to make it happen, it is this one.
If the other end of that quadrant goes as expected, whoever wins the Olson and Samuels will meet No. 7 Jorge Martinez and Spencer Sauter in the final round. This is another team that is constantly threatening, falling in the final round in Austin to Piotr Marciniak and Raffe Paulis. Martinez sat out of New York, but Sauter blocked for Samuels and nearly shocked Priddy and Maddison McKibbin in the final round, stealing the first set before falling in the next two.
The odds-on favorites will be Olson-Samuels, for sure, but if there’s a quadrant that might provide some fun matches and unexpected results, it’s this one.
Finally a break for Rafu: Perhaps he has alas built a shrine to Wilson, or bowed at the proverbial altar, or sacrificed whatever needed to be sacrificed to appease the Volleyball Gods, but for the first time this year, Roberto “Rafu” Rodriguez-Bertran will not play two Olympians in the first round of a qualifier.
Good for that guy. Seriously. He’s endured a stretch of bad luck to which maybe only Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Browns fans can relate.
Partnered with Marciniak, Rafu really should have no problem getting through in Seattle, the site of his landmark victory over Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson in 2016. However, there is a sneaky good team sitting at –- if the seeding remains unchanged (no promises) from the time of this writing to the time of your reading –- No. 14: Brian Miller and Brett Ryan.
If they win their first match, which they should, they’ll have Rafu and Marciniak in the second round.
Miller and Ryan are Seattle guys. When you watch them play, you won’t notice much that could be labeled as spectacular, and you will notice even less of what could be labeled as careless. They are just solid volleyball players, deploying an option-heavy offense that’s really quite devastating.
I played these guys in the first round in Austin, and after losing in three sets in the first round, I was left frustrated, confused, and in dire need of something cold and alcoholic.
Where in the world did these guys, a couple 50th-seeded nobodies, come from?
Turns out, they’re far from nobodies, and they come from Federal Way and Mercer Island, Washington.
Ryan, a defender with nice ball control and a deceptively large hitting window, lived in Hermosa Beach for a few years. Miller, a physical blocker whom I’d liken to a smaller Robbie Page both in personality and playing style, unleashed an on-two game that helped carry them to the final round in Austin and to the final round again in New York.
In both tournaments, they took down Dan Buehring and Matt McCarthy, who were Q2 and Q7, respectively.
Point is: They’re good, and one of the few higher-seeded teams I’d peg with the potential for an upset.
No. 6 Paul Araiza and Ian Satterfield, at the opposite end of the quadrant, should make it through to the final round against either Rafu-Marciniak or Miller-Ryan.
Realistically, however, I see no reason for Rafu and Marciniak to fall short.
They’re back: The last time we saw Ricardo Santos and Chaim Schalk, they were in the semifinals in New York, playing in front of a sold-out crowd. They were beating Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena and doing things that Olympians do.
Now they’re back in the qualifier.
Welcome to the AVP Tour, fellas.
I’d like to say there’s a chance that Ben Vaught and Branden Clemens, the No. 4 seed, could beat them in the final round, but not even I, a Cinderella-loving, totally biased writer who’d like to see my most regular training partners win, can do it.
Women: First things first: If you are looking for evidence of volleyball karma, look no further than Lane Carico, who grabbed the No. 1 seed. Not the No. 1 seed in the qualifier, but the No. 1 seed in the entire tournament.
Two weeks ago, in New York, Carico didn’t choose a partner for points. She chose Sarah Pavan, a blocker who had almost zero points. Then she was thrust into the qualifier because Sara Hughes and Kelly Claes were –- justifiably –- awarded a wild card.
Carico made it out, but she certainly didn’t make it easy on herself, taking 13th in an event that, a year before, she was playing in the finals.
With Lauren Fendrick in need of a partner while April Ross is recovering from a toe injury, whom did she turn to?
None other than the 27-year-old Carico.
Good on her.
As for the qualifier – it’s likely that all 32 teams in it are quite thankful not to be required to go through Carico –- it should be infinitely more interesting, round by round, than the men.
Per usual, this one is loaded. Unlike the men, it’s not top-heavy –- though, yes, the top is heavy with main draw talent –- rather filled with young, up-and-coming land-mines outside of the top-8 seeds. These include the likes of Lindsey Knudsen and Payton Rund (Q24), Brittany Howard and Corinne Quiggle (Q17), Delaney Knudsen and Deahna Kraft (Q15), Skylar Caputo and Sarah Pavan (Q13), Terese Cannon and Nicolette Martin (Q9), Avery Bush and Christina Vucich (Q10).
But the top seeds are still the favorites.
No. 1 Aurora Davis and Bree Scarbrough were steadily in the main draw in 2016, making four, including the final three events, and qualified in Austin. They played nine sets –- nine! –- in three matches in the New York qualifier, eventually falling to former USC stars Martin and Cannon.
Should they cruise through their first two, they might just get a rematch with the Trojans. Martin has successfully navigated three qualifiers in a row, and scored a second-round main draw win in Austin, over Janelle Allen and Briana Hinga. Cannon, who played with another Trojan, Jo Kremer, in New York, has yet to make a main draw, though I can’t imagine it will take long, particularly with big draws in Hermosa, Manhattan and Chicago on the horizon.
It’s Fuller’s time: Jace Pardon is slumming it out at a NORCECA in Jamaica this week, leaving Alix Klineman, her usual blocker, without a partner. This worked out serendipitously for Branagan Fuller, a defender who narrowly missed making main draw in Huntington and was upset in her first match in New York. With Klineman and Fuller together at the 2 seed, it’s time for Fuller to re-enter the main draw after being a mainstay in 2016.
Not that the road will be easy. The road is never easy, particularly for the women this year. I just think she’s due. It’s difficult to keep a player of that caliber, not to mention Klineman, the 06-07 Gatorade national volleyball player of the year who went on to play for Stanford, out of the main draw for so long.
Not a Schuh-in, but a favorite: The No. 3 seed, Priscilla Piantadosi-Lima and Kerri Schuh, are coming off their first main draw together in New York after grinding through a really fun final match against Pardon and Klineman. Heck, all of their matches were fun, which aligns their amiable personalities anyway.
They went to three sets twice, and had a 29-27 marathon of a first set against Litara Keil and Bre Moreland in the second round.
Whoever takes the top half of that quadrant is more than likely to see Mackenzie Phelps-Ponnet and Molly Turner in the final round. I’ve never seen Phelps-Ponnet play, but she put together an impressive resume in the New York qualifier, upsetting Fuller and Brandie Wilkerson in the first round and nearly pulling off a stunner against Carico and Pavan.
The dreaded Group of Death: The final quadrant is what World Cup fans colloquially refer to as the “Group of Death,” which is as brutal as it sounds. At No. 4 –- and the top seed in this quadrant –- is Amanda Wiggins and Kathrin “Kiwi” Winkler.
Normally, being the top seed in any quadrant is a coveted spot. Until, of course, you realize that within your bracket is Pavan and Skylar Caputo and Bre Moreland and Jacqui Wood.
I’d be genuinely stunned if it’s not one of those three teams to make it out of that quadrant, but I’m also wrong all the time. Maybe we’ll see a Cinderella dance her way out of this one.
For the list of AVP Seattle entrants, click here.