The AVP again is the beneficiary of a break in the FIVB schedule as the AVP Seattle Open begins with qualifying Thursday of the shores of suburban Lake Sammamish.
That, however, did not ensure that the stars would come out.
No, four top teams are skipping Seattle as Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena, Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb, Alix Klineman and April Ross, Sara Hughes and Summer Ross have opted to rest, recuperate and train in preparation for the upcoming World Championships in Hamburg (June 28-July 7), the first opportunity to punch a ticket to Tokyo.
But the respective defending champions, Taylor Crabb and Jake Gibb and Emily Day and Betsi Flint, hope to again raise the Space Needle AVP trophies.
We’ll preview the top five seeds as the AVP returns to the Northwest for the fourth time, a couple of newbie teams, and a few top qualifying threats.
No. 1 Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb: Sure, they’re the odds-on favorite after wins in Huntington and Austin before being falling to Dalhausser and Lucena in a classic matchup in New York. They’ve shown weakness in early rounds, possibly a byproduct of intercontinental jet lag.
They sat out FIVB Ostrava this year, so they should be well-rested and ready to plow through the field. I’m thinking you’ll see them on the NBCSports broadcast at 4:30 p.m. Pacific Sunday.
No. 2 Tim Bomgren and Troy Field: It’s really hard to dismiss this team, even though you want to. They don’t compete internationally, don’t have any medals, Field is flat-out new to the game, Bomgren lives in Minnesota. As the No. 2 seed they just don’t have the credentials that the other top seeds have.
Except that they hold three terrific finishes this year, thirds in Huntington and Austin, and a second in New York. And sure, you can say what you want about Huntington and Austin not being full fields, but New York had everybody.
Something’s working for this team, perhaps it’s that they’re still in “sweetheart” mode. Whatever it is, kudos to them, and all signs indicate that their success will continue.
No. 3 Jeremy Casebeer and Chaim Schalk: I can’t wait until dual-citizen Schalk gets to compete for the USA in October, because this team can really shake things up. Casebeer, while slightly undersized at 6-foot-5 when measured against the Dalhaussers and Dohertys, has been steadily improving his blocking technique, let alone his tour-leading jump serves.
Schalk is one of the smoothest defenders out there, with great vision and instincts. This team lost in the final in Austin, and I see a win in their 2019 future.
No. 4 Casey Patterson and Chase Budinger: Is there a more fun team to watch? Judging by Patterson’s 43,700 followers, probably not. This team has quietly made a quantum leap in 2019, with Budinger gaining another off-season of progress in his NBA-AVP conversion process.
The difference between a good blocker and a great blocker is subtle at this level, measured in milliseconds and experience. Judging by their second in Huntington and their fifth in Itapema, this team is there.
No. 5 Theo Brunner and Reid Priddy: One of 2019’s new teams, this pair has yet to fulfill its potential on a regular basis. They’re capable of great results, like a silver medal in the FIVB three-star in Kuala Lumpur, or a fifth in the four-star Itapema.
They’re also capable of disappointment, like a ninth place in New York, or 25ths in The Hague and Ostrava.
This duo is too talented to stay down for long.
No. 1 Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil: If the volleygods decreed that I could only watch one women’s team this weekend, this would be it. They have youth, enthusiasm, and well, goofiness on their side. Claes loves competing, is nearly equally adept with her right or left hand on tight sets, and comes with the fire you’d customarily expect from a redhead.
Sponcil could be the fastest defender in North America, and can deliver the sauce from anywhere. This young team continues to make progress, and could shake things up late in the Olympic qualification period.
No. 2 Kelley Larsen and Emily Stockman: Fresh off their career-best silver-medal finish in Warsaw, this team is brimming with confidence. Last weekend Larsen and Stockman were a swing away from forcing a third set in the gold medal match, further complicating the three automatic bids awarded to the USA in four- and five-star events.
If their confidence transfers across the pond, look out.
No. 3 Emily Day and Betsi Flint: Last year this event ignited a nice little run for Day and Flint, with wins in Seattle and San Francisco, plus a nice third in Manhattan.
Domestically, they haven’t measured up to their standards yet, with a third in Huntington, fifth in New York, and seventh in Austin.
Internationally, they’ve had some nice results, including silver in the Sydney three-star and fifths in Qinzhou and Las Vegas. Lately they’ve had difficulty with the dreaded country-quota matches, losing to Brooke Sweat and Kerri Walsh Jennings in Ostrava and Larsen and Stockman in Warsaw.
Flint’s history in Seattle is strong as a 2018 champion and 2017 finalist. History brings confidence, and confidence will bring them wins.
No. 4 Karissa Cook and Jace Pardon: It’s easy to overlook this team. They don’t have that 6-foot-plus blocker, they won’t wow you with their power. But volleyball IQ? They have it in spades.
Pardon is one of the early top Florida State alums, has been on the tour for seven years. They won’t overpower some of the more physical teams on tour, but they will out-steady most.
No. 5 Terese Cannon and Irene Pollock: Frankly, I’m surprised that this team hasn’t broken through. Cannon, a celebrated USC alum, has improved her blocking chops significantly this year and is capable of getting in the heads of just about any hitter in the field.
Pollock is a superb all-around defender, one of those rare defenders without any glaring weaknesses in her game. So far this squad finished third in Austin, ninth in New York. I expect this team to make a final this year, it could be in Seattle.
New women’s teams (there are none in the men’s main draw)
Kelly Reeves and Kim DiCello: A byproduct of the partner swaps we saw in New York, Reeves will run it with DiCello. Reeves’ legendary intensity will mate well with DiCello’s quiet fire. We haven’t yet seen DiCello’s best results, but I expect her to outperform their No. 10 seed handily.
Nicolette Martin and Allie Wheeler: Is it really a new team if they’ve played 2,482 matches together? That might be a bit of an exaggeration but Martin and Wheeler played together for four years at USC in addition to the eight tournaments they’ve played together professionally. Here’s a new team that’s not a new team that is far better than their No. 11 seed would suggest.
Men’s qualifiers to watch
Miles Evans and Avery Drost: It’s hard to imagine what Drost is going through after the death of his friend and playing partner Eric Zaun last week. Our thoughts and sympathy go out to him and hope if you’re in Seattle you’ll go out to the qualifier and support him.
Raffe Paulis and David Lee: Yup, that David Lee, the middle blocker for the USA national team for three quads, with a gold (Beijing) and bronze (Rio) medal in his dresser drawer. The 6-8 David Lee with a ridiculously tough jump-float serve and super-quick hands at the net.
And yes, the David Lee who only played one rotation in the back row. 2019 is Lee’s second season on the beach, with 11 tournaments under his belt. He’s made two expanded AVP main draws, and is more than capable at the net. He has joined Raffe Paulis, whose steady all-around game should be a good match not only in points but also in ball control.
Cody Caldwell and Justin Johnson: A lot of people don’t follow men’s volleyball. That’s sad, perhaps a tale for another time, but Cody Caldwell was the MVP of the NCAA men’s tournament in 2015, where he led the Loyola Ramblers to the national title.
Caldwell, who hails from Newport Beach, has played in a whopping two tournaments. His partner, Justin Johnson, has played in 11. Based on previous results, both typically lose in the second round, so I’m not expecting a lot here, but would enjoy watching a NCAA MVP battle it out in a qualifier.
Women’s qualifiers to watch
Courtney Schwan and Merete Lutz: How many 6-8 blockers have you seen on the beach? Stanford’s Merete Lutz, the former middle/right side attacker, would be the tallest woman I can recall seeing in a domestic event.
Sure, she didn’t pass in her college career, so I’m not expecting a ton of ball control here, but if former Washington All-American Courtney Schwan can roll the ball up anywhere near the net, Lutz should do pretty well in a qualifier. Look out below!
Carly Kan and Nikki Taylor: Hawai’i fans, and there are a lot of you, take note. Taylor, a 6-4 former two-time second-team All-American, is playing with Carly Kan, UH beach alum and former great but undersized outside at Missouri. Although they didn’t play together at UH (they both played as bigs), you can bet they were in plenty of drills together, and the skills and physicality of this team can compete at any level.
McKenna Thibodeau and Madison Willis: Better known as the Witt twins, this team’s future is bright. Perhaps the biggest factor holding them back is that they haven’t competed in enough qualifiers to garner the top seed, and keep running into some of the better teams early. Make no mistake, they are a top quality team, look for them to make a run.