Three weeks before the Monster Hydro Cup, the first in the AVP’s series of three tournaments this season, Jace Pardon couldn’t hit a serve in bounds.
“I was like ‘Oh shoot, I have to get the ball over the net,’” Pardon recalled, laughing. “It was interesting, because usually we rely on our tough serving and getting a lot of digs.”
Pardon and Karissa Cook figured it out fast enough, qualifying on July 17 after wins over Katie Spieler and Delaney Mewhirter, and Sheila Shaw and Kenzie Ponnet. Then, even without the benefit of ripped serves, they pushed Canadians Melissa Humana-Paredes and Sarah Pavan to the limit, holding a 9-4 lead in the third set before falling, 15-12.
“I was pretty impressed with our sideout, how consistent it was all weekend, just the patience — Karissa is always really patient, but I can get kind of flustered,” Pardon said. “I think because I hadn’t played in so long, I was relaxed. I was less tense. Whatever happens, happens. I was like ‘I’m just going to do my best and see how this goes.’”
A similarly relaxed mindset could be needed for this weekend’s Wilson Cup, held at the same site in Long Beach, California. On Wednesday, Cook pulled out of the tournament, citing an elbow injury — it bears repeating: her injury is not Covid-related — leaving Pardon with a handful of reserve list players from which to choose.
She landed on Emily Hartong, a 6-foot-2 blocker who was No. 1 on the reserve list with her usual partner, Geena Urango. They’ve never played together, though they practice against one another frequently. In Hartong’s past two years on the AVP, in which she has made seven main draws with a career high finish of ninth, Pardon had seen enough to know she’d be fully capable of filling in.
“I’m excited,” Pardon said. “I’m so bummed for Karissa, but I am excited.”
Hartong’s entrance to the qualifier shifted the bracket quite a bit, changing the seeding from top to bottom. With Cook, Pardon would have been seeded second; with Hartong, they’re eighth, playing in the first round against Molly Turner and Katie Hogan. The winner will play into Lauren Fendrick and Emily Day, who were knocked back into the qualifier after finishing seventh in the Monster Hydro Cup.
“It was really nice to compete again,” Pardon said. “It was nice to have something to look forward to, because quarantine was really mundane and everything was canceled. It was nice, win or lose, to be competing.”
Other intriguing notes, matchups, teams to watch
The learning curve of new teams — The brevity of this series — three back-to-back-to-back weekends — makes for a difficult learning environment for the litany of new teams created in an effort to simply get into the series. Teams we hadn’t seen before include: No. 1 Fendrick and Day — assembled because of Betsi Flint’s pregnancy (congrats again!) — No. 4 Zana Muno and Amanda Dowdy, No. 6 Allie Wheeler and Corinne Quiggle, No. 8 Turner and Hogan, No. 12 Carly Wopat and Brittany Tiegs.
Some of these teams should pick it up quicker than most. Quiggle and Wheeler, for example, have been playing against one another for as long as they’ve played volleyball. It seemed to show a bit last week, when they played well against Team New Mom, Lane Carico and Kaya Marciniak, and gave No. 2 Terese Cannon and Kelly Reeves a good match.
Others are a bit different, take Hogan and Turner, who live a country apart, from Florida to California. A week of practice is invaluable for teams such as theirs, especially when they competed against Spieler and Mewhirter, who have been playing together for a year, in the Monster Hydro Cup.
The white-knucklers from the Monster Hydro Cup — Both Kelly Reeves and Terese Cannon, and Sheila Shaw and Kenzie Ponnet, came within a coin flip of qualifying last week. Shaw and Ponnet battled Pardon and Cook all the way to a 15-17 loss in the third set of the final run. Reeves and Cannon, meanwhile, were essentially one rally shy of knocking out Traci Callahan and Crissy Jones, had it not been for a handful of exceptional digs and transition putaways from Callahan.
Down 16-19 in the second set after winning the first, Cannon served her and Reeves back into it, knotting the second at 19-19. There, Cannon had an on-two swing that Callahan managed to get her hands on. She put away the ensuing set with a perfectly placed drop shot down the line, effectively saving the match and, by extension, their tournament.
It’s a little heartbreaking to see teams play so well and not make it because of the single-elimination format, but such is life in the AVP Champions Cup. Reeves-Cannon and Shaw-Ponnet are in the same bracket in the Wilson Cup. If they do match up, it would be in the final round, and at least one of them will get rewarded this time around.
Kim Hildreth-Sarah Schermerhorn, Zana Muno-Amanda Dowdy —Of the teams in this qualifier, these are the two that I think are the most capable of making it to Sunday. Hildreth and Schermerhorn have already done so as a team, making the finals in Austin a year ago before losing to Pardon and Cook. Muno, too, has made a Sunday appearance, in Hermosa with Crissy Jones. Dowdy has six semifinal appearances on the resume. It’s difficult to predict how quickly Muno and Dowdy can put their system together, but in terms of ceiling, this team has one of the highest. They’re in the same bracket for the Wilson Cup, setting up a potential second-round matchup, depending how Schermerhorn and Hildreth do against No. 12 Brittany Tiegs and Carly Wopat in the opening round.
Should one of them qualify — they’ll play either Day-Fendrick, Pardon-Hartong, or Turner-Hogan in the final round — they would be my pick to go the furthest in the main draw, and get out of these dreaded qualifiers.