KENNER, Louisiana — In the end, the locals shined through after the rain Sunday in the AVPNext gold New Orleans at Coconut Beach.
In what turned out to be one of the biggest domestic pro beach volleyball tournaments of the spring 2021 season, both winning teams had a local player.
The women’s title went to the former LSU pair of New Orleanian Kristen Nuss and her partner, Taryn Kloth, who were making their professional debuts; while Evan Cory, from nearby Metairie, and partner Logan Webber took the men’s gold for the biggest victories of their young careers.
“It was the best day of my volleyball life so far,” Cory said. “I’m hoping that there are bigger and better things to come this year. But tonight we’ll enjoy ourselves.”
In all, there were 72 women’s teams and 69 men’s from all over the United States competing for the $20,000 purse.
“It’s a lot bigger than we envisioned when we started, but I’m glad it turned out to be what it is,” tournament director Shawn Ledig said. “It took a little time, but it’s been worth the wait.
The tournament is part of the Louisiana Beach week, incorporating a juniors clinic, a juniors tournament, and an adult recreational tournament. After all the COVID mandates were lifted three weeks ago, the tournament was officially on.
AVPNext has been a boon for qualifier players, whose only previous option was traveling to AVP sites and competing in single-elimination qualifiers. With the inception of AVPNext three years ago, they are able to accumulate AVP rankings points and gain additional experience. Currently there are five AVPNext gold events listed on the schedule.
Louisiana Rain (the Tom Petty song) delayed the tournament for two hours Saturday, and there was a 30-minute delay Sunday due to lightning.
Nuss and Kloth dominated throughout the drizzle and the sun, winning all six of their matches in straight sets. They never got to play the final, however, when three-time Brazilian Olympian Larissa Franca and her partner Liliane Maestrini forfeited. Franca, 39 and making her comeback, was taken from the venue in an ambulance after suffering full body cramps after playing four matches Sunday on a very humid weekend.
“It’s pretty crazy,” Nuss said. “It’s been a wild couple of weeks and months, we’ve done a lot of training and work, and it’s all coming together. I’m just so happy for the future and what’s to come. We just want to keep playing and competing and getting better.”
It’s a significant transition from college to the pros, not least of which is assembling a support team, which is all handled for them in college. Nuss and Kloth have softened that transition by working with LSU beach volleyball assistant Drew Hamilton.
“It’s definitely a learning process,” said Kloth, the former Creighton indoors All-American from South Dakota who played three beach seasons at LSU.
“A journey that, thank goodness, we’re taking together. I wake up every day and think, ‘I wouldn’t want to do this with anyone else.’ So I’m grateful for Kristen, and all of our friends and family, and our coach is unreal.”
Moving from NCAA beach to the AVP is a step up, but that step keeps getting smaller and smaller as the college game continues to evolve, said Nuss.
“Their skills are a little more enhanced, the physicality is definitely a notch up compared to the collegiate game, but you have to give credit to the collegiate game because the level is so high that it has helped us get to where we are now,” Nuss said.
Cory, 23, is a 6-foot-3 left-hander, who has finished as high as 17th domestically (AVP Seattle, 2017) after limited competition over the last three years. Weber, 25, is a 6-7 blocker from Grand Rapids, Michigan, who competed sparingly until 2019, when he finished 17th in six events. They’ve played together for six months.
They, too, almost won by forfeit over Piotr Marciniak and Rafu Rodriguez after Marciniak’s legs locked up in the semifinals. Marciniak was able to play in the final, but Cory and Webber won 21-16, 21-18.
“Both of my quads and hamstrings fully locked up in our semifinal match,” Marciniak said. “I was praying just to survive that match.”
In that 18-21, 21-19, 15-13 semifinal victory over Troy Field and Eric Beranek, Marciniak had to call a medical timeout up 14-13 in the third set. They won when on a missed final serve, but Marciniak couldn’t recover fully prior to the finals.
“Before the final, I was resting,” Marciniak said, “and tried to get up, and my entire body cramped, so I was really close to quitting, but I thought, ‘I only have one shot, so let me try and fight through it.’ ”
Cory appreciated playing at home.
“I can’t thank the people of Coconut Beach and Louisiana enough,” Cory said. “This was for them. It really was. It was a whole new level, which I’ve never felt before, so it was awesome.
“When you’ve got a stadium full of people supporting you, a whole band of people supporting us, it gives us a lot of confidence.
Webber was simply grateful to have played.
“Evan and I say a little prayer before every match, and we start with ‘Thank you for the ability to be here and play volleyball,’ because as we saw last year, it can be taken away so quickly.
“It’s awesome to be out here. We try and play every chance we can, but to find something that was big and meaningful and to come out and win it, it’s amazing. We’re so grateful.”
The tournament came about as a partnership between Coconut Beach and AVPAmerica. AVP competitor and tournament director Shawn Ledig, Coconut Beach volleyball director Mick Stein, Coconut general manager Robert Bruce, and AVPAmerica’s Wayne and Carly Gant were able to put the tournament together as Louisiana made strong progress against the pandemic.
Stein believes that Coconut Beach, in operation since 1988, is among the largest beach volleyball facilities in the nation, with 20 courts on over 100,000 square feet.
The AVP was last New Orleans in 2016 with a rain-plagued event in the middle of the pre-Olympics FIVB season. Local organizers believed that the first step would be hosting a successful AVPNext.
“Six months ago Robert Bruce contacted me and asked me if I wanted to give it another go,” said Ledig, who lives in Mandeville on the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain. “I called Wayne and Carly Gant at AVPAmerica, and after two or three months, we signed everything and got it going.”
Ledig worked the phone, he said, to attract so many top players. And players were eager to compete.
“Everybody was ready to get out of their town to play high level competition,” Ledig said.
Gant runs AVPAmerica beach and grass competitions with her husband, Wayne.
“It is coming back full force. We’ve got people hungry to play, willing to travel,” Carly Gant said. “Coconut Beach has been an amazing partner, as well as our other AVPNext gold and grass partners.
The Gants have always wanted to create a semipro circuit for beach volleyball and have operated tournaments for over 20 years towards that end.
“Both sides were just stacked,” she said. “When main-draw teams are seeded 12th, it’s game on. I think the dream and reality of the semipro tour is coming true at this moment.”