LAGUNA BEACH, Calif. — The idea began in Virginia Beach.

It was before Silila Tucker would even play his first match in the Tour Series event with Andrew Dentler. Tucker and Andy Benesh, who was relegated to coaching duties for Deahna Kraft and Allie Wheeler after his partner, Miles Evans, had to withdraw due to an injury at AVP Manhattan Beach, locked in to play together in a tournament a month down the road.

“When’s the deadline for Laguna?” Benesh asked Tucker last month, referring to the 67th annual Laguna Open, held this past weekend. “I’m down to sign up.”

Play with Andy Benesh? At this point — no matter how few practices, how scant the repetitions — how could anyone turn that down?

Andy Benesh, left, and Silila Tucker after winning the 2022 Laguna Open

From the first tournament of this 2022 AVP season, Benesh had established himself as the ultimate partner, a 6-foot-9 27-year-old who can evidently win with anyone, regardless of skill set or practice time. He won the Austin Pro Series with Phil Dalhausser, despite never having split-blocked in a professional tournament, knocking off Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb and Taylor Sander and Taylor Crabb in the process. Two weeks later, he won an AVPNext Gold in San Antonio, Texas with Tim Brewster, jump-starting what would become a brilliant and breakout season for the young lefty. A month or so later, now with Miles Evans, he won again, claiming a Tour Series title in Denver, Colorado, battling through a long road in the contender’s bracket to do so.

So when Benesh told Tucker he was in to play Laguna, a tournament that Tucker “wanted to play, but it wasn’t the end of the world,” he said, there was really no question about it.

“Yeah,” Tucker said with a laugh, “he’s not a bad pickup.”

Benesh, in fact, may be the best pickup by any partner this season, as he and Tucker won Laguna, finishing the weekend undefeated after a three-set victory over Paul Lotman and Troy Field in the finals. It completed a two-day stretch in which Benesh and Tucker knocked off a host of elite teams, including, in the second round of the winner’s bracket, Evan Cory and Logan Webber, Lotman and Field, Avery Drost and Chase Frishman, then Lotman and Field once more in a finals rematch.

Benesh, who made the final a year ago with Billy Allen, said on Sunday that this was the most stacked he’d ever seen the annual event, which at 67 years is the longest-running tournament in the sport.

The 16-team field included 10 players who have made an AVP final — that number includes this year’s Tour Series — in their career: Field, Lotman, David Lee, Benesh, Cory, Avery Drost, Chase Frishman, Tim Bomgren, Taylor Sander, and Stafford Slick. Not a bad first tournament win for Tucker, who has been on the cusp of breaking through this season, to win in 2022.

“I feel like I’ve been playing well all year, I just haven’t put the pieces all together yet,” the 27-year-old said. “This is the culmination of all that.”

Carly Skjodt hits past the block of Delaney Mewhirter while Molly Turner looks on/Dana Drambarean, @buzzle.media

Turner, Skjodt break out of ‘funk’ with another win

Molly Turner considered pulling out of the Laguna Open. Carly Skjodt wouldn’t have blamed her. Neither were exactly brimming with confidence after an 0-2 dud in the AVP Chicago Gold Series, in which they were swept in both matches.

“I haven’t been playing at a high level,” Turner said. “I just couldn’t figure out why and was very frustrated. Kinda felt like I was in a funk.”

Consider the funk — be it merely perceived or real — finished. Turner and Skjodt took the long road to winning their first Laguna Open, playing seven matches in two days to claim what was, to them, the most unexpected of titles.

“It really does feel good to end this portion of season on a win,” said Skjodt, who made her AVP rookie debut this season, finishing with three-top 10s in 2022. “There are so many highs and lows in this sport and after being pretty defeated after going 0-2 in Chicago, being able to come out and play well this weekend and win this historic tournament was amazing.”

It wasn’t the only historic tournament they won this year, either. On August 12, they won the annual Seaside Open, one of the most popular tournaments in the country, which had record attendance and participation this year. And in a whimsical twist of fate, the finals of the Laguna Open featured a rematch of the Seaside finals, with the fifth-seeded Skjodt and Turner matching up with sixth-seeded Delaney Mewhirter and Kelly Reeves.

“Are we in Seaside right now?” Seaside Open tournament director Mike Griffin wondered as the four were warming up. While the location may have shifted, the results did not, with a nearly identical match, as Skjodt and Turner won two close sets, 24-22, 21-19, to finish this portion of the season on the highest of notes.

“This last little stretch of tournaments has been super fun,” said Skjodt, who actually played for Mewhirter at Pepperdine during 2020 and 2021 as a grad transfer from Michigan. “The season has been so long and I’m definitely fatigued, mentally and physically, so to end on a high note even when you’re not feeling your best is of course super rewarding but gives us a little bit of motivation going into this mini offseason before the last few tournaments of the year.”

Next on the domestic schedule for all of the players mentioned above will be the Huntington Beach Tour Series in November, followed by another Tour Series in Clearwater, Fla. before the season finale, a Pro Series event in Tavares, Fla. Turner is set to play in a NORCECA in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, with Torrey Van Winden at the end of the month.

“I didn’t expect this at all,” Turner said. “Winning this was pretty crazy. “I usually go into tournaments with more of a chip on my shoulder but this tournament I just wanted to get confident again and feel like myself again. Carly, of course, balled out as usual.”

Julia Scoles-Hailey Harward-FISU World Beach Championships

Harward, Scoles win FISU World University gold

The 2022 season has been a monumental one for Julia Scoles and Hailey Harward. In May, they won an NCAA Championship, leading USC to its second consecutive title. In July, they met one another in the final of the AVP Pro Series in Fort Lauderdale, where Harward, partnered with Tina Graudina, won her first AVP title. One weekend later? It was Scoles finishing on top, winning the AVP Atlanta Gold Series with Geena Urango.

This past weekend, Scoles and Harward, who are close friends and roommates, were back on the same side of the net, teaming up to win the 2022 FISU World University Championships, held in Maceio, Brazil. They swept Spaniards Daniela Alvarez and Tania Moreno, who played on court one for TCU this past season and finished fifth at the Hamburg Elite 16, to win gold.

Zana Muno-Manhattan Beach Open
Zana Muno goes all out/Mark Rigney photo

AVP Phoenix Championships entry lists

The entry lists for the AVP Gold Series Championships, the first event of its kind, September 23-24 in Phoenix, Arizona, are posted. The men’s field required no wild cards, and all six teams are seeded purely based on their points as a team from their best two finishes of the three Gold Series events this season (Atlanta, Manhattan Beach, Chicago). Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb, victors of both Manhattan and Chicago, lead, followed by Chaim Schalk and Theo Brunner, Taylor Crabb and Taylor Sander, Miles Partain and Paul Lotman, Phil Dalhausser and Casey Patterson, and Troy Field and Chase Budinger.

The women’s field, however, included both of the allotted wild cards, as the AVP awarded Zana Muno and Sarah Pavan, and Julia Scoles and Geena Urango, a berth into the event. Muno had qualified with Brandie Wilkerson, using a pair of third-place finishes in Atlanta and Manhattan Beach to secure her spot. Wilkerson, however, is choosing to focus on the upcoming Volleyball World Elite 16 event in Paris with her international partner, Sophie Bukovec, with whom she won a silver medal at the World Championships. Paris will be held the weekend after Phoenix. Muno was permitted to sub in Pavan, a two-time Olympian and Hermosa Beach resident.

Scoles and Urango, meanwhile, won in Atlanta but finished 13th in Manhattan Beach. They did not get a chance to compete in Chicago, however, as Scoles was preparing for the FISU World University Championships mentioned above.

The remainder of the field is based purely on Gold Series points, with Manhattan Open champs Sara Hughes and Kelley Kolinske topping the field, followed by Hermosa Beach champs Terese Cannon and Sarah Sponcil, New Orleans champs Kelly Cheng and Betsi Flint, and Chicago champs Taryn Kloth and Kristen Nuss.

Penn State’s Michael Valenzi and Ryan Merk won the 2022 USA Volleyball men’s Beach Collegiate Challenge on Sunday, defeating third-seeded Peyten Young and Wesley Blazek of Webber University, 21-16, 25-27, 15-13.

The event was at Stevenson University in Owings Mills, Md.
“It felt great getting to redeem ourselves from last year,” Valenzi told USA Volleyball. “But it felt even better getting to rep Penn State and continue our reign as champions … It’s great getting to show the beach volleyball talent Penn State has since we do not have a beach program.”

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