The revolving door that was the entry list to AVP Central Florida, which begins this Friday in Tavares, has, alas, seemed to stop.

The only question remaining after last week was what the AVP would do with the spot taken by Miles Evans and Andy Benesh. Evans is currently in Australia with Paul Lotman, prepping for the upcoming Volleyball World Torquay Elite 16, while Benesh has settled into off-season mode. The final trickle-down main draw bid, then, went to perhaps the most fitting team: Caleb Kwekel and Dylan Zacca, the second Florida-based men’s team in the draw, the other being Dave Palm and Rafu Rodriguez. They earned their main-draw slot via a ninth at the Tour Series in Huntington Beach, where they fell to eventual semifinalists Logan Webber and Seain Cook.

Tavares is a notable location for Kwekel, who technically made his first professional main draw there as an 18-year-old in the USA Volleyball King of the Beach event. This year, the 20-year-old has qualified for three Pro or Gold Series main draws — Austin with Marty Lorenz, Manhattan Beach with Ian Satterfield, and now Central Florida. Zacca, on the other hand, a 20-year-old native of Pembroke Pines, is making his Pro or Gold Series debut, although he has enjoyed fair success in the Tour Series events, with ninths in Muskegon, Atlantic City, and Huntington Beach, and a seventh in Virginia Beach.

Caleb Kwekel
Caleb Kwekel passes a ball at the USA Volleyball King of the Beach

AVP Central Florida: More than an AVP tournament

The Pro Series in Central Florida, which will be at Hickory Point Beach, is not the only event happening at that venue this weekend. The tournament will coincide with World ParaVolley, a global organization that partners with the International Paralympic Committee that educates and develops sports opportunities for people with a physical impairment.

“We’re ready to show our support and welcome the AVP and World ParaVolley organizations, athletes, and spectators to Tavares, America’s Seaplane City,” Director of Discover Lake County, Florida Ryan Ritchie said in a news release. “Our partners at USA Volleyball Florida Region have done an incredible job making Hickory Point Beach the perfect place to host thousands of spectators and athletes. We hope visitors will discover the awe Tavares has to offer with their unique downtown and enjoy watching seaplanes fly overhead while they compete.”

Jackson Hyden: The Hero Tennessee Deserves

Last week, John Hyden and his family were recognized by the city of Franklin, Tenn. and its fire chief for saving the life of their neighbor, Sheri. Here’s the full story, as told by Hyden, who will be competing this weekend in AVP Central Florida with Tri Bourne, on his Instagram account, which was actually more likely told by his wife, Robyn, who probably runs his Instagram account:

“On October 17th my son, Jackson ran into the house and yelled to come quick, our neighbor Sheri had a heart attack. Robyn yelled to me to call 911 and ran out the door. I grabbed my phone and followed behind them. When i got there Robyn was turning Sheri over onto her back. She had blood coming out of the side of her head and was starting to turn blue. Robyn checked her pulse and put her head on her chest. No pulse and she wasn’t breathing. As I was on the phone talking to the 911 operator, Robyn started CPR (no she is not CPR certified ). After a few attempts of chest compressions and mouth to mouth, we were able to get her breathing again. When the Fire dept arrived Sheri opened her eyes and regained consciousness. Later we found out that Sheri didn’t have a heart attack, but her heart medicine had lowered her heart rate so much so that she got dizzy while she was walking her dog, lost consciousness and fell face first onto the sidewalk.
We were all recognized by the city of Franklin and the Fire chief, for saving our neighbors life. Needless to say, it was a life changing moment for all of us. Especially for Jack.”

Kelly Cheng-Sara Hughes
Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes celebrate a point at the Torquay Challenge/Volleyball World photo

Torquay Challenge Notebook

In case you missed it, Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes won gold last weekend at the Torquay Challenge, their first international event since reuniting in mid-October. We have the full story on that here. But there were various other notable tidbits throughout the weekend, all of which you can find below.

Asia Rising: For the first seven months of the Beach Pro Tour season, Asia had been conspicuously absent from the podiums at the Challenge and Elite 16 levels. The only team, in fact, to bring home any hardware was Australia’s Mariafe Artacho and Taliqua Clancy — Australia is, obviously, its own continent, but competes continentally in Asia — who went on a torrid run in the middle of the year, winning silver in Kusadasi (Turkey), bronze in Gstaad (Switzerland) and gold in Espinho (Portugal), all in just two months. As for the other Asian countries? Nothing from China, once a powerhouse that won a pair of Olympic medals in Beijing. Nothing from Japan. Nothing from Thailand or New Zealand.

Until this fall, that is.

It’s been a huge month for Asian countries, with three consecutive Challenge events featuring at least one Asian team on the podium: Meimei Lin and Xinyi Xia of China won silver in Dubai, Worapeerachayakorn Kongphopsarutawadee and Taravadee Naraphornrapat of Thailand claimed bronze in the second Dubai Challenge. In Torquay last weekend, it was total Chinese dominance. Four Chinese teams claimed top five finishes, with Jie Dong and Lvwen Yuan winning silver, Lin and Xia taking bronze, and Xinxin Wang and Jinjin Zeng, and Fan Wang and Lingdi Zhu both finishing fifth. Also representing Asia in the quarterfinals was Australia’s Jasmine Fleming and Georgia Johnson, who finished a career-best fifth.

Italian mix-ups off to an excellent start: Adrian Carambula told everyone to ‘get your popcorn ready’ in the leadup to the Torquay Challenge, where he and Alex Ranghieri, former partners, would be making their debut as a rekindled team. Well, he delivered on the hype, making the finals, where he played, per the Beach Volleyball Universe rules, his former partner, Enrico Rossi, and his new partner, Daniele Lupo, who used to play with — guess who? — Ranghieri.

Nothing like a battle of beach volleyball karma. It was Rossi and Lupo who prevailed, winning 21-17, 21-18 in the all-Italian final, something the Italian Federation must be pleased with as Paris qualification nears. The only Italian team to make a final this year — or medal, for that matter — had been Sam Cottafava and Paolo Nicolai, who won a silver medal at the Doha (Qatar) Challenge and gold at the Jurmala (Latvia) Elite 16 (they also won bronze at the Paris Elite 16).

“I hope this is just the beginning,” Rossi said after winning gold. “It’s a dream — first tournament, first medal, first gold. It was weird for us, because we played against our friends and it was a difficult match. But it was a great match and maybe next week we’ll have another one.”

Welcome back to the beach, Maki: Marketa Slukova, one of the most accomplished players in Czech Republic beach volleyball history, has made her return to the beach, just five months after giving birth to her daughter, Maya. The three-time Olympian picked up indoor star Helena Havelkova, and in two events together, they’ve taken a ninth at the Cape Town Elite 16, and a fifth in the Torquay Challenge. The return of Slukova — known to most as Maki — is good news for the Czech Federation, which now has two teams who are bona fide contenders to qualify for the Paris Olympics, the other being Barbora Hermannova and Marie-Sara Stochlova, who are currently ranked No. 22 in the world.

(For the full World Rankings, here you go)

Australian men rising: The Australian women have long been a power in beach volleyball. Beginning with the inaugural Olympic Games in 1996, when Natalie Cook and Kerri Pottharst won bronze, nary has an Olympics gone by in which the Aussies were not serious contenders to podium (Cook and Pottharst, in fact, would win gold in 2000). But the Australian men have never been much of a legitimate threat at the highest level (although it should be noted that Chris McHugh and Damien Schumann — now an excellent commentator for Volleyball TV — gave Anders Mol and Christian Sorum a mighty scare in pool play in Tokyo).

There has been a notable shift this season, as McHugh and his new partner, Paul Burnett, have quickly become one of the world’s most physical teams. After winning the 2021 Asian Championships, stunning Qatar’s Cherif Samba and Ahmed Tijan, they’ve won a silver medal at the Kusadasi Challenge, fourth at the Agadir Challenge, and added a bronze medal to the resume in Torquay, as well as a silver at this year’s Asian Championships, which were reclaimed by Samba and Tijan.

But the depth goes far beyond McHugh and Burnett now, as rookies Mark Nicolaidis and Izac Carracher have jumped up to No. 28 in the world, with a gold medal at the Coolangatta (Australia) Futures — their first event — ninth at the World Championships, two more top 10s in Elite 16s in Paris and Cape Town, and a fifth last weekend in Torquay. Upstarts Thomas Hodges and Zach Schubert, too, whose style of play more resembles the bruising physicality of McHugh and Burnett, have made a run up the ranks, with a pair of Futures medals (in Italy and Slovenia), and now three consecutive Challenge fifths, twice in Dubai and again in Torquay.

Australia now has two teams ranked above the United States’ No. 1 — Chaim Schalk and Theo Brunner — and another ahead of the United States’ No. 2 — Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb.

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Paul Burnett-Chris McHugh-Australia beach volleyball
Chris McHugh and Paul Burnett celebrate a bronze medal at the Torquay Challenge/Volleyball World photo

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