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American women shine in La Paz; Caldwell readjusting to beach with big Miami wins

There wasn’t a single element of Savvy Simo and Toni Rodriguez’s season-opening tournament, an Elite 16 in Doha in early February, that could be described as normal. They had bought their flights when they weren’t even sure if they were in the event. Rodriguez hadn’t competed since a knee injury ended her season prematurely last May at AVP New Orleans. Their pre-season had only just begun.

And they were supposed to play an Elite 16?

When they finally did board the flight bound for Qatar, they did so slightly unsure. They knew they weren’t fully prepared to compete in an Elite 16, the world’s highest level … but they also knew that no matter what happened, their points, both Olympic and entry, would receive a boost. And so they went, matching up against familiar foes in Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth, Rodriguez’s teammates at LSU, and the very team against whom she ended her 2022 season.

They lost in three, and in 47 minutes — or roughly two percent of their total travel time just to get to Doha in the first place — their tournament was over.

This week looks nothing like that strange time-warp of a tournament a month and a half ago. This week looks like a team who has had a pre-season, one who has ironed out the kinks and winkles accumulated over nearly eight months without competing together. One who looks like they knew that this was a tournament they’d be playing, not a last-second roll of the dice around the world.

In two days at the Volleyball World La Paz Challenge in Mexico, Simo and Rodriguez have won four matches. They’ve toppled Lena Plesiutschnig and Katharina Schutzenhofer, Austria’s top team, as well as Valentina Gottardi and Marta Menegatti, Italy’s No. 1 who finished fifth at last year’s World Championships. They’ve swept Germany’s Karla Borger and Sandra Ittlinger and won their pool, earning a stadium court bout with Mexico’s Abril Flores and Atenas Gutierrez at 1 p.m. Pacific on Saturday for a shot at the quarterfinals.

“We were a little bit nervous and the past couple weeks we’ve been focused on being mindful and not everything is clicking in practice,” Rodriguez said. “To come out here and be so connected and feel so good about what we’re doing — we’re playing really good but we have so much more. We can keep on dialing in what we’re doing. It’s just super exciting.”

Savvy Simo-Toni Rodriguez-La Paz Challenge
Savvy Simo and Toni Rodriguez celebrate a point at the La Paz Challenge/Volleyball World photo

Rodriguez and Simo are one of three American teams to win their pool on Friday, joining Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes, and Nuss and Kloth. The only losses suffered by any American team in La Paz has been friendly fire, as Emily Stockman and Megan Kraft were felled by Nuss and Kloth, and Hailey Harward and Kelley Kolinske by Cheng and Hughes. Those civil wars came in the second round of pool, when the only thing on the line was seeding come bracket play.

Of the 16 teams remaining, then, five are from the USA.

“I love the fact that we’ve been playing all these other countries,” Rodriguez said.

She’ll have at least one more opportunity to play international pairs, potentially two, should they win against Mexico. Hughes and Cheng, however, could play Stockman and Kraft, should they both win their first round of playoffs, and Nuss and Kloth could do the same with Kolinske and Harward.

It is the best of problems to have for USA Volleyball, and one that, unfortunately, is no problem at all for the men.

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Trevor Crabb and Theo Brunner celebrate a point at the La Paz Challenge/Volleyball World photo

Only Theo Brunner and Trevor Crabb remain in the tournament for the men. Bill Kolinske and Hagen Smith were knocked out in the first round of the qualifier — fast enough for them to make it to AVP Miami, where they won their first round — and Evan Cory and Logan Webber fell in the second. Tri Bourne and Chaim Schalk went 0-2 in pool play, losing to Brazilians Evandro Goncalves and Arthur Mariano, and France’s Julien Lyneel and Remi Bassereau.

Brunner and Crabb lost a tight opening match to the Netherlands’ Stefan Boermans and Yorick de Groot (21-16, 19-21, 11-15) but rebounded with a convincing win over Portugal’s Joao Pedrosa and Hugo Campos (21-16, 21-16).

Click here for the Volleyball World La Paz Challenge results and schedule.
Geena Urango attacks against Megan Gebhard/Rick Atwood photo

AVP Miami: Cody Caldwell readjusts well to the beach

Cody Caldwell didn’t expect to be playing beach volleyball at this time of year. He barely expected to be in the United States. It has still been less than a week since he returned from the Prime Volleyball League, India’s upstart professional indoor league where Caldwell plays outside hitter for the Kolkata Thunderbolts.

He figured he’d get back to Newport Beach, California, take a month or so off, and train his body for a beach season that typically begins in early May.

“But then [the AVP] came out with the schedule, and I did not expect it to be this early,” Caldwell said. “There’s not that many tournaments we get to play in a year, I’m not going to miss out because I need a little break. I’m healthy enough and strong enough to go at it so why not.”

Why not, indeed.

Reunited with Chase Frishman, another Orange County native, Caldwell and Frishman upset sixth-seeded Dave Palm and Rafu Rodriguez (25-23, 21-17) then stunned No. 3 seed Chase Budinger and Miles Evans (21-19, 21-16), setting up a quarterfinal bout with Phil Dalhausser and Troy Field.

“We wanted to get together and try a couple tournaments to see,” said Frishman, who played most of 2022 with Avery Drost. “We had a couple good tournaments together a couple years ago. I’ve always toyed with the idea. We had the chance to give it a go and I’m fired up to play with a friend, play with a good player. It was a super fun day, it was awesome.”

Regardless of what happens on Saturday and Sunday, Caldwell is sitting on a career-high finish in a Pro or Gold Series, though he did win the Atlantic City Tour Series defending for David Lee last summer. Miami will mark Frishman’s highest finish since a third at the Hermosa Beach Open in 2017.

“I thought it was going to be sloppy for a couple days,” Caldwell said. “I thought I was going to have to double the ball for a few days, my setting was going to be weird. Just changes would be different. But setting was normal, fine. The wind was different but I felt good with it.”

The only other upset on the day for the men was No. 13 Jake Urrutia and Ian Satterfield coming back to beat Billy Allen and Andy Benesh (16-21, 21-19, 15-12), a victory that marks Urrutia’s first in a main draw.

Other than that, it was mostly a chalk walk. Taylor Crabb and Taylor Sander swept both Charlie Siragusa and Jordan Hoppe (21-7, 21-8) and Bill Kolinske and Hagen Smith (23-21, 21-18). Phil Dalhausser and Troy Field swept Pete Connole and Steve Roschitz (21-14, 21-18) and mounted a comeback to beat seventh-seeded Paul Lotman and Silila Tucker (18-21, 21-15, 15-12), who are playing in their first event together.

Tim Brewster and Kyle Friend, the No. 5 seed, benefitted from an injury to Piotr Marciniak, who had to forfeit with Tim Bomgren after winning the first set 21-19. Brewster and Friend capitalized, winning their next over Urrutia and Satterfield (21-17, 21-19) to make their fifth straight quarterfinal beginning with the Virginia Beach Tour Series in late August.

Kim Hildreth and Teegan Van Gunst were the only women’s team to engineer any unexpected results, topping seventh-seeded Deahna Kraft and Kaitlyn Malaney (21-12, 21-14) in the first round. The match of the day, however, was the slugfest that was Lili and Larissa Maestrini’s victory over Carly Skjodt and Geena Urango in the second round (25-23, 19-21, 19-17). The Maestrinis will meet Canadians Melissa Humana-Paredes and Brandie Wilkerson in the quarterfinals, while No. 2 Terese Cannon and Sarah Sponcil will play No. 3 Betsi Flint and Julia Scoles, both of whom enjoyed a stress-free day in which neither of their opponents scored more than 15 in any set.

Click here for the AVP results and schedule.

Chase Frishman leaps over Cody Caldwell to try to make the save at AVP Miami/Rick Atwood photo