The wacky, wild and wonderful 2019 beach volleyball year in review

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Taylor Crabb runs down a high line at the 2019 World Championships in Hamburg, Germany/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

I was sitting in a second-story hotel room at the Quality Inn in Huntington Beach, my mom long knocked out on the other bed, when the first one happened. On the screen in front of me was a livestream of Adrian Carambula and a blocker named Enrico Rossi that few outside of Italy had ever heard of.

And they were laying waste to Ryan Doherty and John Hyden.

Then they did it again, in the semifinals, against Stafford Slick and Billy Allen, before the magic — or the “Dark Arts” as Slick dubbed the dizzying, dirty, streetball style of Carambula, his old AVP partner — ran out, in the finals against Chile’s Grimalt cousins, Marco and Esteban.

“It seemed,” I wrote that Sunday night, “the gimmick was up.”

But it wasn’t. The gimmick of Carambula was not up. It wasn’t up for anyone, man or woman, Italian or American, Brazilian or German or Latvian or Norwegian or Canadian. It wasn’t up on the AVP or FIVB.

The year 2019 was one of the has-beens and shrugged-offs, of the gimmicks and flukes, long-shots and absurdities, of the “did that really just happen?” in all of the best ways possible.

Carambula was the one who broke the dam, the swaggering, sky-balling sensation who qualified for the Rio Olympics, confounded the uninitiated Olympic viewers for a week, and then altogether disappeared. He didn’t make a single main draw in 2018. It would have been so easy to write him off then, for gimmicky systems, with their unusual trickery and oddities, the history of sports has proven, time and time again, don’t last long. They get figured out. The game evolves. And the gimmick gets left behind.

And then Carambula and Rossi took that silver medal, parlayed it into a fourth in Xiamen, where they took down, in succession, opponents that included the 2017 World Champ (Brazilian Andre Loyola), German and eventual Most Improved Team of the Year, Julius Thole and Clemens Wickler, the second-ranked team on the planet (Poland’s Michal Bryl, Grzegorz Fijalek) and bowed out only to Russian’s Oleg Stoyanovskiy and Viacheslav Krasilnikov and Qatar jumping beans Cherif Samba and Ahmed Tijan.

Let’s pause for a moment, while we’re near the topic of those German kids.

Before this freakish 2019 season, they were, when measured by standards of elite World Tour teams, not the most formidable of draws. They had only medaled once, in Espinho, Portugal, but it was in Hamburg of 2018, their home tournament, site of the World Championships, that they first drew attention as a team that could be. There, they’d beat 2016 silver medalists Daniele Lupo and Paolo Nicolai, knocked out all of Latvia — Aleksandrs Samoilovs and Janis Smedins, Martins Plavins and Edgars Tocs – and, in the semifinals, pushed beach volleyball’s other wunderkinds, Anders Mol and Christian Sorum, to three. Later that day, they’d blow a 12-8 lead to Poland’s Piotr Kantor and Bartosz Losiak to lose the bronze medal, but the message seemed clear: They could compete.

Or could they? Any further evidence would suggest they were a middling team with loads of potential getting a nice hometown boost on the biggest stage of the season. Until they returned to Hamburg a year later. This time around, they’d beat those Norwegians, and anybody else who might be favored to win an Olympic medal: Alex Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen, Alison Cerruti and Alvaro Filho, Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena. Their only loss came in the gold-medal match, to Krasilnikov and Stoyanovskiy, and even that came in three. Then they’d win bronze in Moscow and pluck another silver at the World Tour Finals, again only losing to Russia.

The German kids were no fluke at all.

Neither, it is important to note, while we’re discussing beach volleyball in that country, is the face of German beach volleyball.

Germany’s Laura Ludwig digs at the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships in Vienna/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

After winning gold in the 2016 Olympics — and $191,187 in prize money that year — and then a pair of golds to close the 2017 season, Laura Ludwig took a year and a half off. She became a mother, giving birth to a son named Teo, whom the Beach Major Series dubbed the “beach volleyball prince.” Meanwhile, her partner, Kira Walkenhorst, retired — and has since un-retired — and the easy thing to do would have been to write off any potential of a Ludwig return. Already in her career, she had been to three Olympics, twice won the FIVB Best Defensive Player, won her Olympic gold, won Team of the Year, won Tour Champion, made more than a million.

It would have seemed the perfect time to ease into a new phase of life, particularly when her first eight events of the 2019 season, partnered with a 33-year-old named Margareta Kozuch, who had only won a single medal on the World Tour, included four 25th-place finishes. And then, in just three events, two of which they came out of the qualifier, the entire narrative shifted.

A fifth in Vienna preceded a ninth in Moscow which preceded, against all odds and any logical sense, as the No. 20 seed, a gold medal at the World Tour Finals.

Perhaps, however, we shouldn’t have been so surprised by this. After all, Ludwig was not the first Olympic gold medalist-turned mother to return to the World Tour and win an event. She wasn’t even the first to do so that season.

A little less than a year prior to Ludwig winning gold at the World Tour Finals, Kerri Walsh Jennings announced that she’d be making a run at a sixth Olympics, and that she would be doing so with Brooke Sweat.

She’d be making this run after bearing three children and even twice as many shoulder surgeries, after launching a new company — p1440 — after a 2018 season in which she played six FIVBs and didn’t come home with any medals.

Had Vegas odds-makers been doing the books, Walsh Jennings and Sweat would have been considered far from favorites to qualify — let alone win gold — for Tokyo in a race that included April Ross and the rapidly improving Alix Klineman, youngsters Sara Hughes and Summer Ross, Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes, and Kelley Larsen and Emily Stockman.

And then, in April, when the four-stars began in earnest and Walsh Jennings and Sweat began at the bottom of the ladder, in country quotas and qualifiers, a lesson was quickly administered to the beach volleyball world: No one should ever count out a three-time gold medalist. No matter the age or previous injuries or however many children she’s had or whatever business endeavors she may be pursuing. Beginning with the Xiamen four-star, Walsh Jennings and Sweat picked up five straight top-10 finishes, winning silver in Kuala Lumpur and gold in Jinjiang.

Equally as important: They went 4-2 against American teams, establishing themselves, earlier than any could have expected, given that they were still in qualifiers, as the second-best United States team in the race, behind only Ross and Klineman.

What a funny concept that is, too: For all the justified hype and discussion there is on the youth movement on the women’s side, it is the veterans who remain at the helm, while the inverse remains true for the men.

This was supposed to be the Olympic race that opened the doors to the next generation of American beach volleyball, with Hughes and Ross and Sponcil and Claes and Larsen and Stockman and Betsi Flint. And yet, here we are, with 37-year-old, two-time Olympian April Ross and 30-year-old Alix Klineman, 41-year-old Walsh Jennings and 33-year-old Sweat, sitting in the driver’s seat for Tokyo.

There is, of course, much reason to be excited about the youth in the U.S., and the world beyond.

A glance at AVP Hermosa, where three teams came out of the qualifier and made the semifinals, is really all one needs. There, 47th-seeded Zana Muno, from UCLA, and Crissy Jones, who played indoors and beach at Washington before transferring to Cal Poly,  captured the eyes of the beach volleyball nation, storming through the qualifier and into the semifinals. There, Torrey Pines high schoolers Megan Kraft and Delaynie Maple blitzed through to the quarterfinals, falling only to two teams who made Sunday.

Hermosa marked the final event of the year for Maple and Kraft. They had high school to attend. But it was only the beginning for Muno and Jones, who proved, as so many teams would throughout this wild and frenetic and unpredictable and zany beach volleyball season, to be no fluke. They’d take three straight top-10s after their breakthrough in Hermosa Beach, becoming the face of this new college generation, one that is revolutionizing the look, quite literally, of the AVP Tour on the women’s side.

Theirs, however, is a brand new look. One we haven’t seen before. The men’s side, on the other hand, enjoyed a breakthrough of the retro variety.

Yes, Troy Field could have been viewed as one of the game’s bigger gimmicks coming into this season. Here was a kid who jumped higher than most human beings should, killing balls with a wild windmill he’d break out for no immediately apparent reason, other than because he could, while wearing a pink hat that the old school types would argue should be retired in the Beach Volleyball Hall of Fame, right next to a portrait of Karch Kiraly. His highest career finish, heading into the season, was a ninth.

And then, partnered with the consummately consistent Tim Bomgren, he made three consecutive Sundays, in Huntington, Austin and New York, where he fell in the finals to Dalhausser and Lucena. Only once did he finish worse than his previous career-high, and there is something to be said for the fact that a seventh, in Hawai’i, appears to be a disappointing finish despite that, a year before, he had never claimed a finish that high.

Billy Kolinske leaps the courtside banners in an attempt to play a dig at AVP Manhattan Beach/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

So no, Field is no fluke or gimmick. Neither is his buddy, Eric Beranek, the one who knocked him out of Hawai’i. He, too, would have been easy to write off. There was no arguing his upside, but in August, more than halfway through the season, Beranek had taken a pair of 13ths and a 25th. And then, with Bill Kolinske in Manhattan Beach, coming out of the qualifier, Beranek won nine of 10 matches, five of which went three, and suddenly the 23-year-old out of Redondo Beach, whose explosiveness is one of the few that can rival Field’s, was in his first AVP semifinal.

He and Kolinske lost, to Chase Budinger and Casey Patterson, who had a phenomenal year in their own right, but it took three sets all the same. Two events later, they closed the season in Hawai’i with a fifth. In 14 AVP events prior to the 2019 season, Beranek had finished in the top-20 just three times.

In the final three events of 2019, he finished in the top-10 twice.

But Beranek and Kolinske, as wild a story as they authored, were not the story of the 2019 Manhattan Beach Open.

That belonged exclusively, and inarguably, to Trevor Crabb and Reid Priddy. Of all the weird and unpredictable this 2019 season brought us, they lay claim to the weirdest and most unpredictable. The former rivals, whose distaste for one another was widely circulated either on Instagram or podcasts or both, turned teammates out of both necessity and an undeniable truth that they could be quite good.

Crabb’s partner, Tri Bourne, had broken his hand in the FIVB Vienna Major, and Priddy had recently cut ties with his partner, Theo Brunner. It was Rich Lambourne, the coach of Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb, who threw the two into a group text.

“Crabb-Priddy 2019 on the Manhattan Beach Pier?” he suggested.

And then, of course, it happened, because this was the 2019 beach volleyball season where not much really seemed to make a whole lot of sense. Even the one aspect of this sport that made sense still managed to defy any semblance of rationality and reason.

There was no question, at the beginning of this season, who was the best team in the world: Norway’s Anders Mol and Christian Sorum. In 2018, their first full season on the World Tour, they pulled off the unprecedented in sweeping the majors: Gstaad, Vienna, Hamburg. To expect them to have a season that wasn’t only similar in success, but immeasurably better, would have been unwise, at the very least.

Dalhausser, who has played on the World Tour for 15 years, has said, a number of times, that this is the deepest he has ever seen it. And then Mol and Sorum turned the World Tour into two classifications: Norway, and Everybody Else.

Eight times did those boys finish atop the podium, and thrice more did they finish with a medal. Their worst finish was fifth, one of which came in January, at The Hague, when Mol was operating on a bum knee that would keep him out for six weeks.

There is no explaining that type of dominance, in an era of this sport that shouldn’t allow for such unmitigated success. But there isn’t much explaining a whole lot about this 2019 season, be it on the FIVB or AVP.

There is no explaining a similar type of dominance in the United States by back-to-back Team of the Year Gibb and Crabb, who made it a peculiar habit to start as slow as humanly possible and still, somehow, always get away with it. They did it in Huntington and Austin and Chicago before, in Crabb’s hometown of Hawai’i, pushing the perimeters of just how slowly they could start and figure out a way to win.

They found themselves down 20-15 in the second set of the final match of the final event of the season. They were down to a team that, hilariously, had come out of the qualifier: Brunner and John Hyden.

Hyden’s story was an improbability of its own, a 47-year-old who was looking to break his own record of oldest to win an AVP title. An hour before the final, Brunner had put up a picture of his partner, who was laying prone on a training table, looking as prepared to go to the hospital as he was to an AVP title match. And then Hyden did that Hyden Thing he’s been doing for nearly three decades, building up a five-point cushion at the freeze.

But Crabb then did that Crabb Thing he’d been doing all year. He woke up, made plays that called for DJ Jeremy Roueche to play Sean Rosenthal’s signature Superman theme music, and 78 minutes later, Crabb and Gibb had battled back from down 15-20 in the second set to winning the most improbable match of an improbable season, 18-21, 22-20, 17-15.

It made no sense and it made all of the sense, because this was year of the weird, where the gimmicks weren’t gimmicks, the flukes weren’t flukes, and the long shots and upstarts and restarts just found a way.

Dark Arts, did you say it was, Stafford Slick, that began this whole mess?

Nah.

It was just 2019.

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