It’s a new year, the days are getting longer and that means beach season is right around the corner.
And with that comes the alphabet soup of the sport: FIVB/AVP/NVL/NCAA/USAV. What’s more, as is typical in post-Olympic years, partner shuffling has been the order of the day.
FIVB: We’re less than three weeks away from the start of the FIVB, which launches its season in a big way on the shores of Florida, with the five-star Swatch Fort Lauderdale major February 7-12.
Brazilian golden boys Alison Cerutti and Bruno Schmidt are defending champions, having won the 2015 Swatch World Tour finals in Fort Lauderdale on their way to Olympic gold in Rio. Alison/Bruno were the most feared team in 2016, collecting four gold and two silver medals in eight events. They crushed the Olympic qualification process, earning 7,740 points. That was more than 1,200 points than their nearest rivals, Alexander Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen, despite playing four fewer events.
Their 34-year-old countrywomen, Larissa Franca and Talita Antunes, are eager to defend their Fort Lauderdale 2015 title as well. Top Olympic seeds Larissa/Talita were disappointed with their fourth-place finish in Rio, losing to eventual gold medalists Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst in the semifinals, and in three to April Ross and Kerri Walsh Jennings in the bronze-medal match.
Their disappointment seemed to carry forward to the end of 2016, as Larissa/Talita were upset by Liliana Fernandez and Elsa Baquerizo of Spain in Long Beach to finish fifth. Then at FIVB Toronto they finished fourth after losses to Ludwig/Walkenhorst and to Isabelle Forrer and Anouk Verge-Depre of Switzerland.
Larissa is the most skilled player on tour, as evidenced by the 18 awards she has received: FIVB Best Defensive player 2009, 2012, 2014, Best Hitter 2008, 2010, 2016, Best Offensive player 2015, 2016, Best Setter eight times from 2006-2012 and 2014, 2016, and Most Outstanding 2006, 2015.
Talita is one of the most skilled blockers in the world, garnering FIVB Best Blocker award in 2013, Best Hitter in 2013-2015, and Best Offensive Player in 2013. Though undersized at the top echelon of the game at 5-foot-11, she has earned 31 wins on the world stage.
Ludwig, who won the Rio Olympics gold medal with partner Kira Walkenhorst, is at home in Hamburg recovering from an off-season shoulder operation, so Walkenhorst has teamed with Julia Grossner. Ludwig/Walkenhorst not only won gold, but won the world tour finals in Toronto, the European Championship, and earned the most prize money of any team, male or female, last year.
Walkenhorst was named 2016 Best Blocker to go along with her Most Improved and Rookie of the Year awards in 2013. Grossner, a 28-year-old, has played on the tour for two years exclusively with Victoria Bieneck. The pair placed as high as fifth three times, in Antalya, Xiamen, and Lucerne.
Most of the top American contenders have elected to stay together, as April Ross and Kerri Walsh Jennings, Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena, and John Hyden and Tri Bourne have committed to maintaining their existing partnerships for 2017.
Ross and Walsh Jennings won the bronze in Rio, suffering a disappointing loss in the semifinals to Brazil’s Agatha Bednarczuk and Barbara Seixas, but beat top-ranked Larissa/Talita in the bronze-medal match. It culminated a season in which they won five gold, two silver, and two bronze medals.
Dalhausser and Lucena played well in the Olympics, but were knocked out in fifth place with a tough draw against Alison/Bruno, losing in three. They normally would not have had to play Alison/Bruno until the semifinal round, but Alison/Bruno dropped a match in pool to Austrians Clemens Doppler/Alexander Horst, setting up a quarterfinal matchup against Dalhausser/Lucena that ultimately denied them a medal round berth.
Still, Dalhausser/Lucena had one of the best years on tour, with four gold, three silver, and one bronze in 2016. Phil has earned a garage-full of individual awards (27): Best Blocker 2006-08, 2010, 2012, 2014, Best Hitter 2007-10, Best Offensive Player 2008-2010, 2012, Best Server 2014, Best Setter 2009-2012, 2014-16, Most Improved 2006, Most Outstanding 2010, 2013, 2014, Sportsperson 2008.
The ageless John Hyden and his 16-years-younger partner Tri Bourne finished with a silver and three bronze medals in 2016, and failed to qualify for the Olympics due to the country quota system, which prevents more than two teams per country into the draw.
In 2017 players are no longer constrained by the two-year Olympic qualification process, so quite a few new partnerships have been formed.
There are 33 new teams within the 64-team draw for FIVB Fort Lauderdale. Among the Americans, new teams include Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb, Brooke Sweat and Summer Ross, Lauren Fendrick and Sarah Hughes, Casey Patterson and Theo Brunner (qualifier), and Lane Carico and Irene Pollock (qualifer).
Gibb/Patterson elected to dissolve their four year partnership after a disappointing 2016 in which they finished 19th in Rio without a single podium finish (two fourth place, six fifth place finishes in 13 events).
Gibb will partner with former Long Beach star Taylor Crabb, who placed ninth three times last year with brother Trevor. Patterson will join forces with UCSB product Theo Brunner, who finished ninth in Long Beach last year with Billy Allen.
Sweat and Fendrick qualified for the Olympics but didn’t get out of pool play. The pair racked up four fifth-place finishes in 2016.
In Fendrick’s case, she has literally moved on, up to Northern California, where her husband and coach, Andrew Fuller, took the job as beach coach at Stanford. Fendrick will kick off the season with USC senior phenom Sara Hughes, who wowed the volleyball world last year with a ninth in Long Beach and 17th in Klagenfurt with USC senior teammate Kelly Claes. They have not lost in college competition since their sophomore year.
Accordingly, Sweat and Summer Ross will join forces. Sweat is one of the fastest defenders on tour and has benefitted from off-season rest. Ross finished with a fifth last year in Fuzhou, and placed ninth six times with Lane Carico, and gets a significant upgrade in points with Sweat if their chemistry is good.
Speaking of Carico, she is competing in the qualifier with Irene Pollock, a TCU grad with three 17th-place finishes last year with Caitlin Ledoux.
Both of Brazil’s reigning world-championship teams have split. The breakup of Evandro Goncalves and Pedro Solberg led to Solberg partnering with FIVB Top Rookie of 2016 Gustavo Carvalhaes. Carvalhaes had three medal finishes in 2016, including gold in Cincinnati and silver in Klagenfurt. Goncalves will join forces with Andre Loyola Stein. Stein is a 6-7 22-year-old entering his second full year on the tour, after grabbing gold in Fortaleza with Oscar Brandao.
Their female counterparts, Agatha Bednarczuk and Barbara Seixas, have also gone their separate ways. Bednarczuk has chosen young phenom Eduarda Lisboa, who has an impressive resume for an 18-year-old, with FIVB world tour gold medals in Maceio and Fortaleza, three consecutive U19 world championship titles, and a U21 title. Seixas entered Fort Lauderdale with 6-2 blocker Fernanda Alves, who celebrated two gold and one silver last year with Taiana Lima. Seixas/Alves were the victims of Brazil’s success, ranking fifth in the country, unable to participate, but more on that later.
Other new teams for 2017 include a split of Poland’s Grzegorz Fijalek and Mariusz Prudel after a 12-year partnership. Fijalek has teamed with Michal Bryl, Prudel with Kacper Kujawiak. Bryl is a 6-7 22-year-old with a fourth and four fifth-place finishes to his credit in 2016. Kujawiak, also 22, is a 6-2 defender with four fifth-place finishes in 2016.
On the women’s side, new teams include Switzerland’s Joana Heidrich and Anouk Verge-Depre, who both outperformed their Olympic seeds (Heidrich seeded 17th, finished fifth, Verge-Depre seeded 10th, finished ninth), Germany’s powerful Karla Borger and indoor star Maggie Kozuch (2011 Best spiker for Germany in the European championship), and the Netherlands’ Marleen Van Iersel and Manon Nummerdor-Flier. If the name Nummerdor rings a bell, she is the wife of Dutch stalwart Reinder Nummerdor.
The qualification process for the FIVB world tour is different this year, as the country quota matches are gone. Instead, only the top-three ranked teams per country will make the main draw, and the fourth-ranked team is relegated to the qualifier, even if it has enough points to make the main draw, as do Brazilians Alvaro Filho and Saymon Barbosa (2,750 points), Jose Alves/Lili Maestrini (2,100 points), Americans Casey Patterson/Theo Brunner (2,235 points), and Germans Karla Borger/Margareta Kozuch (1,560 points). There will be plenty of powerful teams in the qualifier, to be sure.
If you’re a fifth- or sixth-ranked team, even a world champion like Brazil’s Barbara Seixas and her partner Fernanda Alves? You’re a “reserve” team, hoping for a team to drop out before even making it into the qualifier.
The new system will likely send Brazilians, Americans, and Germans scurrying around the globe to one-, two-, and three-star events in search of enough points to make the main draw in the lucrative three- to five-star events. The system has locked out among the men Americans John Mayer and Ryan Doherty, Stafford Slick and Billy Allen, Sean Rosenthal and Trevor Crabb, Jeremy Casebeer and Reid Priddy, Raffe Paulis and Andrew Dentler, and Philip Burro and Andrew Mallin.
Women looking in include Kelley Larsen and Betsi Flint, Emily Day and Brittany Hochevar, Kelly Claes and Kelly Reeves, Ali McColloch and Kendra Van Zwieten, Whitney Pavlik and Amanda Dowdy, Brittany Tiegs and Jace Pardon, and Kim DiCello and Emily Stockman.
The abundance of new partnerships should provide plenty of early season drama as teams scramble to find the right combinations.
The three-, four-, and five-star events are: (full schedule here)
— Fort Lauderdale Major, USA, February 7-12 (five stars)
— Kish Island, Iran, February 15-18 (three stars)
— Xiamen, China, April 20-23 (three stars)
— Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, May 18-21 (four stars)
— Lucerne, Switzerland, May 23-28 (four stars)
— Moscow, Russia, May 31-June 4, (three stars)
— Rome, Italy, June 6-11 (five stars)
— Porec Major, Croatia, June 27-July 2 (five stars)
— Gstaad Major, Switzerland, July 4-9 (five stars)
— Olstyn, Poland, July 19-23 (four stars)
— World Championships, Vienna Austria, July 28-August 6
— Hamburg Major, Germany, August 8-13 (five stars)
— Swatch World tour finals, Canada, August 23-27
— Qinzhou, China, October 11-15 (three stars)
— Phuket, Thailand, October 19-22 (three stars)
AVP: The organization released its entire schedule in December, adding Hermosa Beach and Austin, while dropping New Orleans (which kicked off the season the past two years) and Cincinnati.
— Huntington Beach, May 4-7
— Austin, May 18-21
— New York, June 8-11
— Seattle, June 22-25
— San Francisco, July 6-9
— Hermosa Beach, July 20-23
— Manhattan Beach, August 17-20
— Chicago, August 31-September 3
NVL: The NVL will be heading into its seventh professional season and will have at least six events. The tour will start in May and end with the players championships in mid-September at Club Med NVL Academy. Locations confirmed so are San Antonio, Hermosa Beach, Virginia Beach, Port St. Lucie, and CEO Al-B Hannemann reports that there are at least two others that are nearly finalized.
“I am thrilled to be heading into our seventh professional season with a lot of momentum”, Hannemann said. “The level of play has increased dramatically on tour year after year and our athletes have been incredible with fans and sponsors helping to grow the sport together. With the expansion of college beach volleyball and another successful Olympic games beach volleyball has never been bigger. The only challenge has been keeping up with the growth but that is a good problem to have.”
NCAA: The inaugural NCAA Beach Championships were held in Gulf Shores, Ala., where the event previously was conducted by the AVCA. USC beat Florida State for the team title.
Although NCAA beach teams have been practicing since November, competition doesn’t kick in until March. The season kicks off with a vengeance on March 4-5, it’s a busy weekend:
The Pepperdine tournament will feature Pepperdine, USC, and UCLA.
The Arizona State tournament features Arizona State, Arizona, Florida State, South Carolina, Grand Canyon, CMU, and New Mexico.
Arizona hosts Arizona, Jacksonville, Hawaii Pacific, Cal, Cal Poly, TCU.
UNF hosts Georgia State, UNCW, FIU, Austin Peay, and Spring Hill College.
Stetson hosts LSU, Florida State, Florida Atlantic.
San Jose State hosts USF.
Stanford hosts Pacific, Cal Poly, Cal.
Long Beach hosts Irvine Valley, CSU Bakersfield.
USAV U21 trials: After three days of trials in Chula Vista, Kathryn Plummer and Mima Mirkovic and Clay Messenger and Adam Wienckowski qualified as the USA representatives for the FIVB U21 beach championships July 11-16 in Nanjing, China.
Plummer is the 6-foot-6 freshman star for Stanford’s NCAA-championship indoor team, while Mirkovic is a Cal commit. The depth in junior volleyball has never been more evident, as Plummer/Mirkovic were tested several times, needing three sets to get by USC 2017-18 commits Haley Hallgren and Sammy Slater 21-18, 14-21, 15-7, and Savannah Simo and Torrey Van Winden of UCLA 17-21, 21-14, 23-21.
Second-ranked Messenger/Wienckowski, Floridians, who play for the Jax Beach volleyball club, needed three sets to get by UCSB commit Will Bantle and Pepperdine commit Rob Mullahey in the semifinals 14-21, 24-22, 15-12. They beat top-ranked Marcus and Miles Partain of Pacific Palisades 19-21, 21-16, 15-6 in the final.
Pepperdine’s Marcio Sicoli and former pro beach star Jose Loiola have been chosen as USA coaches for the world championships.