Pro beach so far: Brazil dominates, Phil and Nick stand out, plenty of intrigue

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Brazil's Agatha Bednarczuk won gold at FIVB Rio with youthful Eduarda Lisboa/FIVB photo

After FIVB Fort Lauderdale and FIVB Rio and AVP Huntington Beach and AVP Austin, what have we learned so far about the pro beach season?

Let’s start with the international side.

No. 1: Brazil is really, really good in February.

In Fort Lauderdale in February, Brazil finished first, second, fifth, fifth, ninth on the women’s side, and first, second, fifth, 17th, and 25th on the men’s. That’s a lot of early season hardware. It’s tough to overcome the Southern-hemisphere-we’re-in-mid-season-form thing.

Brazil’s depth is frightening, as illustrated by the fact that qualifiers Saymon Barbosa and Alvaro Filho came out of the qualifier to win the five-star Fort Lauderdale men’s draw.

No. 2: Brazil is still darned good in May.

Sure, the Brazilians are not as dominant as they were in February, but they’re still taking every other country’s lunch money.

In Rio, Brazilian women collected $46,000 of the $150,000 total purse, compared to Canada at $19,000, Germany at $15,000, and the USA at $8,000. Brazil’s men weren’t quite as dominant, keeping $37,000 of their $150,000 purse within Brazil, compared to Poland at $22,000, Italy at $20,000, and the USA at $14,000.

No. 3: Where is the U.S. of A.? It’s early, based on an early season February tournament and an event that overlapped with a domestic event, but so far it looks like we’re a step down from Brazil.

Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena are certainly a top-four team and a threat to win every tournament. Forty-four-year-old John Hyden and partner Ryan Doherty are enjoying a nice renaissance, with fourth- and fifth-place finishes. How does Hyden do it? His secret: Be a deceptive enough spiker that nobody serves you in the life of your career. Ever. Our very unofficial statistics show that Hyden’s partners have taken 20,228 swings versus 13 for Hyden. Expect to see Hyden bump-setting his partner at the 2028 Olympics.

Casey Patterson and Theo Brunner (ninth in Fort Lauderdale, fourth in Rio) and Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb (fifth in Fort Lauderdale) look good and have upside as their teamwork improves throughout the season. Both are threats to break through if they make those one or two critical plays at the right time.

No. 4: The women’s side is as clear as mud.

The USA’s most feared team, Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross, has split, citing irreconcilable differences in tour choice. Walsh Jennings has taken on veteran Nicole Branagh, while Ross is with 2016 Olympian Lauren Fendrick. Both teams are unquestionably very good, but will they be great? Great enough to contend with Brazil’s Talita Antunes and Larissa Franca, Agatha Bednarczuk and youthful phenom Eduarda Lisboa, or the rebuilt shoulder of Germany’s Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst?

As good as Branagh and Fendrick are, they lack the pedigree that only Walsh Jennings and Ross shared in recent years, and one might well think that their split is a missed opportunity for both.

2016 Olympian Brooke Sweat and Summer Ross finished fourth at Fort Lauderdale, but have not competed since. They are scheduled for the Moscow three-star May 31-June 4.

Behind them, three-time USC national champions Sara Hughes and Kelly Claes kicked off their pro careers with a fifth place worth $6,000 in Rio. They have had access to first-rate training facilities and coaching at USC, and with a collegiate record of 147-4, count on them to improve as they acclimate to the pro tour.

The AVP has gotten off to a good start, despite contract disputes and weather issues.

Let’s see what the outlook is like on the domestic tour:

No. 1: The AVP is off to a good start. The vast majority of the players have happily signed four-year contracts, averting a threatened AVP shutdown. Walsh Jennings, Summer Ross, Sweat, Bill Kolinske, and Robbie Page have not signed on. Judging from the excellent crowds at Huntington Beach and Austin, fan response has been impressive, refusing to be dampened by a bit of wind and rain.

No. 2: The NVL, now aligned with Leonard Armato and the World Series of Beach Volleyball, also known as the FIVB President’s Cup, canceled two earlier scheduled events in Dallas and San Antonio and will kick off in Long Beach July 13-16. Armato recently reached an agreement with ESPN, which calls for the Worldwide Leader to show three events in 2018. The NVL currently has four events scheduled for 2017, but details of the ESPN deal are forthcoming.

No. 3: Dalhausser and Lucena are the front-runners for 2017.

Duh.

Two domestic events, 10 matches, 20 of 21 sets, two championships. Average margin of victory: 5.3 points per set. Sure, Austin was missing three teams, but the smart money is on Dalhausser and Lucena. Not to say that they can’t be beat, or that they won’t be beat, but the race is for second.

Brunner and Patterson are nipping at their heels, as are Doherty and Hyden. Gibb and Taylor Crabb, Sean Rosenthal and Trevor Crabb are way too good to count out.

No. 4: Who will emerge out of the crowded women’s field? Hughes and Claes? Brittany Hochevar and Emily Day? Yet-unseen teams, Ross and Fendrick, or Sarah Pavan and Lane Carico?

And what of Kelley Larsen and Betsi Flint, Kim DiCello and Emily Stockman, Angela Bensend and Geena Urango? These teams have the experience and the physicality to make it happen and reach the finals in any given tournament.

Local Texas qualifier Francisco Quesada-Paneque competes in the qualifier at AVP Austin/Mpu Dinani, AVP

No. 5: AVP qualifiers are gnarly. Flat out gnarly. If you haven’t been to an AVP event on a Thursday, that’s where the magic is. Single elimination, win or go home. Four or five matches to get to Friday, none of this namby-pamby play once or twice a day. Guys and gals fighting for their volleyball lives all day. Even world-renowned players like Reid Priddy, Paul Lotman, Chaim Schalk, Sarah Pavan, and Maria Clara Salgado have failed in their quest to conquer the qualifier.

No. 6: This year the AVP has instituted the score freeze. At match point, points are only scored by the serving team. Let serves are replayed once per service.

The good?

It adds drama to the match, you can’t end it on a missed serve or a boring first-ball side out.

The bad? (which could be good)?

It lengthens the match, which effectively favors the better team. The better pair is still likely to close out the match if they they’re ahead, and would have a better chance to come back from a poor start. The rule gives the better team more time to distance itself from its competitor. 

No. 7: There is rarely a shortage of drama on the beach and 2017 is no exception.

Who will win the Walsh Jennings versus AVP lawsuit (my guess is the standard “settled out of court for an undisclosed amount)?

Will Al-B Hannemann and Leonard Armato come up with enough prize money to attract AVPers in significant numbers?

Will the NVL replace its canceled Dallas and San Antonio stops with additional tournaments?

We’re only two FIVB and two AVP stops in. You can bet the drama is far from over in what has proven a most interesting 2017 pro beach season.

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