MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. — Somehow, Andy Benesh, in his sixth year as a professional beach volleyball player, has never played in a NORCECA, the entry level rung on the international volleyball ladder. Virtually every player in the United States system has played in at least one, while most have played several, and many have competed in far more than anybody would ever desire.
His six year streak will come to an end on June 7-9, in Punta Cana, for a World Championship qualifier. It was a bid he earned with Miles Partain, his dynamic and precocious and trailblazing partner, with three straight wins during Tuesday’s single-elimination qualifier, held at the Manhattan Beach Pier. Three sweeps, over Bill Kolinske and Hagen Smith, Kyle Friend and Tim Brewster, and Chase Budinger and Miles Evans, punched their tickets to the Dominican Republic, and by extension, a likely bid into the World Championships in October.
“Kind of like a Sunday at an AVP in the contender’s bracket, three matches,” Partain said. “It was legit. Qualifying is legit. It wasn’t a practice tournament. It was really cool.”
Indeed, it may be their coolest win of the season, despite the little-known nature of it. Tuesday was as Partain mentioned: As high quality as an AVP Sunday, a field that featured Partain and Benesh, Trevor Crabb and Theo Brunner, Budinger and Evans, Taylor Crabb and Taylor Sander, Cody Caldwell and Chase Frishman, Evan Cory and Logan Webber, Hagen Smith and Bill Kolinske — every top team save for Tri Bourne and Chaim Schalk, who chose not to play the event.
Why, you might be asking, wouldn’t Bourne and Schalk play?
World Championships is a massive event, with 48 teams competing, 24 of which are qualified via points. Teams use their best six finishes on the Beach Pro Tour in 2023 prior to the World Championships, which begin October 6 in Tlaxcala, Mexico. Of their four current finishes, Bourne and Schalk have three that will likely be used, and given those three finishes — 13th in the Tepic Elite16, fifth in the Itapema Challenge, fifth in the Uberlandia Elite16 — they’re betting they’ll get into World Championships on points alone, without needing the NORCECA side door.
Given the trajectory of Benesh and Partain, who have a fifth and a fourth in Challenge events this season, they also are unlikely to need the NORCECA berth into World Championships, but it’s good to have in the back pocket as a hedge against injury or a mid-season rut.
“Yeah, a little bit,” Benesh said when asked if the win on Tuesday takes a bit of stress off. “It’s just good that we’re playing well. Before this morning we thought it was over Ostrava [an Elite16 on May 31-June 4], so we were just doing it for competition’s sake and we could have that option if we wanted to go. It’s on a different weekend now. It’s after Ostrava.”
The berth isn’t guaranteed, of course. Benesh and Partain will need to finish in the top two of their half of the NORCECA qualifier in June to secure the bid, though given the fact that Canada and Cuba will be competing in the other half, it would take something borderline catastrophic for them not to finish in the top two.
“Felt good,” Partain said of how they played. “Mentality was really good.”
Now, what happens if Partain and Benesh qualify for World Championships on points, and therefore do not need their NORCECA bid? Their bid will go to the next highest finishing team in the Dominican Republic. In a way, then, their win is as defensive as it is offensive, as it blocked their American rivals from earning the NORCECA bid into World Championships, which offers the highest points on the calendar by an exponential degree.
“It’s hard to create intensity and this is manufactured intensity,” Benesh said. “Everyone was going really hard. It definitely meant something.”
It did for the men, anyway. For the women, the event is mostly irrelevant. While Hailey Harward and Kelley Kolinske emerged victorious — just two days after winning a big money event in Phoenix, Arizona — beating Savvy Simo and Toni Rodriguez in the finals, it’s unlikely they’ll get the opportunity to use the NORCECA route to qualify for the World Championships. There is a country quota at the World Championships, limiting each federation to four teams. At the moment, the USA is on pace to have more than half a dozen teams qualify via points in Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes, Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth, Sarah Sponcil and Terese Cannon, Julia Scoles and Betsi Flint, Harward and Kolinske, Simo and Rodriguez, and Emily Stockman and Megan Kraft.
The women’s qualifier is used primarily as an intense practice, and, again, a potential hedge in case a few teams hit rough spells and the bid does wind up falling to Harward and Kolinske. Good to have, and an excellent day to have on the resume for Kolinske and Harward, a new team who seems to be finding their stride as the summer begins.