The FIVB season kicks off in a big way on Tuesday with the qualifier of the five-star Fort Lauderdale Major. The main draw starts Wednesday with the finals on Sunday. VolleyballMag.com will have complete daily coverage.
Not only is the Florida event one of the earliest starts ever, the post-Olympic year assures that players, no longer tied to Olympic qualification rules, begin to seek new chemistry in the run up to the $1 million World Championships in Vienna, Austria (July 28-August 6) as well as Tokyo 2020.
The very top teams have largely stayed together, but underneath there has been a lot of partner movement.
The only time the season began earlier in the Northern Hemisphere was in Miami in 1992. This event was the end-of-season World Tour Finals invitational in 2015. It is the only five-star FIVB event until June 6-11 in Rome. In theory, it could advantageous for the Brazilians, who are in domestic mid-season form.
Main Draw men: Janis Smedins and Aleksandrs Samoilovs earned the No. 1 seed with a red-hot finish in 2016, earning gold in Antalya, Olstzyn, and Klagenfurt. They came away with seven top-four finishes in 15 events, demonstrating remarkable consistency late in the season.
They were the victims of a brutally tough pool in Rio, defeating Canadians Ben Saxton and Chaim Schalk but losing to Brazil’s world champions Evandro Goncalves and Pedro Solberg and surprise Cubans Nivaldo Diaz and Sergio Gonzalez. The Latvians failed to advance to the elimination round, finishing 19th.
The pair is undersized by today’s standards, with Smedins at 6-foot-4 and Samoilovs 6-5, so they can be vulnerable to the more dominant blockers such as Alison Cerutti (6-8), Phil Dalhausser (6-9), and Paolo Nicolai (6-8).
Second-seeded Brazilians Alison Cerutti and Bruno Schmidt won gold in Rio and would likely be the top seed but had such a spectacular year in 2015 that they had already nearly locked up the top qualifying spot in the Olympics. That gave them the luxury of being able to play a sparse schedule in 2016.
He’s just 6-1, but Schmidt manages to dominate the tour, receiving the FIVB’s Most Outstanding player, Best Defensive player, and Sportsperson awards last year.
Cerutti/Schmidt finished out of the medal rounds just twice in nine FIVB events (fifth in Rio de Janeiro, ninth in Gstaad) last year while bringing home four gold medals and two silvers.
Americans Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena are seeded third. In the last Fort Lauderdale event in 2015, Dalhausser/Lucena lost to Cerutti/Schmidt in the final. At the Rio Olympics, Dalhausser/Lucena were again victims of Cerutti/Schmidt in the quarterfinals in a match marred by 35-mile-per-hour winds.
Is revenge a motivator?
“I don’t need any extra motivation,” Dalhausser said. “Any time we play an FIVB on home soil, we have home-court advantage, so I like to protect that.”
Lucena was concerned about their lack of full practice time.
“Preparation is a little slow, just because of the weather. We’ve had a ton of cancelled practices. The last three practices were our best, which is still far from where we want to be,” Lucena said. “We’re relying on our history and experience together.”
Lucena may be underestimating their readiness, since the pair won an exhibition “Giants of the Beach” match in Rio de Janeiro this past weekend, beating Cerutti/Schmidt 21-17, 21-18.
A new team for 2017, Brazil’s Pedro Solberg and Gustavo (Guto) Carvalhaes, are seeded fourth. Solberg won the 2015 World Championship with Evandro Goncalves, but the pair was very up and down in 2016, with a ninth place in Rio, a gold medal at the World Series of Beach Volleyball, and a silver at the World tour Finals in Toronto.
The 6-1 Carvalhaes impressed the volleyball world last May when he and partner Saymon Barbosa won gold at FIVB Cincinnati. His athleticism and skills are impressive and will complement Solberg well.
Solberg/Carvalhaes finished second at the Brazil Beach Volleyball tour last week, losing 21-19, 19-21, 15-11 to George Wanderley and Thiago Barbosa.
Main Draw Women: Like the men, the top women’s teams are largely unchanged from 2016, which was dominated by Germany’s Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst, the USA’s Kerri Walsh-Jennings and April Ross, and Brazil’s Larissa Franca and Talita Antunes. Fort Lauderdale will be the first indication if any other challengers will emerge from the pack.
Ross/Walsh-Jennings, who finished 2016 with five golds, two silvers and two bronze medals are seeded No. 1. Their lowest finish was fifth in Toronto. But for a disappointing 22-20, 21-18 loss to Brazilians Agatha Bednarczuk/Barbara Seixas in the Olympic semifinals, they could arguably have had the best team record on tour.
At 38, four-time Olympic medalist Walsh-Jennings is still one of the most imposing blockers. Ross is the most physical left-side player, as well one of the most feared servers. Ross and Walsh-Jennings are tough to beat at home, having won three of the last four events on U.S. soil.
Brazil’s Larissa Franca and Talita Antunes are unaccustomed to being the No. 2 seed, having been the top seed throughout nearly the entire Olympic qualification process. They won the Fort Lauderdale World Tour Finals in 2015.
Larissa is likely the best setter that the women’s game has ever seen, and Talita is an extraordinary under-6-foot blocker. The pair won the first three stops on this year’s Brazilian tour, but finished second to Agatha Bednarczuk and Eduarda Santos Lisboa at the last stop in Joao Pessoa January 29.
Germany’s Chantal Laboreur and Julia Sude have sneaked into the third seed after a 2016 season in which they took gold in Porec, silver in Fuzhou and bronze in Long Beach. Sude is a force at the net, and Laboreur’s boundless energy made 2016 the pair’s best year.
They missed the Olympics due to the country quota system, although they finished with 4,350 points.
Laura Ludwig is back home in Hamburg mending her shoulder, so Olympic gold-medalist partner Kira Walkenhorst will play with 28-year-old Julia Grossner, who partnered with Victoria Bieneck last year.
American Men: When Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson split, three-time Olympian Gibb sought out 25-year-old Taylor Crabb.
“I really want to seize the opportunity to play with Jake, a three-time Olympian.” Crabb said. “I want to be the best I can be for him. We’re pretty excited to play with each other. I really got excited hearing that he wanted to play with me. I’m just thankful and humble that he wants to play with me.”
They’ve practiced together for less than a month and don’t have an official coach yet, although Mike Dodd has helped during a few practices.
“It’s a little difficult starting with a five-star event,” Crabb said. “Since the first practice we’re gelling, and it’s been a steady increase since we’ve started. For a brand-new team, having never played together, we feel really pumped.”
Crabb will move to the left side, where he said, “I feel a lot more comfortable.”
The other side of that split is Casey Patterson and Theo Brunner, who are seeded 13th. Patterson’s partner selection process was simple: “Who blocks me more than anyone else? Theo Brunner,” Patterson said on Twitter.
“It’s going about as well as it could be going, I guess,” Brunner said of their preparation. “We’ve been training together since December, for this essentially one-off tournament, basically. Given the circumstances, it’s going great. This is the first time I’ve ever done anything like this.
“We started practice about a month earlier than we normally do, and we’ve been doing full practices form the last month with other quality teams at least three times a week. We feel about as ready on the practice court as we can.
“We want to win a tournament. I want to win my first tournament, I want Casey to help me win my first tournament, and in the short term, get into the main draw and not have to worry about qualification.”
John Hyden and Tri Bourne were fully expecting to play in Fort Lauderdale, but Bourne has been dealing with carpal-tunnel-like syndrome, and his doctors advised that he should not be flying at this time.
Hyden called Ryan Doherty, who was available.
“I went from the bottom of the reserve list to the main draw,” Doherty said. The two have never played together, but had a chance to practice briefly Sunday, and will be able to practice at bit on site Tuesday.
Doherty had been practicing with John Mayer in preparation for the Kish event, trying to garner enough points to get into the larger tournaments. Hyden and Doherty have enough points to get into the main draw, so they will have at least three matches to acclimate.
Since Hyden and Mayer are both right-side players, so relatively little adjustment is involved for Hyden/Doherty.
“Johnny Hyden likes a little bit of a different set than John Mayer,” Doherty said. “Hyden is a right-hander, while Mayer is lefty. Aside from that, they’re real similar guys, both real good defenders.
“I’ve played against John Hyden my entire career, he’s a phenomenal volleyball player, and one of those guys that’s obviously very smart about the game, so any opportunity you have to be on the same side of the court as him, I’m going to jump at it. I’m really excited.”
Two USA teams are in the qualifier: Stafford Slick and Billy Allen are seeded seventh and Sean Rosenthal and Trevor Crabb 12th. Eight teams from the qualifier will make the main draw, so Slick/Allen will be the top seed in their part of the qualifier bracket, and Rosenthal/Crabb will be second-seeded in their part of the bracket.
Slick and Allen played together in four events in 2016, three NorCECA competitions (third, second, second) and at AVP New Orleans (fifth). Slick, is a powerful 6-8 blocker, and the 35-year-old Allen is a wily veteran of 12 years on the tour, with strong fundamentals, and is difficult to read.
“(Stafford’s) fun to play with,” Allen said. “We’ve always talked about playing on and off, and played a couple of events last year, did well in some NorCECA’s. Stafford had an eye injury in New Orleans in our match for third, so we feel like we have some unfinished business.”
Rosenthal and Trevor Crabb have had three weeks of practice together as a team.
“This year is weird because this event is so far away from all the others, Crabb said, excited about partnering with Rosenthal.
“I think he’s one of the best, if not the best all-around volleyball players out there, his skills are so good that he is really easy to play with. He has a great feel for the game, so I think we will do really well together.”
American Women: USA Olympians Brooke Sweat and Lauren Fendrick split after 2016. Sweat is now with former Pepperdine star Summer Ross and they are seeded 13th. Sweat, who lives in Florida, but trains in California, thinks that they have something good.
“We’ve had a really good month of training so far, we’re still figuring each other out, but we’re meshing and gelling really quickly, and I’m excited about where we’re headed,” Sweat said. “The chemistry is amazing, I think we both see the game similarly, and it’s easy for us to know what the other player is thinking or wanting, or going to do. I think that’s a big part of the game, being on the same page as your partner, and for me and Summer, that part is coming really easily for us.”
On the other side of the split, Fendrick teamed with USC senior Sara Hughes. who is not playing with college teammate Kelly Claes, who has teamed with Kelly Reeves. The 6-2 Fendrick and the 5-10 up-and-comer Hughes should be a dangerous team.
Fendrick’s husband, Andrew Fuller, is the new head coach of the Stanford beach program, and Fendrick is his assistant.
“I can practice with the team, and lift in the weight room, so it’s been good,” she said.
But that puts her far from Hughes, who benefits from Fendrick’s points and can bypass the qualifier.
“I think we are going to see how we do in Florida, and go from there,” Fendrick said.
Lane Carico and Irene Pollock slid into the main draw at No. 24, narrowly avoiding the qualifier. Carico, who played with Summer Ross in 2016, finished as high as fifth in 2016 (Fuzhou). Pollock played with Caitlin LeDoux in 2016, finishing as high as 17th (Long Beach, Cincinnati, and Fortaleza).
The USA women have three teams in the qualifier through the benefit of wild cards: Brittany Hochevar/Emily Day, Kelly Claes/Kelly Reeves, and Kim DiCello/Emily Stockman. Hochevar/Day are seeded fourth in the qualifier, Claes/Reeves ninth, and DiCello/Stockman 11th.
Although last year, Hochevar’s primary partner was Jennifer Fopma, and Day’s was Jennifer Kessy, the two did play two AVP and one FIVB tournament together, including their first AVP Manhattan Open win and a 17th place at FIVB Klagenfurt.
After Hughes accepted Fendrick’s offer to play in Fort Lauderdale, it left Claes without a partner, so she called Reeves.
“The night of the deadline I got a call from Kelly out of the blue asking if I wanted to play,” Reeves recalled, “and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, yes! Let’s do it!’ ”
Team Kelly is seeded ninth in the qualifier. Due to Claes’ USC schedule, the pair is only able to practice together on the weekends.
“We’ve only been able to train together two or three times,” Reeves said, “but we’re getting comfortable with each other as partners as well as the Mikasa ball.
“I’ve only played against Kelly twice, we seem to mesh very well. She’s a great presence on the court, she’s a phenomenal player. She has a very professional manner about her. We still have that young blood, where we’re excited to play, we just have really good chemistry and I’m excited to see how it works out. We have a lot of similarities in our games.
“We’re super-fired up as we get closer to the event. I’m really looking forward to playing, because it’s been since October, I’m pretty stoked.”
Unlike most of the other early partnerships, Kim DiCello and Emily Stockman are committed to a long-term partnership rather than just a trial tournament.
“Emily and I are in it for the long run,” DiCello said, “and excited to see what we can build over the course of the season.”
They are the 11th seed in the qualifier.
“Chemistry is good. really good,” DiCello said.” She is very positive and energetic, and has a solid work ethic. She has a lot of fight, which makes it fun when it’s time to battle.”