Mewhirter: We’re going to have one heck of a Manhattan Beach Open

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The gold series AVP Manhattan qualifier kicks off Thursday/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Summer Ross went a little wild this week.

She washed her car. She did her laundry. She went asleep in one time zone and awoke in — can you believe it? — the same time zone.

She even took an accounting class.

The rebel. 

For Ross, this sense of normalcy, of routine, is as foreign to her as traveling to eight countries in four months to play beach volleyball would be to most 24-year-old American women.

And Ross, of course, is not just any other 24-year-old American woman. She’s one of the best — if not the best, at this point — blockers in the United States, and she’d very much like to prove that this weekend in Manhattan Beach.

The AVP returns this weekend for its annual Manhattan Beach Open, which is referred to, among many affectionate names that have made their way into the volleyball lexicon, as the “Wimbledon of beach volleyball” or the “Granddaddy of them all.”

Really, all one needs to know is this: If there is one tournament an American player wants to win outside of the Olympics, this is the one, where a win cements you permanently into volleyball lore, right there on the pier from which fans watch you play.

Summer Ross (passing) and Brooke Sweat are coming off a fifth-place finish at the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships in Vienna/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

“Me and Brooke (Sweat), we want to win it,” Ross said. “We just want to do the best we can and play good volleyball, but that’s a big tournament.”

Big is a massive understatement. This tournament is colossal, gargantuan, gigantic — pick your descriptor, it’s that.

One-hundred and six teams populated the initial entry list for the men. Another 65 signed up for the women.

The last time the AVP has seen a qualifier of this size came in 2006, when Bud Light was the name sponsor and men with names like Lambert, Metzger, Dax, Scott, Fuerbringer, Witt, and Kiraly were finishing in the top seven.

One-hundred and eleven teams filled out the qualifier in ’06, though if quantity is not your barometer for the state of beach volleyball, then you will certainly not be disheartened by the quality. 

For the first time all season, both the men and the women are fully healthy and fully present. There are no FIVB tournaments to compete with, no injuries — excepting Tri Bourne, the phenomenal blocker turned affable LiveStream commentator for the time being — to nurse.

A full field on both sides.

Folks, get your popcorn ready.

“All the teams are so tough,” Ross said. “There are so many good teams. It’s going to be a battle. Everybody’s there.”

Manhattan holds a sizable spot in Ross’ heart. It’s her exceptionally vast, sandy front lawn, as well as the site of her first main draw.

She was 16 years old in 2009 when, partnered with Natalie Hagglund, Ross survived a three-set final qualification match to slip into the main draw, the youngest at the time to do so.

Five years later she was in the semifinals, pushing April Ross and Kerri Walsh-Jennings to three. Two years after that, Ross and Lane Carico made it one match further, losing a heartbreaking marathon, 16-21, 21-19, 17-19 to Emily Day and Brittany Hochevar. Even the perpetually upbeat Ross admitted that “I definitely left that match bummed out and sad.”

This year presents another opportunity for Ross to cement herself onto the Manhattan Beach Pier, another opportunity to check one more item off a bucket list that includes qualify for the Olympics, win a gold medal, win an FIVB — and win Manhattan.

“I cannot even imagine,” she said of winning. “That would be bucket list, retire from volleyball, leave it at that.”

Ross is justifiably focused on winning the tournament. On Thursday, 352 players will simply be trying to qualify for it.

Wild cards make for a wild qualifier: The first thing you’ll likely notice is that there are nine wild cards for the women and eight for the men. This is a bit of a misnomer. The only true wild card is Sara Hughes and Kelly Claes, and deservedly so, though it comes with the unfortunate side effect of pushing Jace Pardon and Lara Dykstra into the qualifier.

The other eight wild cards are the winners of each respective AVP Next region. Each winter and spring, the AVP holds an AVP Next series in regions across the country (although in the Pacific Northwest, it was not a series, but a single tournament with a berth into Manhattan on the line). The team with the most points from each region’s series earn a bid into the main draw. Hence, the wild cards.

Whether you like the system or not, this much is true: Those nine wild cards forced nine high-quality volleyball teams into the qualifier. The 20 players on the 10 top-seeded teams in the women’s qualifier have all made at least one main draw this season. Several of them, at one point or another, have been automatically in the main draw.

Five teams have at least 1,000 points combined, which is typically the cut-line between main draw and qualifier.

That is absolute madness.

Sarah Pavan hustles to retrieve a Skylar Caputo dig in the AVP Seattle semifinals/Stephen Burns, Pacific Northwest photo

The third seed in the qualifier? Sarah Pavan and Skylar Caputo. Yup, that Sarah Pavan, who has dominated the FIVB podium for Canada, with gold in Porec, silver in Olsztyn, bronze in Gstaad, and fourth at the World Championships. Last time she partnered with Pepperdine standout Caputo, they finished third in Seattle.

The first team shy of breaking the 1,000-point threshold is Karissa Cook and Katie Spieler, who just took a ninth in Hermosa Beach.

Below them are Bre Moreland and Allie Wheeler, the former of whom fell just three kills shy of becoming one of three players in Cal State Fullerton history to record 1,000 digs and 1,000 kills, the latter of whom has made every single main draw this year.

Pepperdine standouts Brittany Howard and Corinne Quiggle broke through in Hermosa, qualifying from Q14 to grab a seventh-place finish.

Mackenzie Ponnet and Molly Turner have a .667 batting average in qualifiers, making it through in two out of the three they’ve played together, claiming a 13th in Hermosa.

Kerri Schuh is replacing the graduate school-bound Branagan Fuller on Team Onesie alongside Delaney Knudsen. Together, they have three aggregate main draws on the year, and even in the qualifiers Knudsen hasn’t made it through, she’s won her way to at least the third round of the qualifier, constantly knocking on the door.

To sum: The top 10 teams are main-draw teams. No questions about it. The rest of the qualifier is deep, per usual, but the final round of this one is going to be a thrill.

Christina Vucich and Amanda Wiggins are a power at No. 12, having just qualified in Hermosa.

NVL Long Beach champion Kim Hildreth, will go with Brooke Bauer. The pair should be dangerous floaters after scoring a Dig the Beach championship on the right coast.

Christina Alessi Matthews, a regular on the NVL main draw, has partnered up with Laryssa Mereszczak — God, I hope I spelled that name right; who puts two Zs in one name? — who has been playing in AVP main draws since 2009 though has not made one since 2015.

Directly below them sits Kristen Petrasic, a former parter of Alessi Matthews, and Agnieszka Pregowska, who made a pair of FIVB main draws representing Poland in 2012 and ’13.

Rounding out this strong, mid-seeded triumvirate is Pepperdine’s Deahna Kraft and USC’s Jo Kremer. If there’s one lesson to be learned from the women’s side of things this season, it’s this: Don’t ever doubt the college players, who are quickly asserting themselves as main draw presences on the AVP Tour.

Buried deep in the qualifier is another collegiate team in UCLA’s Elise Zappia and USC’s Jenna Belton, who qualified for the first time in Hermosa. Zappia was a three-year starter at storied Mater Dei High School, alma mater of Sara Hughes, and earned her AAA when she was just 15. As a sophomore at USC, Belton went 28-8, competing in the toughest conference in the country.

Below them is Camie Manwill and Meg Dawson. Manwill, the all-time kills leader at Utah Valley State, has made consecutive main draws. Dawson has had a quiet year, playing in just Huntington Beach thus far, but between 2015 and 2016, she made the big dance six times.

A few notches down the seeding is Lindsey Fuller, the 2014 NVL Most Improved Player, partnered up with beach veteran Alicia Zamparelli-Flavia, who has played in 131 professional events — 131!

Perfectly rounding out the very last seed is Megan Owusu who, if it’s the same Megan Owusu, is the head coach of the Cal beach program. I love the irony of having collegiate players competing against the very coaches who strategize against them all spring long.

There’s something sportingly wonderful about that.

Biggest qualifier in a decade — both in quantity and quality: Given the nearly uninterrupted volatility in beach volleyball throughout the past several decades, it’s no surprise that the “future of the game” is constantly being discussed.

What direction is it going? How can the game grow? How can beach volleyball become the phenomenon that it was in the 1980s and 90s?

The numbers suggest it’s getting there, and quickly. In 2014, 52 male teams attempted to qualify for the Manhattan Beach Open.

Double that and add a pair for good measure and that’s what you’ll find in 2017, a fairly remarkable increase in the span of a few years.

The last time the AVP has seen a qualifier this big is in Manhattan in 2006, when 111 teams signed up, making this the biggest qualifier the AVP has hosted in more than a decade.

I’ll pause here for a moment to applaud the AVP. Those numbers don’t just appear out of nowhere. The Tour is doing something to attract this type of competition, and hats off to them.

But beyond the sheer volume, the quality of teams that are still stuck in the qualifier is staggering.

Just missing the cut are Mike Brunsting and Jeff Samuels, neither of whom have finished worse than ninth in their last two tournaments, both of whom have significant victories on the ledger. In particular, Samuels’ convincing 21-14, 21-18 rout of Reid Priddy and Ricardo Santos in San Francisco, where Priddy and Santos would make the semifinals, is noteworthy. Brunsting owns a win over Avery Drost and Ty Tramblie, the former a semifinalist in Hermosa two weeks ago, the latter a champion in Chicago just two years ago.

Samuels’ former partner, Derek Olson, a supreme talent, is back in the qualifier as well, scooping up Brian Cook, a promising new blocker should he choose to make the financially savvy move and earn innumerable riches on the beach as opposed to collecting consistent indoor paychecks (Is my sarcasm font on?) 

So yes, the top of this qualifier is heavy, though to dub it top-heavy would be, somewhat paradoxically, a misnomer. For if you continue to scan, and scan, and scan this lengthy list of entries, you’ll find very few gaps where you don’t recognize a name.

The reason for this is two-fold: Old names resurfacing for beach volleyball’s biggest event, and a few former NVL players attempting to cobble together a semblance of a “season” by hopping into the qualifier.

I was more than happy to cherry-pick Skyler McCoy, a defender whose partner list boasts names like Olympian Mark Williams, AVP semifinalists Eric Zaun and Marty Lorenz, AVP Best Server Robbie Page, and longtime AVP veteran Hudson Bates.

Obviously I fit right in. Who needs an Olympian when you can play with a writer who has a handful of 21sts to his name?

Chris Vaughan, McCoy’s partner in Long Beach, the NVL’s lone event of 2017, is playing with Kris Fraser, who took a pair of ninths on the NVL last season.

Skylar Delsol (pictured) and partner Jon Mesko will compete in the AVP Manhattan Beach qualifier Thursday/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

The most notable NVL team making the move is Skylar DelSol and Jon Mesko.

DelSol is nothing shy of exceptional, in whatever facet of beach volleyball by which you may choose to measure a player. Between 2015 and 2016, he was awarded the NVL Soul Award — in all honesty, I have legitimately no idea what this means, but it’s an award, and he won it — MVP, Best Setter (twice) and Best Defensive Player. I’m not totally sure if the NVL awards a best server, but if it does, it’s a wonder how DelSol, who can unload one nasty jump serve, never won it.

Mesko, meanwhile, is without a doubt the most energy-efficient player I’ve ever seen. Challenge the guy to a game of no-jump. I dare you. He’ll carve you up while having a casual conversation about what his weekend plans are and not break a sweat.

It’s not lost on me that many chide DelSol, a lavishly talented volleyball player, for playing with the 40-year-old Mesko. To that, I would say that I think that same group of doubters would do well to recall that Mesko took two fifths and a third in three of his final four tournaments last season, and that the DelSol-Mesko pairing navigated one gnarly NORCECA qualifier earlier this year that included the likes of Trevor Crabb-Casey Jennings, Stafford Slick-Reid Priddy, Mike Brunsting-Chase Frishman, Casey Patterson-Theo Brunner, and has represented the United States in four NORCECAs.

Take it as you will. I try not to doubt those with notable wins. They have them. 

That said: There are quite a few players in this qualifier who know how to win. Matt Olson has won a pair of AVP tournaments and is packing with him a mighty zero points into the qualifier, making him and partner Matt Motter land mine No. 1.

Aaron Wachtfogel will play with Billy Strickland in Thursday’s qualifier. The pair have not competed together since 2014/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

A few seeds down reside Billy Strickland and Aaron Wachtfogel, who hasn’t played in an AVP tournament in three years but boasts an appearance in the finals in Brooklyn in 2007 and nine semifinal appearances.

(On a completely unrelated note: His BVBinfo.com bio lists his parents, Magic Johnson and Brent Frohoff as his role models. I found that eclectic assortment too funny not to include as your random fun fact of the day.)

Making a celeb appearance is the lovably gregarious AVP emcee, Mark Schuermann, who is actually a solid, if not rusty, volleyball player.

Aside from the celebs and former stars, there are a number of sneaky good teams outside of the top 16 who could very well qualify, or at the very least make it a few more rounds than their seed would suggest.

At seeds — initially — 30 and 31 are Troy Field and Orlando Irizarry and Reuben Danley and Dylan Maarek. Three of those names — Irizarry, Danley, Maarek — you may recognize. Irizarry, who made the main draw in Austin with Ian Satterfield, is the finest worker of officials in the game. He has exceptional ball control, sides out vexingly well for a guy who can’t stand a hair above 6 feet with a vertical leap that I would not describe as exceptional. Danley, a lefty with a funky arm swing and a nasty, hooking jump serve, has been around the game for years, and Maarek, who qualified in Manhattan last year with another lefty in Andy Ces, made the NVL Long Beach finals.

Field, meanwhile, is a rookie’s rookie, having just played in his first qualifier in Hermosa. He jumps silly high and hits angles many wouldn’t consider entirely plausible, and he’s won a few open CBVAs because of it.

Connor Hughes and Travis Woloson made it through the Manhattan qualifier last year, and could very well do it again this year.

Cole Fiers and Hagen Smith — yes, that Smith — have been playing exceptionally well of late, qualifying for NVL Long Beach, playing well in CBVAs.

Finally, buried deep down in the trenches, might be my favorite sneaky team: Kyle Stevenson and Landen Tusieseina.

Stevenson, alongside Chris Long, did well enough on the NVL last season to be automatically into the main draw in the lone event of the year. Now, with Long off to med school and the NVL no longer a viable option, he scooped up Tusieseina, who makes one cameo beach volleyball appearance a year, in Manhattan Beach, where he qualified in 2015.

At the end of the day, there are a lot of good teams in this qualifier, as there always are. Eight make it through, and then the real fun begins.

Finally, American fans will get Dalhausser and Lucena, Patterson and Brunner, Hyden and Doherty.

We’ll have the Beard Bros reunited, and a hopefully healthy Stafford Slick, and a scorpion-digging Sean Rosenthal.

We’re going to have one heck of a Manhattan Beach Open.

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