On June 16 of last year, Mike Brunsting wanted to tell a joke.
The day before, he and Chase Frishman had made it through the qualifier in New York City, rewarded with the opportunity — or is it a beach-volleyball death sentence masquerading as an opportunity? — to play Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena first thing the next morning.
I’ll let Brunsting, who told me this story a few months ago, take it from here:
“At the beginning, you go to sign the sheet and say who your first server is and who the captain is. It’s one of their first tournaments back because they’d been playing FIVB and didn’t play Huntington (Beach, the second event of the 2016 season), so Phil just kind of looks at it and is kind of hesitating and in that moment of hesitation I said ‘It’s OK Phil, I remember my first tournament.’
And he just kind of looks up and stares at me, and I could just kind of see his mind go ‘Who am I playing? Who is this guy?’ ”
At this point, who is anybody to Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena?
This weekend, in Austin for the second event of the AVP season, no team managed to take a set off of the two Floridians, who won their second straight tournament with nary a concern.
Only John Mayer and Jeremy Casebeer and Trevor Crabb and Sean Rosenthal were able to push a set to 21-19, and the latter was a product of the newly implemented scoring freeze on match point.
In 10 sets over the course of five matches, the average score was 21-14.9.
Some suspense, huh?
Two weeks before, at the season-opening Huntington Beach Open, Dalhausser and Lucena dropped only one set, to Casey Patterson and Theo Brunner in the semifinals. In Huntington, teams averaged a whopping 15.3 points per set against Dalhausser and Lucena.
The effect of this type of uninterrupted dominance is two-fold, the first being that any match that Dalhausser and Lucena play is incredibly boring, but for whatever reason you feel compelled to watch it anyway. It’s kind of like putting in a movie you know all the lines to, or this year’s NBA playoffs.
We all know what’s going to happen, but we’ll still watch.
That’s not a knock on Lucena and Dalhausser. Good volleyball is supposed to be boring. Pass, set, side out, like two hyper-athletic automatons, all the way to 21-14, every set.
The other effect is that when you look at a bracket, and you see Dalhausser and Lucena’s name, you really don’t much need to look at who is opposite them.
At the end of the day, it’s as Dalhausser thought of Brunsting: “Who is this guy? ”
Sean Rosenthal might just be the Phil Mickelson of beach volleyball
Sean Rosenthal hasn’t won a beach volleyball tournament since 2014.
And yet every tournament he enters, the general consensus is that he is one of the top two or three favorites to win. He comes close to winning more frequently than most – he has made at least one final every year since 2014 – but can’t seem to climb atop to podium.
I couldn’t help but be reminded of another athlete with an eerily similar career trajectory: Phil Mickelson. Like Rosenthal, Mickelson, one of the most beloved players on the PGA Tour, was a prodigy at a young age. Like Rosenthal, Mickelson has won his fair share of major events. Like Rosenthal, Mickelson is wildly popular. Like Rosenthal, Mickelson has a finicky back, perpetual optimism to win tournaments, a rivalry with the best player of his generation, and enough talent to win any event he enters. It just hasn’t happened in a while.
By conventional beach-volleyball standards, Rosenthal was spectacular in Austin. He finished third in aces per game, fourth in digs and second in hitting percentage. The problem with Rosenthal, however, is that he not held to conventional beach volleyball standards. He is held to “Superman” standards, i.e. the old Sean Rosenthal, the one who made two Olympics with Jake Gibb and finished as the No. 1 team in the world with Phil Dalhausser.
He might not be winning at the rate he once did, but I don’t believe Superman’s career hasn’t come across its Kryptonite just yet.
Get your popcorn ready for Maddison McKibbin and Reid Priddy
It’s time for a nickname. Can we get on board with this?
Maddison McKibbin and Reid Priddy are beach volleyball’s Bash Brothers, the inimitable duo from the classic movie, The Mighty Ducks.
They jump serve. They swing — at everything. When they catch one flush, it really is quite a spectacular detonation.
It’s a wonder a mushroom cloud doesn’t materialize.
Watching them, it’s almost as if they have made a game out of it: First to break a couple fingers off of a blocker wins. First to burrow a hole to China wins.
It’s a good game. It’s working.
They upset fifth-seeded Ty Loomis and Ty Tramblie in the first round of the contender’s bracket, which preceded a much-easier-than-expected win over Roberto “Rafu” Rodriguez-Bertran, which preceded another upset over the Bomgrens.
Just like that, they had cannon-balled their way to the quarterfinals, where they lost to the very team that put them in the contender’s bracket in the first place, John Mayer and Jeremy Casebeer.
You have to feel for Riley McKibbin, Maddison’s injured older brother. The McKibbins had never finished better than ninth, and here, in Maddison’s first tournament without Riley, he grabs a fifth.
Granted, the field was light, with three of the top-four teams playing in a four-star FIVB event in Rio de Janeiro, but there was a similar field in New York City in 2016. The McKibbins took ninth, losing in an epic three-set match to Rosenthal and Casebeer.
What it means for the partnership when Riley comes back is anybody’s guess, though for now, this much is known: If you have the opportunity to watch McKibbin and Priddy, you should do so.
Just watch your head.
Congratulations, April Ross
How could we forget about April Ross?
Here we are, the beach volleyball populace, and our discussions have been Kerri this, Kerri that. It’s all we talk about. And I get it. I do it too. There is no greater newsmaker in the sport than Walsh-Jennings. Her status in beach volleyball is no different than Lebron James’ in basketball or Nick Saban’s in football.
If they sneeze, it’s news.
But lost in that fray, it seems, is April Ross. She’s a two-time Olympian. USA Volleyball MVP three times running. Best server in the world.
How could we forget about that?
Walsh’s boycott of the AVP couldn’t have been easy for Ross, even if their friendship has remained amicable. This is Ross’s job, after all, and she was left without a business partner.
Replacing the greatest partner in the history of the sport is not exactly an easy feat.
So it was nice to see Ross win alongside her pal Whitney Pavlik. They rallied from a 21-14 shellacking in the first set of the finals against Kim DiCello and Emily Stockman to win the second and third, 21-16, 15-11. It was Pavlik’s first win since 2013, when she was partnered with Walsh-Jennings.
It’s not that Ross needed the vindication. Everybody knows she’s a phenomenal player, and it’s why everywhere she went in Austin, so too went the ubiquitous 20-or-so-person line waiting for pictures and autographs, which she always happily obliged.
She’s an incredible ambassador for the sport.
Let’s not forget that, too.
Welcome to the big leagues, graduates
There is a fascinating dynamic emerging on the women’s side of the AVP Tour: new vs. old, green vs. experienced, one generation vs. another.
The NCAA beach season in reality came to an end on May 13, during the USA Volleyball Collegiate Beach Championships. Conveniently, AVP Austin was the very next week.
Enter the first wave of four-year collegiate beach players.
The household names, Sara Hughes and Kelly Claes, were over in Brazil, doing Sara Hughes and Kelly Claes things — upsetting Brazilians, storming to a fifth-place finish in their first professional event.
And they split six grand.
While their USC peers, Nicolette Martin and Allie Wheeler, didn’t quite pocket $3,000 apiece, they did make a main draw, take a ninth and upset a few AVP Tour veterans.
Very USC of them, really.
But it’s far from limited to Southern Cal’s finest.
Florida State’s Jace Pardon and Aurora Davis have already established themselves as main-draw regulars.
Hawaii’s Katie Spieler is like a tiny little superhero. Her fellow Rainbow Warriors, Karissa Cook and Brittany Tiegs, also played well into the weekend.
Pepperdine’s Lara Dykstra has now qualified for a main draw four years in a row.
LMU’s Betsi Metter Flint, who played two seasons of beach in college, has already won an event and played in another two finals. Her partner, Kelly Larsen, a two-time All-American on the sand for Pepperdine, didn’t finish outside of ninth throughout the entire 2016 season.
Kelly Reeves, UCLA’s first-ever sand volleyball All-American, finished fifth.
Geena Urango, one-half of the affable and charming Team TexMex, alongside Angela Bensend, was USC’s first scholarship recipient for sand volleyball. She played in Sunday’s semifinals.
The veterans were the ones in the finals. But give it time.
A new era of women’s beach volleyball is well on its way.
The real winner of the weekend: Austin, Texas
I can’t blame you if you skipped out on Phil Dalhausser’s post-finals interview with Dain Blanton. Post-match interviews are the worst— scripted questions with answers so dull and boring you’d either be left in tears or snores.
But Dalhausser asked something rather interesting after he and Nick Lucena dismissed Rosenthal and Crabb:
Why had it been so long since the AVP returned to Austin, Texas?
You may recall that Dalhausser and Lucena picked up their first career win in Austin in 2005. There is a grainy YouTube video of the final few points of the match, and though the quality is awful, it’s impossible to miss the incredible atmosphere. It’s loud. Not a single person is sitting. It’s packed well beyond capacity.
Simply put, it was amazing.
Granted, the finals in 2005 provided much better viewing than the finals of 2017, but the guy had a point.
Why hadn’t the AVP returned to Austin sooner?
Even the qualifying tournament had packed crowds around most courts. It helped that the locals, Troy Schlicker and Francisco Quesada-Paneque, put on a hell of a show, but still: It’s a qualifier.
And the place was nuts! Cuban flags being waved, Texas flags being waved, far more alcohol than was likely allowed flowed. It was excellent.
Dare I say it was a better crowd than Huntington Beach?
Perhaps there’s a reason for that. Those fortunate enough to live in Huntington Beach — not that living in Texas is by any means unfortunate— get to see these guys every day. Just wander out to the Huntington Beach Pier or 8th Street in Hermosa Beach any day of the week and you’ll catch a few Olympians.
Maybe we take it for granted.
The Texans showed up in massive numbers, and they were loud, and they were excited, and they were everything a beach volleyball crowd should be.
They were wonderful hosts. They have phenomenal barbecue and if you have never had a Round Rock donut, I can only recommend you have at least 10 without an ounce of remorse afterwards. It’s worth it.
Everything about the AVP going to Austin was worth it from the rain to the wind to the odd little baseball/softball park-turned beach volleyball complex.
So cheers to you, Austin.
See y’all next year.