Mewhirter: International flair, new rivalries spiced up a tremendous AVP NY

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Jake Gibb, left, and Taylor Crabb celebrated on Sunday/Robert Beck photo

The AVP made its third stop of 2017 in New York City this past weekend. Taylor Crabb claimed his first career victory, beating Billy Allen and Stafford Slick 21-16, 25-23 and extended Jake Gibb’s win total to 27. On the women’s side, April Ross and Lauren Fendrick defeated Summer Ross and Brooke Sweat 24-22, 21-15 for Ross’s second consecutive victory. It marked the third year in a row that Fendrick has a win on the AVP Tour.

What a difference a year makes.

In 2016, there may have been no tournament more uneventful and predictable than AVP New York.

Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena won five straight matches in five straight sets. Not a single team managed to score more than a total of 31 points on the Olympians. Their longest match was 50 minutes, which came in the finals against Jeremy Casebeer and Sean Rosenthal.

In the deciding set, they scored 12 points.

Of course, this is nothing less than a supreme compliment to Dalhausser and Lucena, who are so good at beach volleyball that watching them play on the AVP Tour is often tantamount to watching the Golden State Warriors play the Philadelphia 76ers: There may be exciting moments here and there, but the outcome is rarely, if ever, in doubt.

But, oh, what a difference a year, and an odd Brazilian-Canadian mish-mash of a team, can make.

Ricardo Santos, the legendary Brazilian blocker who provided The Wall for iconic defender Emanuel Rego, joined Canadian Chaim Schalk in the Big Apple. They were the 35th seed in the qualifier and they very nearly lost in the second round to another fine international pairing in Roberto Rodriguez-Bertran (Puerto Rico) and Piotr Marciniak (Poland). It went to three sets, and if nothing else details the unbelievable depth and strength of qualifiers, it should be this: That is the second time this season that Rodriguez-Bertran has played a team of Olympians in his first match, and that is the second time those Olympians needed all three sets to win a match early in a qualifier.

Santos and Schalk had little stress in their final two matches, which set up something rather incredible: The AVP Tour had an absolute can’t-miss, center court match in the first round of the main draw.

Suddenly, Dalhausser and Lucena had something of a rival, perhaps, dare I say, an equal.

Suddenly, a match that would typically take 30 yawning minutes was almost guaranteed intrigue, lest Schalk and Santos lost their legs from four matches in the previous day’s qualifier.

They didn’t.

Instead, Santos and Schalk accomplished what only one other team –- Rodriguez-Bertran and Kevin McColloch — has ever done: Being a 16 seed to beat a No. 1.

Q35 toppled what many could justifiably argue is the best team in the world.

The ripple effect was wonderful.

Suddenly we had every reason to pay attention to the contender’s bracket –- before the weekend!

Could Phil and Nick, one week removed from winning a stacked three-star FIVB in Moscow, possibly take a 13th on the AVP Tour? No, as it turned out, because they withdrew because Lucena left when his wife, Florida State coach Brooke Niles, went into labor.

The intrigue only snowballed when 11th-seeded Eric Zaun and Ed Ratledge, perhaps the surprise team of the year, upset Billy Allen and Stafford Slick in the first round and then stunned Casey Patterson and Theo Brunner in the second.

That set up perhaps the greatest ninth-place match –- Dalhausser and Lucena beat the Bomgrens brothers in the first round of the contenders — anybody could have asked for: Dalhausser-Lucena vs. Patterson-Brunner.

It wouldn’t be wrong for anybody to claim those two teams as the best our country has to offer.

And they were playing for ninth?

That was incredible.

And everything the AVP needs.

It began with Santos and Schalk. The dominoes fell from there.

But, so many of you have argued on social media, this is America’s Tour!

A Brazilian and a Canadian? On the AVP Tour?

Blasphemy!

Stop it. Please. I beg you. 

The AVP is no more “America’s Tour” than the NBA or MLB or PGA Tour or MLS would be “America’s Leagues.”

Would the NBA spurn Dirk Nowitzki or Manu Ginobli or Tony Parker because they’re not American?

Would the MLS say “no thanks, Lionel Messi, we don’t need your talent here”?

Would the PGA Tour dismiss Rory McIlroy?

Absolutely not.

The AVP is no different, or at least, it certainly shouldn’t be.

What could have possibly been the benefit of the AVP turning down Santos, perhaps the greatest blocker in beach volleyball history, and Chaim Schalk, a well-established Canadian Olympic talent, on the grounds that they are not United States citizens?

It should go without saying that the AVP is not exactly bringing in NFL or NBA-type money or hype. Domestic players are not stuffing millions into their bank accounts, and almost all of them can walk to the grocery store without a single person recognizing them.

Slick joked to me a few months ago that “we’re not going to see an AVP Cribs anytime soon” on MTV.

The AVP may not be a beggar, but it is not in any position to be a chooser, particularly when it comes to players like Schalk and Santos.

Those two aren’t going to single-handedly bring in millions of revenue and eyeballs for the AVP, but they certainly sparked discussion, and made for a number of matches that were far more exciting than if it had been a different qualifying team playing in them.

Ty Loomis-Marty Lorenz vs. Santos-Schalk in the second round was another can’t-miss match and another three-set thriller. 

So was Santos-Schalk vs. Sean Rosenthal-Trevor Crabb, a win for the Americans.

So was Santos-Schalk vs. Patterson-Brunner, a three-set win for the international stars.

So was Santos-Schalk vs. Jake Gibb-Taylor Crabb in the semifinals, which set up Taylor’s best opportunity to win his first-ever AVP tournament.

Like it or not, American or not, teams like Santos-Schalk –- some of the best the world has to offer –- can be a critical ingredient to AVP volleyball.

April Ross, left, and Lauren Fendrick celebrate winning AVP New York/Robert Beck photo

Life without Kerri: Weird is really the only word I have to describe what it was like to watch the first two tournaments without Kerri Walsh Jennings. This is a woman who had her last 11 AVP tournaments.

When she entered, you knew the result.

A beach-volleyball tournament will never be improved when bereft of Walsh Jennings, but her absence has certainly made things unpredictable and, in turn, nicely suspenseful.

It is the not knowing that has been great through these first three tournaments. There is no longer a cut-and-dry, top-down pecking order, rather a mess of four, five, six, maybe even seven teams that slug it out, making for excellent matches all the way through.

It’s fun to watch enormous talents such as Kim DiCello and Emily Stockman coming into their own, and seeing the blink-and-you-missed-it ascension of Brooke Sweat and Summer Ross, who battled through the brutal path of Lane Carico-Sarah Pavan, Kelly Claes-Sara Hughes, Emily Day-Brittany Hochevar, DiCello-Stockman to the finals, in straight sets, no less.

Of course, April Ross is still April Ross, and she is very much the best player in the United States not named Kerri Walsh Jennings. When playing alongside Lauren Fendrick, a fellow Olympian, they are the unquestionable favorites.

But they are not the monolith that was Kerri Walsh-Misty May and Kerri Walsh-April Ross. They are beatable, even if it takes a monumental effort to beat them.

That’s not a bad thing.

Through three events, we have seen seven different teams make the semifinals, and we have yet to see the same team make the finals.

We’ve had:

Betsi Flint-Kelley Larsen vs. Day-Hochevar (Huntington)

Whitney Pavlik-April Ross vs. DiCello-Stockman (Austin)

Summer Ross-Sweat vs. April Ross-Fendrick (New York). 

Parity begat from mediocrity is Kryptonite for sports. But parity begat from excellence, as we’re seeing on the women’s side of the AVP Tour?

That’s a recipe for must-watch volleyball.

It was only a matter of time: As inevitable as a sunrise, a change of the seasons, an ocean tide’s victory against valiantly built sand castles. 

Taylor Crabb was going to win an AVP tournament.

In 2016, Taylor and Trevor Crabb had made every single semifinal and advanced to three finals. They lost a fun match to Casey Patterson and Gibb in Huntington, and blew an 8-3 lead in the third set to Billy Allen and Theo Brunner in Seattle. After a third in New York, they dropped yet another final, this one in San Francisco, to Gibb and Patterson again.

But you knew, you just knew, that it was only a matter of time.

June 11 in New York City was that time. Taylor’s time.

Not a single team managed to take a set off Gibb and Crabb, which is extraordinary in itself. Even more extraordinary is the fact that they resumed such dominant form after the worst tournament of their nascent partnership, failing to break pool in Moscow.

“I got more comfortable,” Crabb told NBC’s Dain Blanton afterwards. “The first three [finals], I didn’t know what to expect. This one felt more like every other game. It felt easy.”

Easy?

It certainly wasn’t. Billy Allen, one of the most efficient and underrated players on Tour, was his usual brilliant self. He dug everything he should have, and many that only a special few others could have, set perfectly, sided out at a high clip. Stafford Slick, a Minnesota native playing in his first AVP final, put on quite a show himself, bouncing balls, swatting lazy shots, pleasing the crowd.

But bouncing balls and pleasing crowds only goes so far against Jake Gibb.

I forget what player compared Gibb to Tim Duncan, the great San Antonio Spur, but it’s a spot-on comparison. Like Duncan, nicknamed “The Big Fundamental” for, you guessed it, his mastery of the fundamentals, Gibb is not flashy. He does his job, and he does it exceptionally well.

One does not simply luck into three Olympics and 27 AVP titles.

Like Duncan, Gibb is one of the best at his craft, even if he may not have the highlight videos to show for it.

Like Duncan, Gibb is soft-spoken, humble, a great ambassador for beach volleyball.

Gibb has won with partners of all types. He has won with the freakishly athletic (Rosenthal), the voluble (Patterson), the hyper-effective (Stein Metzger).

You had to know it wouldn’t be long before he won with the best that this next wave of beach volleyball talent has to offer.

When Crabb is on, as he was all tournament long, it wouldn’t be wrong to put his name in discussion with Lucena, Italy’s Daniele Lupo, Bruno, and the Russian Viacheslav Krasilnikov as one of the best defenders in the world. He’s that good, though perhaps a tad young (25 years old) to be as consistent as his Olympic peers.

Maybe we’ll see a snowball effect from here, for the proverbial monkey is off Crabb’s back.

And now the inevitable question: What player will get his first AVP Tour win next?

Tri Bourne goes Live! There are a lot of things that the AVP can probably improve in the packaging and delivering of its product, but chief among them was the livestream.

It cut out a ton –- it still does –- and was incredibly frustrating to watch. It still kind of is and a big reason for that was because it was just silent. Watching sports in default mute is an odd experience, especially in volleyball, when certain calls –- doubles, nets, if a ball is in or out, to name a few –- aren’t immediately evident.

But the AVP changed that by bringing in Tri Bourne to commentate throughout the weekend. Good on the AVP for two reasons. One, it was great to see Bourne, a phenomenal blocker and all-around good human being, back in volleyball; and two, it made the livestream a legitimately enjoyable thing to watch.

Bourne, for those who don’t know, has been out this season with a strange illness called myositis, which is, in essence, extreme inflammation that begets a myriad of awful conditions. He’s been restless, and it was nice to see him back in the game, even if he wasn’t playing.

With Bourne, watching the livestream was 100 times better. It was great to have some personality and someone to speak knowledgeably on the sport.

A few poked fun at Bourne because, sure, he’s not exactly Vin Scully. But there are a lot of athletes who aren’t exactly Vin Scully –- Charles Barkley immediately comes to mind — who are super entertaining to have on camera.

Bourne was entertaining. He made it fun. I legitimately laughed out loud when he said, while watching Ed Ratledge, something to the effect of “There’s the wet noodle swing! He’s got an orange hat and a red shirt, he’s pigeon-toed and has one of the weirdest dialogues you’ve ever heard, but he’s ballin.”

He brought in Riley McKibbin, a childhood friend who is also out with an injury, and the banter was excellent. He brought in Todd Rogers, that vault of volleyball knowledge, the always smiling and affable Sara Hughes and roughly a dozen others. 

It was light and relaxed and fun and informative.

When Bourne (hopefully soon) returns to the AVP, the AVP should absolutely get somebody to fill in on the livestream for the rest of the events. 

NYC, the venue that should become a mainstay: I mentioned in my preview of the qualifier –- which, yes, the seeding changed after publication, rendering the majority of the writing inaccurate, but such is the capricious nature of writing about qualifying tournaments –- that I can’t stand New York City for a variety of reasons, namely because it is very far away and I do not have a lot of money to travel to venues very far away. 

But my goodness, I have to say, well done, New York City.

Almost every player I talked to agreed that NYC is their favorite venue. From the livestream and TV broadcasts and posts on social media, the venue seemed spectacularly telegenic and Bourne mentioned several times that it creates for some strange playing, given that there is water on all sides. The wind does weird things, and it creates a wholly unfamiliar background with the water, stands and a backdrop decorated with high-rises.

Along with the picturesque setting and some perfectly cooperative weather, the play itself was flat out unbelievable.

I can’t remember a tournament with so many memorable, exciting matches.

Six of the eight first-round matches featured at least one set that was decided by two points, and two went to three sets.

We saw one seismic upset after the next: Santos-Schalk over Dalhausser-Lucena, Ratledge-Zaun over Allen-Slick, Santos-Schalk over Loomis-Lorenz, Ratledge-Zaun over Brunner-Patterson, Santos-Schalk over Brunner-Patterson.

Even the matches that didn’t end in upsets were excellent television. Zaun and Ratledge were entertainment at its finest, going to three sets in three of their four matches, two of which were excellent bouts with Allen and Slick.

Trevor Crabb and Sean Rosenthal, too, provided mostly frenetic thrill rides. Each of their first three matches featured a set that went into extra points.

I’ll be the first to admit that Huntington Beach, where I live and the season-opening stop, was something of a letdown. I think the West Coast crowd sort of takes professional volleyball for granted, and it showed in both attendance and enthusiasm.

Austin, Texas, was a blast because the fans were so into it, which atoned for what I would describe as somewhat sleepy volleyball and an odd site in a park you might bring your little leaguer to for extra batting practice on the weekend. 

But New York City delivered the whole package. It featured excellent volleyball, at a sold-out venue the players love. It featured upsets and Cinderellas, new stars coming into their own, international powers establishing themselves, potential budding mini-rivalries (Zaun-Ratledge vs. Allen-Slick? Dalhausser-Lucena vs. Schalk-Santos? Brunner-Patterson vs. Schalk-Santos? Anybody vs. Schalk-Santos?), American mainstays.

It was a three-day summation of everything we love about beach volleyball.

“The Big Apple,” Ryan Doherty wrote on Facebook, “has officially embraced the AVP.”

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