Mewhirter on AVP San Francisco: A “mess” that will be fun to watch

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Mark Burik will compete with Marty Lorenz in AVP San Francisco/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

The AVP tour continues this week in San Francisco. It’s an open field, considering that many of the top pairs are at FIVB Gstaad, and the seeding continues to fluctuate as teams drop out and late point additions are taken into account. Tour wannabe Travis Mewhirter, who will be playing in Thursday’s qualifier and whose own seed changed twice in a few hours, continues to break down the AVP for VolleyballMag.com.

Upon looking at the initial entry list for AVP San Francisco, the tour’s fifth stop of the season, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a scene from Zack Snyder’s movie, 300, when the Spartans call in the help of the less-refined Greek warriors.

“They make a wondrous mess of things,” Dilios, the narrator, says. “Brave amateurs. They do their part.”

Wondrous mess might be the most apt two-word summation of what San Francisco is shaping to be.

On the men’s side, gone are America’s top teams –- Dalhausser-Lucena, Crabb-Gibb, Crabb-Rosenthal, Patterson-Brunner, Doherty-Hyden –- on an extended overseas trip to Porec and Gstaad for five-star FIVBs, leaving in their wake perhaps the most wide-open tournament in the last quad, maybe even in the Donald Sun era.

The entire field combined has less than 10 AVP wins.

Ed Ratledge and Eric Zaun, happily reunited, are the No. 3 seed, yet neither have ever finished better than fifth.

It made for easy prey for the older guys, one foot out the door, one foot dangling in a pool of points, which is why we’re seeing gentlemen like Dave McKienzie and Curt Toppel rubbing their points together and conjuring a 9 seed.

McKienzie has played exactly two competitive matches this year: One in Australia with Ed Ratledge, the other in Malaysia with Andrew Dentler. He lost both, and failed to break pool in the Santa Barbara CBVA Open last weekend. Toppel plays once every few weeks.

Six-foot-8 Duncan Budinger hasn’t played an AVP event in three years, and yet there he is, locking down the No.11 seed with Kevin McColloch.

A wondrous mess, you see?

Even the regular players are mixed up and backwards. Mike Brunsting is coaching at junior nationals, so Chase Frishman will be playing his first-ever AVP without his lefty blocker, teaming up with the nomadic Avery Drost. It should be a good team, though realistically, how can we know what to expect from a team nobody has seen play?

Mark Burik, after a surprising first-round knockout at the hands of Shane Donohue and Eric Lucas in the New York qualifier, has partnered up with Marty Lorenz. The only occasion in which these two have played together is in a country quota in Austria in 2016, where they lost in three to Billy Allen and Theo Brunner.

Who knows what’ll happen with Reid Priddy and Ricardo Santos? If the AVP were to set up radar guns –- Priddy occasionally brings one to practice, though I’ve never asked how fast his hits are –- I’d expect these two would be among the tops in hitting speed. Maybe they’ll just bludgeon teams to death.

Maybe they’ll go two and barbeque.

Who knows.

All we really know is that nobody knows anything about how this main draw will go down, with the exception that Stafford Slick and Billy Allen, coming off two straight finals, should be objectively looked at as the favorites. John Mayer and Jeremy Casebeer are the easy-to-peg next challenger.

After that?

Enjoy the mess.

That mess, by the way, is not limited to the main draw. Far from it. As for the “brave amateurs,” the qualifiers?

We’ll do our part.

Top seed doesn’t mean the easiest road: Rafu Rodriguez-Bertran and the jump-bumping Piotr Marciniak sealed up the final main draw berth by the hairs of their chinny chin chins, edging out Brian Cook and Adam Roberts by just nine points. Cook, a Stanford alum, has played in only two AVP qualifiers, the first being in Manhattan Beach last year, the next in Huntington with Miles Evans to open the season. He lost in the first round in Manhattan and the final round, to Frishman and Brunsting, in Huntington, and if he has picked up a main draw mainstay like Roberts, the guy clearly has some talent.

But if the seeding remains as it is, with 40 total teams and Cook-Roberts as the top seed and Ian Satterfield and Shane Donohue as the 17, this may be the toughest road for any of the top seeds.

Satterfield made his first main draw appearance in Austin with Orlando Irizarry, and nearly upset Rodriguez-Betran and Marciniak with Paul Araiza in the final qualifying round in Seattle, losing a fantastic three-set match.

Donohue, champion of the Pottstown Rumble, blitzed through the New York qualifier as the 29 seed, authoring the upset of the tournament in beating Burik in what was Burik’s first round (Donohue had to play in a pigtail, which funnily enough went to three sets).

These two, at the 17 seed, are the qualifier’s biggest land mine, and should, if all goes as expected, make for a heck of a second-round match with Roberts and Cook, which I think would serve as the de facto championship for this quadrant.

No Olympians for Clemens-Vaught: Of all the groaning I’ve made for Rafu, who has had the unenviable task of playing Canadian Olympian Chaim Schalk in the first round twice this year, Ben Vaught and Branden Clemens have actually had the shorter end of the stick in terms of draws.

Three times they have had to play Schalk and either Priddy or Ricardo. They won the first, in Huntington Beach, and were easily dismissed in the next two.

Alas, with Schalk overseas and Ricardo and Priddy safely in the main draw, they don’t have to worry about playing some of the most decorated men in history in the qualifier.

Though the road is never easy in a qualifier, when compared to what they’re used to, this is a cakewalk.

In their quadrant, should the seeding remain as is, will be an always-confounding team in Marcin Jagoda and Tomas Salava, a sweet-setting pair of international players –- Jagoda for Poland, Salava for the Czech Republic –- who may not necessarily have the endurance required to make it through an entire qualifier, but certainly enough to provide an upset here and there.

At the opposite end of the bracket will be Tim May and Travis Woloson, a physical duo with a pair of nasty serves the complement each other well, May with a thunderous jumper, Woloson a knuckle-ball float. They nearly made it through in Seattle, pushing Brunsting and Frishman to three sets.

If the wind is doing typical San Francisco wind things, an aggressive-serving team is not one many look forward to seeing.

Sweet vengeance and enigmas: Revenge is a dish evidently served not cold, but in abundance. That seems to be the theme of the third quadrant at least.

This quadrant includes me, the No. 20 seed alongside a fellow Travis bearing the last name Schoonover. He’s a 6-foot-3 defender making the transition from the NVL, where he won once and was named the Best Defensive Player in 2015, to the AVP. I hope I can help get him there.

But first, a little vengeance would need to be in order. The initial entry list would have us play Brian Miller and Brett Ryan. If you’re a regular reader of this space, you’ll know that they sent me packing in Austin in the first round. I’m still conducting the postmortem: What if I served here? Swung there? Optioned instead of set?

It’s not very helpful.

In truth, Miller and Ryan played very well, and continued to do so, losing in the final round to Rafaa Quesada-Paneque and Troy Schlicker, the hometown boys, in the final round.

You’ll never guess who the winner of our match would, barring something very strange, meet in the second round.

None other than No. 3 Quesada-Paneque and Schlicker.

I’m sure Miller and Ryan would love to see them again, just as I’m confident to say that the Austin fellas likely have a bone to pick with me after I promptly ignored them in the preview of the Austin qualifier, which they breezed through without dropping a single set.

So the first two matches will be quite interesting, vengeance or vindication all around, and I’m quite curious to see who will come out of the bottom of our quadrant to meet one of us in the final round.

The on-paper favorites are No. 6 Chris Luers and Brandon Kelly. Luers typically plays with Jon Drake, but they’ve been bounced in their second match of three consecutive qualifiers and felt it was time to shake things up. Kelly, a 6-foot-4 34-year-old out of Indianapolis, has played exactly one AVP event every year since Donald Sun took over. He has yet to win more than one qualifying match.

It makes for an enigmatic 6 seed, though the team I’m intensely curious to see is Myles Muagututia and Paul Lotman. With Alejandro Parra, Lotman’s usual partner, healing a balky back, he will finally – and thankfully – be blocking full-time, for one of the most deceptive, heavy-handed defenders I’ve had the pleasure of playing with.

How they’ll do together is yet to be seen. With how well Muagututia sets, it would be –- how should I put it? –- unwise to serve Lotman, who hits harder than most humans. But with the funk that Muagututia puts on his shots and swings, well, I’m interested to see what happens.

When it’s all said and done, this is the quad that will provide the most intriguing matchups and partnerships.

Sauter vs. Cory-Hamilton, round two: It seems that every qualifier has one quadrant where few surprises are expected, and few, if any, surprises are given. The final quadrant is exactly that. I really don’t see any reason for No.4 Raffe Paulis and Spencer Sauter to exit prior to the final round, just as I really don’t see any reason for No. 5 JD Hamilton and Evan Cory to either.

The VanZwietens, Mark and Steve, could provide some intrigue should they win their opener against Danko Iordanov and Chris McDonald, although you never really know with Iordanov, either. He’s a lefty playing on the left, which is stupidly weird to block and just all around strange to play against, and McDonald can chase down a lot of balls, so this one could be a fun one to watch.

Regardless, I’d be kind of shocked if the final wasn’t Paulis-Sauter vs. Cory-Hamilton. Sauter surely wants to see the latter again, after they knocked him out in a wild three-setter in Seattle.

Priscilla Piantaadosi-Lima will run it back with Kerri Schuh in the AVP San Francisco qualifier/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Women’s field up for grabs: Two names on the women’s entry list immediately jumped out to me: Alex Klineman and Jace Pardon.

Both are very good volleyball players and I generally don’t like to see very good volleyball players stuck in qualifiers.

I think Klineman made an excellent move in partnering up with the nomadic Lane Carico, who has played in seven events in four American cities and five countries with four partners. This is a partnership I think could stick and one that pulls Klineman out of the qualifier and into the main draw.

On a similar note, Pardon, fresh off a NORCECA trip to Jamaica and Klineman’s former partner, has reunited with Brittany Tiegs, with whom she played the 2016 season and enjoyed a fair amount of success.

I’d expect both of these teams to do well, and realistically, I think there are easily six teams in the main draw that could go home with a win.

Betsi Flint and Kelley Larsen and Jennifer Fopma and Kelly Reeves are torrid at the moment, and Emily Day and Brittany Hochevar may be the most consistent of the bunch.

Team TexMex -– Geena Urango and Angela Bensend –- are fresh off a huge win over Sara Hughes and Kelly Claes in Seattle, and I can never ignore one of the best defenders ever, Xi Zhang, who squeaked in with Kimberly Smith.

Relatively speaking, I think the level of volleyball, with five mens teams amiss, is higher on the women’s side for San Francisco, and that certainly trickled down into another monstrosity of a qualifier.

Perpetually on the brink: Brittany Howard and Corinne Quiggle, coming off of successful careers at Pepperdine, have had two brutal draws in the only two events they’ve played together, losing their first match in three to Pri Lima and Kerri Schuh in New York and Jo Kremer and Jessica Sykora in three in Seattle. 

Coming through the bottom of the quadrant should be No. 8 Branagan Fuller and Delaney Knudsen. Both of them have also been on the brink of qualifying this season, teetering on the edge, coming so tantalizingly close and then just barely losing.

If nothing else, there will certainly be intrigue, and likely a three-set match, in the final round.

Jamaica to SF: Welcome back to the United States, Karissa Cook and Katie Spieler! The second-seeded team is back from a successful NORCECA trip to Jamaica, where they placed third. 

I love Spieler’s game. She reminds me of Dash from The Incredibles, just this tiny little person pitter-pattering around a million miles an hour, touching everything, never hitting particularly hard but just hard and persistent enough to do the job.

Spieler and Cook, a former setter at Stanford, should cruise through their first two rounds, though who they’ll see in the final round would be anybody’s guess – No. 7 Bre Moreland and Jacqui Wood, No. 10 Camie Manwill and Maria Clara Salgado.   

Shaking off the jinx:  I hit Kerri Schuh and Pri Lima with the classic VolleyballMag.com jinx in Seattle. I labeled them as favorites to make it in, and then they fell short, losing to Knudsen and Deahna Kraft in the second round. While I don’t want to jinx them again, it also only makes sense to tag them as favorites again.

They were impressive in New York, where Lima, long one of the top players on the NVL, qualified for the AVP for the first time since 2013. Honestly, they played well in Seattle; Kraft and Knudsen just played better. Sometimes that happens.

The top contender to knock them off is No. 6 Mackenzie Ponnet and Molly Turner, who are fresh off their first main draw in Seattle. Despite only qualifying once, they have put together an impressive resume, upsetting Fuller and Brandie Wilkerson in New York and pushing Lane Carico and Sarah Pavan to three sets in the next round.

Stranger Danger: In 2011, Alexa Strange was the subject of an ESPN feature titled ‘Alexa Strange takes light approach.’ It was an easy, fun read, and in it Strange is quoted saying “They call me ‘Stranger Danger.’ But I’m going to be a doctor. Can you imagine? Dr. Strange?”

For those who don’t remember the movie, call her whatever you’d like, but I’ll label Strange, a national champion at USC, and partner Deketa Stubblefield, at the 36 seed, as a land mine.

As the 36 –- if nothing else changes with the entry list –- Strange and Stubblefield will be in the No. 4 quadrant, with Terese Cannon and Nicolette Martin, a crafty, error-limited team out of USC, as the No. 4. An excellent pair at USC, they were knocked out in the final round in Seattle, losing in three sets to Aurora Davis and Bree Scarbrough, which marked the only qualifier Martin has not made it through. By the way, Davis and Scarbrough were earlier in the week the top-seeded qualifiers but as of Wednesday moved up to No.12 in the main draw.

Should Strange and Stubblefield win their first, it will provide a fun, USC vs. USC matchup, and a much more difficult first-rounder for Martin and Wheeler than they would have liked.

The top contender will be Lara Dykstra and Allie Wheeler. Dykstra partnered with Pardon in Jamaica, and has had an excellent season thus far, qualifying in Austin and nearly doing so in New York while making a NORCECA final in the Cayman Islands. Wheeler, another former Trojan, is 2-for-2 this season, making both Austin and New York with Martin, with whom she took a ninth in Manhattan Beach last season.

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