Billy Allen couldn’t enjoy it. Not a year ago. Not really.
A year ago, Allen hardly even got to warm up for the AVP Seattle final. He and Theo Brunner, with an FIVB qualifier in Hamburg just a few days away, were booking it to the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, checking their bags between the semifinal and the final, hightailing it back just in time to be introduced for the gold-medal match against Taylor and Trevor Crabb.
“I was stressed out because of that,” Allen told me a few months ago. “But it also helped out because it never gave me time to worry about playing in a final. We were just so worried about making it to the airport that it just kind of helped with the nerves.”
Evidently so. Allen and Brunner won in three sets for Allen’s first AVP Tour win.
A quick picture and an abbreviated celebration later, he and Brunner sped to the airport, caught their flight, qualified, played in an FIVB main draw, flew to Poland, made that main draw, too, and flew home.
Then, and only then, could Allen finally digest the fact that he was an AVP champion.
“As soon as it was over, I had all these people over, like family wanting to celebrate with us, but it was like ‘Sorry! Gotta go!’” Allen recalled. “It was definitely happening so fast. You weren’t even taking it all in. It wasn’t until the flight home from our FIVB trip that I was like, ‘Oh yeah, that was pretty cool, I won that tournament.’ ”
There was no hurry this past Sunday.
Allen and Stafford Slick, skipping the FIVB five-star event in Croatia this week, were able to bask in their 21-13, 13-21, 15-11 victory.
“I think I always have a partner who’s hot,” Allen said. “Both of my wins ended with my partner blocking a ball, which is nice.”
Just as it was for Allen last year, Seattle will forever be home to Slick’s first victory as well.
And, as wins often do, it might just mark a turning point in his career.
A year before Sunday, almost to the day, Slick was in the semifinals in San Francisco. He was playing with John Mayer, the defending MVP of the AVP, Slick’s third partner in six events.
Slick had been to semifinals before –- one in 2013, two in 2014, another in 2015 -– but something about his demeanor suggested that he was just happy to be there, which is fine, because to make the semifinals of an AVP is a tremendous accomplishment. He waved to the crowd. Celebrated everything, with everyone.
It didn’t appear that he expected to be there, nor did it appear that he expected to win.
This year is markedly different.
He still celebrates. He’s still a fan-favorite, peppering with kids before matches, being genial with volunteers. He’s still loud and fun. But it seems he’s more present, I guess you could say, with what’s happening on the court, and it’s paying dividends.
“I think that happens with a lot of people,” Allen said. “You kind of reach some of those earlier goals and you’re happy to be there but then it kind of shifts and you’re not just happy to be there anymore. It probably helped that we played in a final [in New York] two weeks before. You get that out of your system. He was fired up like he always is but he was more focused, he was onto his next play quicker. He would still make a good play and celebrate but he looked like he was on a mission.”
He’s making blocks that, last year, he may have very well been tooled on. He’s still setting sauce. His decision-making –- to shoot instead of trying to bury it on the two-foot-line, for example –- is vastly improved.
“He turned into the Incredible Hulk. Ever since he cut his hair he’s been playing great,” Allen said, laughing. “I think we all kind get one dimensional and we get stuck, and his was always to hit hard angle and then guys would key in on that but he’s been throwing in shots he’s never done.”
Much of this is due in part to Slick finding some consistency in a partner who appears to be perfect for him.
Where Slick is young, voluble and incredibly physical, Allen may be the most understated player on Tour, rivaled, perhaps, only by Mayer, his good friend and podcast co-host. At 35, he’s a Tour veteran. Where Slick bounces, Allen cuts and carves.
They’re a dangerous combo for all of the aforementioned reasons, though perhaps none more than this: Slick, aside from Phil Dalhausser, may be the best-setting blocker in the country along with perhaps Trevor Crabb; Allen, a former setter at Cal State Northridge, should be in discussions as one of the best-setting defenders.
They run a fun, mixed offense, with shoots and quicks and options and tempos and all sorts of movement that’s only possible with two high-level setters and elite passers.
“He’s a really good setter,” Allen said of Slick. “We’ve been working on different plays, mixing it up in case we ever get stuck in side-out, sprinkle in some more options.”
In four events this season, Allen and Slick’s worst finish is a fifth, in Huntington Beach. Their only losses this season, with one exception, have come at the hands of at least one Olympian and an individual bearing the last name Crabb.
That’s good company to be in.
That’s the company they belong in.
Partnership shuffles: Eric Zaun and Ed Ratledge are together again.
Yup, it’s about that time for musical chairs, beach-volleyball edition.
After most any tournament, there is a partner shuffle, players dropping and grabbing new partners, either in an effort to boost points, potential, or both. Before Seattle, we saw one of the more questionable breakups when Ed Ratledge and Eric Zaun split after taking consecutive fifths.
It made for some intense drama in a first-round matchup that lived up to its billing, as Ratledge and Reid Priddy played Zaun and Marty Lorenz.
The veterans made good use of the scoring freeze –- I hate to admit it, but I’m becoming a fan of it –- and won in three sets, using two sizable comebacks, making for excellent drama and reality-TV emotions.
“More emotions than I know how to handle,” Ratledge wrote on his Facebook after, though, for what it’s worth, he handled them by hugging everyone in sight.
And now they’re back!
Zaun and Ratledge, to the probable unanimous approval of the beach volleyball community, have joined forces once more.
“It was ‘volley karma’ for my dumb butt dumping Adam Johnson,” Ratledge said. “Thankfully, the Volleyball Gods are merciful and accepted my repentance.”
Priddy, meanwhile, has picked up Ricardo, as Chaim Schalk will be in Gstaad with his Canadian partner, Ben Saxton.
Summer of Summer: I feel like, for all the hubbub being made about Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross breaking up and Sara Hughes and Kelly Claes graduating from USC and entering the professional ranks, arguably the most talented blocker –- and certainly the one with the highest future ceiling -– not named Kerri was nudged to the side a bit.
It was viewed as almost an adorable surprise when Summer Ross and Brooke Sweat crashed the Moscow FIVB event on the first weekend of June, winning five straight matches to make the final.
I don’t really know why so many people were taken aback.
It’s a sports fan’s natural instinct to look ahead to the next big thing. Claes and Hughes are viewed nearly unanimously as such, though it’s worth investigating how, exactly, Summer Ross has been overlooked in that regard.
She’s 24-years-old with Rosenthal-esque precocity, making her first main draw as a 16-year-old. In 2013, in Cincinnati with Emily Day, she became the first team in history, male or female, to win a tournament after coming through a qualifier.
Their worst finish that year was third. Summer could not yet enjoy an appropriate celebratory beverage.
Now, in an immediately successful partnership with Sweat, Ross has played in two American events and played in two finals. They won in Seattle, dismissing another promising young team in Betsi Flint and Kelley Larsen, who are a combined 49 years old.
On American soil, Ross-Sweat has lost just one match and two total sets, to Lauren Fendrick and April Ross in the final in New York.
All of that is nice, but the fact that stands out the most is this: In the final in Seattle, a 21-17, 24-22 display of dominance, Summer had 21 kills without a single hitting error.
In 145 attacks on the weekend, she erred just nine times.
For comparison’s sake, Fendrick, who took fifth with Lane Carico, made one more error in 43 fewer attacks.
Ross will probably never lead the AVP in blocks, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because she’s just a different type of blocker. She takes her space, funnels to the defender. Given Sweat’s propensity not just for digs, in which she finished second in Seattle, but digs that are so easy they turn into dig-kills, Ross is doing her job quite well.
While we’re on the topic of unconventional kills, what in the world has gotten into the women of the AVP Tour?
Maybe they’ve been watching a lot of Polish men, with their wonky offenses and oversets for points and dig-kills, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many unconventional methods of scoring points in a single weekend.
Sweat is at the top of that list.
I’m all for it. The less energy a player needs to expend on scoring a point, the better. No player on Tour does this as well as Sweat, whose vision is off the charts, which complements ball control I can only describe as magnetic. A lazy shot from whomever she’s playing will result in a bump-kill to the back corner, or an easy on-two set for Ross, or a one-handed slap-swing thing, or a dink, or something that will score a point without the use of all three touches.
Some call this dirty. I call it efficient.
Work smarter, not harder.
Even April Ross got into it in New York, tomahawking to the line and back corner whenever she could. This was due, in large part, to a foot injury. Going over on one and two limited her jumps.
Injury or not, why spend energy if you don’t have to?
Fendrick must have killed 20 balls this weekend with dump-sets over her shoulder. And it’s not just the women, either.
The men, and one team in particular, are throwing in some junk.
Introducing the over-setting, jump-bumping, most watchable team on Tour: I could watch Rafu Rodriguez-Bertran and Piotr Marciniak play volleyball all day long. For that same reason, I wouldn’t particularly enjoy playing against them, simply because nobody ever has any idea what’s going to happen on any play, ever. I don’t even know if Rafu is aware of what he is about to do before he does it.
He jump-sets. He jump-set-kills. He oversets in front of him. He oversets behind him. He serves with pinpoint accuracy or devastating velocity or both.
The general reaction, per dozens of offended Facebook commenters, was this: DIRTY! CHEAP! HOW COULD HE?
I couldn’t disagree more. I see a guy who is having more fun than anybody else on the court, scoring, like Sweat and Fendrick, in a more efficient manner than anybody else on the court.
And then there’s Marciniak, a 30-year-old Polish blocker with a whippy arm swing and near flawless decision making.
I can’t decide what’s more confounding: The fact that he jump-bump-sets with the accuracy of most hand-sets, or that this dude hits the net like 10 times a match. Rich Lambourne was chuckling nonstop on the livestream because Marciniak just could not stay out of the net. There is, of course, a cost-benefit analysis to that aggression. Marciniak finished the tournament with 10 blocks in seven sets, a 1.43 average that made a massive difference in an easy win over Maddison McKibbin and Ty Loomis in the first round of the contender’s bracket.
I hope this team stays together – and they have said that they are, but a verbal commitment from a beach volleyball player is not exactly etched in stone – not only because they’re very, very good, but they’re just fun to watch.
Speed kills: John Hyden and Tri Bourne were the first. YouTubers may credit the creatively-inclined Polish team of Piotr Kantor and Bartosz Losiak as one of the first beach volleyball pairings to really make use of the entire volleyball court, deploying an armada of jump-sets, shoots, pin-to-pin movement and options. But Bourne and Hyden were the first to truly utilize it. The Polish just make it look cooler.
Hyden will intentionally shove passes to the left and start sprinting to the right. With Bourne or his new partner, Ryan Doherty, this is deadly, as both blockers can blast an on-two hit, and both set well enough to give Hyden, one of the most efficient side-out players in America, a shoot set or a lob to the pin that spreads the defense. It’s close to impossible to stop when the set is there.
That speedy offense has spread like contagion on the AVP Tour this year.
Allen and Slick are running it to perfection.
Mayer and Casebeer use it less, though Mayer, a lefty who has typically taken a traditional, up-and-down set, is moving more, taking lobs and quicks outside that vexed Ricardo Santos, one of the best blockers in world history.
Even Gibb, a model of consistency, is mixing up the speeds and tempos with Taylor Crabb.
It’s worth noting particularly in the wake of Seattle because three of the four teams in the semifinals – Crabb-Gibb, Allen-Slick, Mayer-Casebeer – have gone to, in varying levels, a somewhat quirky, less traditional offense.
The only semifinal team who maintained a standard, up-and-down, consistent offense is Trevor Crabb and Sean Rosenthal. No need to change, really. They made the finals in Austin, semis in New York, finals in Seattle.
It’s not necessary to run a complex offense, but given the teams that went the distance in Seattle, and the absence and relative struggles of a more old-school team in Casey Patterson and Theo Brunner, we may be seeing more of this on the AVP.