Travis Mewhirter continues previewing AVP events for VolleyballMag.com. The former sportswriter turned beach-pro wannabe is playing AVP Hermosa this week. Here is his take:
The first thing Kevin Cleary will always remember is the crowd.
It didn’t begin as the massive, heckling contingent that would mob the Manhattan Beach Pier. It began simply, just a couple of his buddies from Mira Costa giving Steve O’Bradovich and Gary Hooper a tough time while the “bad boys of beach volleyball,” as Cleary describes them, were about to make quick work of Cleary and Joel Jones, a pair of unseeded teenagers.
Only that never happened.
Cleary and Jones, high school pals, stunned top-seeded Hooper and O’Bradovich in the first set of the Manhattan Beach Open, 11-8. Midway through the second, word had gotten out about the scrappy young teens taking it to beach volleyball’s loudest and most exuberant team.
“I’ll never forget about halfway through the second game, my head’s down in serve receive, and I look up and there are thousands of people around the court,” Cleary recalled. “I was like ‘Jesus, wow!’ The pier was lined with people and basically word had traveled around that these two kids in gym shorts were beating the No. 1 ranked team in the tournament.”
The kids won the second, sending the bad boys to the contenders bracket, where they would ultimately grind through to take third in the tournament.
This was 1978.
Six years later, Cleary would go on to become the first president of the AVP Tour and has missed only one or two Manhattan Beach Opens since. In 2010, he was inducted into the CBVA Hall of Fame.
And the guy is still playing.
Scroll down far enough on the endless AVP Hermosa Beach Open entry list and you can find him, just there, Kevin Cleary and Jack Walmer, seeded (initially) No. 82 in a qualifier of 86 teams.
Cleary will not qualify. The 58-year-old is not delusional, though he did take a third in a CBVA AA last year.
But his presence speaks to the over-arching theme of the Hermosa Beach Open, an event with enough tradition and mystique to draw out all of the ghosts of beach volleyball’s past.
If the Manhattan Beach Open is The Wimbledon of Beach Volleyball, Hermosa, an event steeped in beach volleyball lore, should be considered The Masters.
I’m not sure why the AVP hasn’t returned to Hermosa since 2010, when Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers beat John Mayer and Matt Prosser in the finals.
That’s another familiar name you’ll see: Prosser. Now seven years removed from playing in the finals on this very beach, the 38-year-old has a seed to match his age, Q38, with young Eric Beranek, who was born in 1996, two years before Prosser would begin a decorated, All-American worthy middle-blocking career with Long Beach State.
Four seeds ahead of them are Justin Phipps and Billy Strickland, who between them have played with more than 200 partners and nearly a full hand’s worth of Olympians: Phil Dalhausser, Nick Lucena, Dax Holdren, Reid Priddy.
One of those staggeringly high number of partners, Mike Placek (he played Manhattan and Cincinnati of 2013 with Strickland) is back, too. A semifinalist in AVP San Diego in 2008, Placek moved to the NVL through 2015 but hasn’t played professionally since. Now he’s partnered with Matt Motter, a physical blocker out of San Diego, and they’re sitting ominously at Q60. (I’d argue that those two are the most bad-ass 60-something seed ever, but Billy Allen and Ty Tramblie made their first main draw together – split blocking! – from Q66 in Huntington Beach of 2004.)
Dave Smith and Travis Schoonover, two seeds north of Phipps-Strickland, are not quite at that venerated wise-old-veteran status just yet, but Smith’s first main draw came in 1994, when this tournament was being won by men with names such as Kiraly and Steffes. Schoonover, at 34, has played in just shy of 80 professional events.
There are young land mines, too. Take Dylan Maarek, fresh off the NVL Long Beach finals, and Orlando Irizarry, once a member of the Puerto Rican national team who made a main-draw appearance in Austin.
Maarek’s first loss in that NVL came at the hands of Gabriel Ospina, who partnered with Paul Lotman and finished third. Ospina has scooped up Reuben Danley, a 39-year-old left-handed veteran with an exceptionally weird game – even for lefties – and a nasty, left-to-right jump serve that gave the McKibbins a hell of a time in Huntington Beach of 2016.
You know most of the others, the Austin Boys, Troy Schlicker and Rafaa Quesada-Paneque; the Midwest All-Stars in Chris Luers and Dan Buehring; Gym-Tan-Volleyball, Ian Satterfield and Paul Araiza; Block Big and Hit Bigger, Alejandro Parra and Paul Lotman; Sleepless in Seattle, Brian Miller and Brett Bryan.
I’m playing with my good friend David Ryan VanderMeer, who is 5-foot-10 going on 6-foot-8, beach volleyball’s Mighty Mouse. I don’t really know how he does it, but when we played in Huntington, he dug a hard-driven ball from Mike Boag and, had we been facing the pier, his transition swing would have bounced the ball well over the pier’s guard rails.
He did that for three straight matches.
So yes, I’m excited to play with DR, who works harder than anybody I’ve ever seen on a volleyball court, willing to eat sand even when he and everybody else in Southern California knows he’s not going to dig the shot he’s chasing.
I like guys like that, and yes, I think we can qualify, seeded initially as Q9.
Truth be told, I’d estimate that any of 25-30 teams could qualify, and I really don’t think that’s much of an exaggeration. There are dozens of teams that have been knocking on the main draw door all season, if not multiple seasons, and at some point, somebody is bound to answer. I think that’s the way qualifiers should be. Eight teams are coming out of this one, and while there are a lot of talented teams in the qualifier, I can’t point to a single one that doesn’t belong in it.
Qualifiers are rites of passage, the pledging process of beach volleyball. The right teams are in the main draw.
The rest of us still need to pledge for a bit.
As for that main draw? We’re in for all kinds of backwards, what in the world is about to happen volleyball.
Unlike San Francisco, I believe we have some clear favorites. Billy Allen and Stafford Slick, who I hope is healthy again, are the top seed, though I think I’d still slate Taylor Crabb and Jake Gibb, back home after an extended overseas trip, as the favorites.
But it would also be unwise, I think, to ignore the recent trend of first-time winners, of which we have had one in three consecutive tournaments, Taylor Crabb, Slick, Maddison McKibbin.
I’d love to see Trevor Crabb get his.
God. It’s gotta kill the guy to watch his kid brother pick up a win in New York and then one of his childhood best friends, McKibbin, do the same in San Francisco. Sure, I bet he’s happy for them, because he seems like a good human being, but at the end of the day, Trevor is a voracious competitor, and he now has full, unquestioned ownership of the Best Player Never to Have Won an AVP – yet.
He’ll win one. As it was with Taylor, it’s simply a matter of time for Trevor.
Perhaps Hermosa is that time.
But the rest of the field?
What the hell, guys?
Beach volleyball is now upside down and backwards and all kinds of jacked up.
Tim Bomgren and Curt Toppel are both blockers and they’re playing together. Mike Brunsting and Jeff Samuels are both blockers and they’re playing together. If you stack Jorge Martinez and Mark Burik –- defenders both –- on top of one another they might be able to give Phil Dalhausser a high-five. They’re playing together.
Avery Drost and Chase Frishman appear married for the season, both supremely happy with a fifth-place finish in their first tournament, in San Francisco, and it’s always fun to see a new team develop.
Drost and Frishman are the only mixup that appears to be fully committed. Toppel is likely serving as a band-aid for Brian Bomgren, who is nursing a bum knee. Derek Olson is overseas, doing something other than playing Hermosa.
By the time Manhattan Beach rolls around, Brunsting is going to have his pick of the litter of defenders. Ty Tramblie should be back from a three-week overseas coaching trip, and Riley McKibbin’s hand should be fully healed soon, as, per his Instagram – such a reliable source of journalism – he’s back on the beach. Kevin McColloch, resting up a creaky shoulder, should be back in the mix as well.
But it appears I’m putting the cart ahead of the horse.
Before Manhattan and the inevitable partner shake-up to come is this absurdly upside-down, top-heavy tournament, with the most teams a 24-team draw has had in recent memory, possibly ever.
Where in the world are the women? This isn’t some existential question or a query with some deeper meaning. If you were wondering why the women’s field looks strangely lighter than the men’s, it’s because the women are playing a Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego of beach volleyball.
Six female teams –- Kerri Walsh-Jennings and Nicole Branagh, Kelly Claes and Sara Hughes, Emily Day and Brittany Hochevar, Kim DiCello and Emily Stockman, Lauren Fendrick and April Ross, Summer Ross and Brooke Sweat –- are signed up for a four-star FIVB in Poland. Two more women teams – Betsi Flint and Kelley Larsen, Amanda Dowdy and Irene Pollock – are off to Korea for a one-star.
Day and Hochevar and DiCello and Stockman are also on the entry list for Hermosa, and I haven’t been able to confirm what country Day and Hochevar will be in, but DiCello and Stockman lost a tight three-set country quota match to Walsh-Jennings and Branagh and will make it home in time for Hermosa.
It’s unfortunate that we have yet to see a fully stocked women’s tournament this year on the AVP. Brooke Sweat and Summer Ross have made it patently clear that their priority is international volleyball, which is totally fine and completely understandable. It’s just a bummer for American fans who will only get to see them a handful of times, because Ross is a generational talent, and her chemistry with Sweat makes them tremendously fun to watch.
Hughes and Claes, too, appear to be FIVB first, AVP second, and while it was a blast watching them stick it to the 2016 Olympic gold-medalists, Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst, in Long Beach, it was also a display of what we continually miss over here in the States while they go play excellent ball internationally.
With no April Ross and Lauren Fendrick, or Hughes and Claes, or Ross and Sweat, the women’s field continues to be wide open.
I look at a team like Nicolette Martin and Terese Cannon, or Lara Dykstra and Allie Wheeler, seeded 13 and 12, respectively, relative unknowns and AVP rookies, and I don’t see any reason why they couldn’t make the semifinals.
I don’t see any reason why Geena Urango and Angela Bensend, two-time semifinalists this year, can’t win. They have enough solid wins this year –- Kelly Reeves and Jen Fopma, Hughes and Claes, Cannon and Martin, Day and Hochevar –- to prove as much. Same goes for Reeves and Fopma, who have made back-to-back semifinals. Lane Carico and Alex Klineman are fresh off of a final, and I’ll write nothing but support for Carico, who might be the most under-appreciated player on the AVP, either men or women.
The qualifier, despite being one team shy of 70 –- there are more than 150 total teams between the two qualifiers! –- should actually be somewhat straightforward. Maybe. I don’t know. Qualifiers are inherently unpredictable affairs, and the women’s side has been especially so this year, but this one is not nearly as ruthless as many of the others have been.
Branagan Fuller and Delaney Knudsen claimed a ninth in San Francisco, which marked the best finish of Knudsen’s career. It was especially nice for Fuller to take a solid finish, as this will likely be her last season for a bit. She was accepted into the University of Oregon school of law for the upcoming fall, so these last few events may be something of a farewell tour for her.
They’re the No. 1 seed, as they should be, just as Kerri Schuh and Pri Lima deserve the two. Both of them are favorites to make it through, and given that both teams have seen a main draw this season, that makes perfect sense.
There are favorites, yes, but as always, in a field of this magnitude, there are dark horses throughout.
I’d like to see Brittany Howard and Corinne Quiggle, a Pepperdine duo seeded Q14, make it through, and they’re certainly capable.
A few seeds below them are Jessica Sykora and Lindsey Knudsen, both of whom have main-draw talent, particularly 24-team-main-draw talent.
If I’m being completely honest with you though, I don’t know a whole lot about the rest of the field. My knowledge is admittedly limited to roughly the top 30 or so women’s teams, if that. I see a sneaky good team at Q38 in Elise Zappia and Jenna Belton, who have turned their UCLA-USC rivalries aside to team up.
Payton Rund, one half of the duo that snapped Hughes’ and Claes’ 103-match winning streak – the other half was Lindsey Knudsen – has teamed up with Laryssa Mereszczak, a former main draw main stay. They should prove to be one of the most talented 44 seeds in any qualifier.
In general, I think a 24-team draw presents the perfect balance. I don’t think Martin and Cannon should have to slug it out with Wheeler and Dykstra in the qualifiers, and now they don’t. The teams that have played well this year are in, and the teams that have played well but not quite consistent enough to be main draw at least have the easiest qualifying roads.
Well done again, AVP.
Who I like to win:
Trevor Crabb and Sean Rosenthal
Young Hawaiians have been the theme this year. It’s time for Trevor to get his first win, and Rosenthal, who has quietly been playing some of the best ball he has played in years, another in a long list of titles.
Better yet: I think Trevor’s first title will come against his little brother, Taylor, in the Crabb-Crabb final we’ve all been waiting for.
Kelly Reeves and Jen Fopma
These two haven’t had a “bad loss” in more than a month, when they were upset by Karolina Marciniak and Kendra VanZwieten – for the record, not a bad loss, but not a match they would be expected to lose – in New York. Since then, only two teams have managed to beat Reeves and Fopma – the mega-talented Summer Ross and Brooke Sweat and San Francisco champs Betsi Flint and Kelley Larsen.
I think Hermosa is their time.