It might have been under the radar, but Wednesday at Manhattan Beach some of the top pros competed in a NORCECA qualifier. And it was different, as different as Kelly Claes playing with Lauren Fendrick and Sara Hughes teaming with April Ross.
The men’s side was just as unusual. And when the tournament was over, it was all for naught. To wit:
Jeremy Casebeer was in Brazil. Or Japan. Not even John Mayer, Casebeer’s partner throughout the 2017 season, can be sure. Tri Bourne was still sidelined with an autoimmune disease. So Mayer called up his good bud Billy Allen, wondering if he knew of anybody looking to play in a NORCECA qualifier on September 27.
It just so happened Allen was.
Allen’s partner, Stafford Slick, had agreed to play with Casey Patterson and Allen hadn’t really done much searching for another.
“I just wanted to hang out with Billy and play some volleyball,” Mayer said, laughing.
It made sense, sort of. They’ve been good friends for years. They host a podcast, Coach Your Brains Out, together. They’ve won a few smaller tournaments together.
And by the evening of this past Wednesday, they qualified against all odds and expectations out of the most brutal NORCECA qualifier in years. They had earned a trip to Jamaica together, but, wait …
NORCECA then announced on Thursday afternoon that the November Jamaica event was cancelled due to complications from the recent hurricanes.
“When we signed up it was kind of last minute, no training, like hopefully nobody else is really playing maybe we’ll win,” Mayer said. “And then I saw the list and I said ‘Oh, geez, sorry, Billy, sorry we wasted 75 bucks.’ But I guess it worked out.”
That list included John Hyden-Ryan Doherty, Patterson-Slick, Trevor Crabb-Sean Rosenthal, Miles Evans-Billy Kolinske, Avery Drost-Chase Frishman, Ed Ratledge-Eric Zaun.
Their first round came against Ratledge and Zaun, both of whom stand taller than Allen and Mayer, and while Ratledge “was just hitting over us like nobody was even there,” Allen said, they won in two, relying on an efficient side out game, magnetic ball control and a scrappy defense Mayer could only label as “split-pulling.”
“I think if you see a little guy blocking too it kind of changes your game because if you get blocked by a little guy it’s kind of humiliating,” Allen said. Not that they blocked many.
“A good blocker gets like two blocks a set,” Mayer said. “And I –- I didn’t do that.”
But they did beat Ratledge and Zaun in two, and then took down Doherty and Hyden in three. Just like that, they had earned a trip to Jamaica, still having yet to see a shorter player on the other side of the net.
They wouldn’t have seen a shorter player had they bothered to play the finals, against Billy Kolinske and Miles Evans, of which there was no point, seeing as the top two teams got that bid to Jamaica. Or not.
Weeks earlier, Evans and Kolinske won their first NORCECA, in the Dominican Republic, where they upset Slick and Allen in the semifinals. And then they doubled down on that upset, landing two in a row on Wednesday, earning what should have been a berth into the final NORCECA tournament of the season.
“They played great, they looked good,” Mayer said. “I think this is their Super Bowl, not playing the AVP. They came in ready and prepared and Miles keeps getting better.”
Added Allen: “They look like they’re in peak shape with it being this late in the season. I think they’re a little hungrier and seizing these opportunities.”
Indeed, Evans and Kolinske have been one of the best partnerships few have had the opportunity to see play this season, as both decided to spurn the AVP in opposition to the exclusivity clause in its contract.
But a partnership nobody had ever seen prior to Wednesday’s qualifier?
Kelly Claes and Lauren Fendrick. It’s not a full-time move for either. It’s experimental, fun, a time, as Claes said, “to get uncomfortable.” When the 2018 season rolls back around, she’ll resume with Sara Hughes, the FIVB Rookie of the Year defender with whom she’s played since the days of youth volleyball.
“It was honestly just a one-time thing,” Claes said of playing defense while Hughes partnered up with another defender in April Ross. “It’s the off-season, so Sara and I were talking and we want to try new stuff and be outside your comfort zone is always a good thing.”
So where Mayer and Allen went small-ball, Claes and Fendrick, a pair of blockers standing above 6-feet each, went with a power game, because the best defense, some might argue, is a good offense. It worked, as Claes and Fendrick, both of whom winners of an AVP tournament as a blocker this season, beat Emily Stockman-Kim DiCello and Jace Pardon-Caitlin Ledoux.
“I had high hopes that we were going to do well but honestly, I didn’t think we were going to make it in,” Claes said. “We just told each other, ‘Hey, we gotta first-ball side out.’ And I was like ‘Lauren, you try to get a few blocks, I’ll try to get a few digs, we’ll try to get a few aces.’ That’s how we won our second one for sure.”
Communication miscues were inevitable, particularly on soft blocks or shots just over Fendrick. Those are the ones that Hughes typically assumed the communication, something Claes, playing full-time defense for the first time of her life, forgot to do on occasion.
“I think the hardest thing for me was the dialogue,” Claes said. “Me and Sara have a very specific dialogue where words mean specific things and sometimes I don’t even have to say anything and she knows what I’m thinking and she doesn’t have to say anything and that’s totally different with Lauren because we’ve never played each other.
“I’m so used to my defender saying ‘you go’ or ‘I go’ as I’m taking that first step, and I was running after the ball, not saying anything because I’m not used to it, and she’s diving at me too. I’m like ‘Oh my gosh, we’re going to concuss each other right now. It’s my job to say something. Sorry!’ The little things there, I think we made good adjustments as the day went on.”
Nobody left the beach concussed, though Claes-Fendrick and Summer Ross-Brooke Sweat, the top seed who won that half of the bracket, left with a trip to Jamaica to plan –- and then no trip to plan.
“I was thinking who I wanted to play with and I wanted to try something different, and I thought it would be an interesting matchup so I gave [Kelly] a call and she said ‘yeah, let’s give it a go,’” Fendrick said. “It was fun that we got to try that out and it’ll be fun to progress it a little further in Jamaica.”
With the announcement that the Jamaica event will be cancelled, there remains only a three-star FIVB in Qinzhou, China. With Hughes having Maid of Honor duties at her sister’s wedding, Claes will shuffle again and is set to play with April Ross. Fendrick, still experimenting with various partners, will be teaming with Nicole Branagh.
“I’m gonna try to learn as much as I can from (April) and go from there,” Claes said. “But no, it’s me and Sara all the way.”