The NVL made a big splash in April, announcing that it would partner with Leonard Armato and the World Series of Beach Volleyball with a corresponding bump of $150,000 in prize money.
Accordingly, the NVL kicks off its season this week in Long Beach.
“As we start our seventh season, I’m very excited about the direction we’re headed in,” NVL founder Al-B Hannemann said. “We are thrilled to offer a platform for all players to showcase their talents.”
While those who play on the AVP signed contracts that preclude their participation in the NVL, player registration for the Long Beach event nonetheless has been brisk. The lineup includes 49 men’s teams and 39 women’s teams.
The top five men’s seeds are Ryan Vandenburg and Drew Mallin, Petr Doubravsky and Martin Caban, Drew Hamilton and Daniel Lindsey, Christopher Vaughan and Skyler McCoy and JM Plummer and Brandon Joyner.
Fans of the NVL might wonder where Skylar DelSol, the explosive redhead nicknamed the “Ginger Ninja” is. DelSol won four NVL events last year, but is competing with Jon Mesko on the international NorCECA circuit in Varadero, Cuba. DelSol plans to compete the remainder of the NVL season, barring international conflicts.
That includes stops in Hermosa Beach, Virginia Beach and Port St. Lucie, Fla.
Top-seeded Vandenburg and Mallin are difficult to side out against. Six-foot-10 lefty Vandenburg , from Ontario, Canada, forms a massive block and has a nasty jump serve. Mallin plays excellent defense and moves the ball around well. He is hungry for a win after six second-place NVL finishes.
“I’m really looking forward to playing the first NVL event in Long Beach,” Mallin said. “I’ve never played in Long Beach before and I’m excited for the season to start. I really just love the thought of playing the sport I love in the paradise of which it was created decades ago.”
The pair finished 2016 with a second, two thirds, and a ninth.
Doubravsky and Caban of the Czech Republic are seeded second. They’re a big, physical team that plays in the European mold of swinging hard from high above the net. The pair lacked the consistency they desired last year, finishing as high as second and as low as ninth. Southpaw Caban has the ability to frustrate opposing defenses.
“This year we worked extra hard during the off-season at BeVolley Academy (in St. Petersburg, Fla.) and I can’t wait to see what he 2017 season brings for us,” Caban said. “We are still waiting to win our first event and I am hopeful that we will conquer this next step this year.”
Hamilton, the 6-1 LSU beach volleyball assistant coach, is partnered with the 6-2 Lindsey. Though small, they are skilled and can make the game look easy. But Hamilton admits that he has not been able to train as much as he would like.
“Daniel and I only see each other when we play at the NVL events so I’m excited to get back on the court with him,” Hamilton said. “I haven’t really played much since last season so hopefully it comes back quickly.”
Hamilton and Lindsey finished 2016 with a fifth, two sevenths, two ninths, and a 13th.
Fourth-seeded Vaughan and McCoy are a new team for 2017, partner-swapping with John-Michael Plummer and Brandon Joyner. Vaughan and McCoy both play with high levels of emotion and intensity and should have good chemistry together.
“We’re very excited for this coming NVL season as well as our new partnership,” Vaughan said. “While we have yet to play with each other we know that our court style will be a match just as much on the court as it is off the court.
“We are also happy to have a good friend of ours, Eric Zaun, joining the team as our coach. We are a team for the boys, by the boys.”
Last year’s best finish for Vaughan was third, McCoy’s fifth.
Plummer and Joyner are tied in points for the fourth seed. Plummer had a difficult off-season as an auto accident left him with a hernia and torn pinky tendon.
“This has been the toughest preseason of my career,” Plummer said. “I am very excited to see the fruits of my labor as I feel there is more in store for me this season.”
Joyner is also excited.
“I feel that we compliment one another very well and are also very versatile,” he said. “JM is one of the most athletic players I’ve had the chance to play with and can’t wait to get on the big stage with him.”
As you would expect from a Southern California qualifier, it’s loaded with talent. Deep talent. Guys like Miles Evans, who has finished second in the NorCECA in Jamaica, and has a fifth-place AVP finish on his resume. Guys like Brazilian Rodrigo Saunders, who finished second in a Corona Wide Open event. Guys like former national teamer Paul Lotman. There’s so much qualifier depth that it would be difficult to list all the main-draw threats. For that matter, the winners may very well come out of the qualifier.
The top women’s seeds are Raquel Ferreira and Kim Hildreth, Chara Harris and Michelle Williams, Jayna Duke and Kyra Lancon, Chelsea Hayes and Kristen Batt and Kristin Heldt and Maryna Samoday. Duke and Lancon are the only returning team from 2016.
Top seeded Ferreira made an unconventional choice in Hildreth, as both are defenders. Last year Ferreira played with Karolina Marciniak, now on the AVP tour, while Hildreth played with Maryna Samoday.
When we last saw Ferreira, she injured her MCL in the semifinals of Virginia Beach, resorting to “I” formation.
“I was fortunate not to require surgery,” Ferreira said, “although it took quite some time to heal.
“My preseason started in April, and I’m feeling much more prepared than I did at the start of last season. I haven’t split blocked since the beginning of my career, so that will be interesting.”
The pair have trained together for three years before deciding to partner together. They have had some early successes on the Florida beach volleyball tour and the EVP, giving them guarded optimism.
“We expect to be a tough team to beat, Hildreth said. “We’re two solid side-out players with tough serves. I would like to build on the success I had last year. I hope to be one of the teams competing at the end of every event.”
Hildreth is switching to the left, with lefty Ferreira staying on the right.
“That’s been challenging for sure, especially with my indoor background on the right as a setter,” Hildreth said. “I’m just excited to play with such a veteran and so much more experience. My main goal for this year is to learn as much as I can from Raquel.”
Ferreira added, “Kim has so much determination and she is so very hungry. We decided to take on this challenge after being a defender so many years now. I think we’ll be a very solid team. In the last three years I’ve played with three different partners.”
Second-seeded Williams and Harris have never played together. For that matter, they’ve never practiced together. Williams lives in Carlsbad, Calif., while Harris is a resident of Sarasota, Fla. Both have extensive job and family commitments and may not be able to compete full time on the tour.
Williams is one of the top tier blockers on the tour, Harris is a scrappy defender. Both are highly experienced, as Williams has competed professionally since 2004, Harris since 2005.
“Michelle is one of the top blockers on tour, she’s a great person and solid player,” Harris said. “We’re excited to be able to partner up for at least one, and hopefully more this summer and see how this goes.”
Third-seeded Texans Duke and Lancon played the last three events of 2016 together, garnering two fifths and a ninth. Duke is a savvy defender, while Lancon has good length and mobility as a blocker. The pair return to the 2017 season energized.
“Kyra and I are really excited for this season and can’t wait to experience WSOBV and NVL”, Duke said. “This off season we have been really focusing on fundamentals of the game. I have stepped back to correct some bad habits that I’ve developed. We’re looking forward to seeing everyone and competing.”
Hayes and Batt are seeded fourth as yet another new team for 2017. Hayes has been playing with Mariko Coverdale with a third-place finish in Hermosa 2016, while Batt had partnered with Priscilla Piantadosi-Lima to earn a second and two thirds last year.
Batt relates the story of how the team came to be: “Fifteen minutes before registration, Chelsea called me and says, ‘You need to help me. Mariko can’t play, I have no partner, you’re literally the only person I can get into the main draw with’. I said, ‘If we don’t win a match, are you OK with that?’ Because, literally, I haven’t touched a ball in months. And Chelsea said, ‘I don’t care if we win anything, let’s just go play and have some fun’.
I’m out here recruiting anyway (Batt-Rohr is the head beach volleyball coach for Grand Canyon University) and I’ve been training a little bit, so we’ll have fun, we’ll be ready.”
The fifth seeds are Chicagoans Heldt and Samoday. Samoday was one of the dominating blockers of 2016, partnering with Hildreth for her first win, three seconds, a third, and a seventh. Heldt, a rookie last year, only competed in two events and scored ninths in each.
The pair, who both served as blockers last year, began training together in March, focusing on their defensive game.
“We knew that defense was something we really needed to work on,” Heldt said. “Since then our game and partnership have continued to grow. We have done well locally this year and are excited to see how that will translate in the NVL.”
The top seeds should not be complacent, because the qualifier is a minefield and rivals the main draw in depth. Powerful teams like University of Arizona twins Madison and McKenna Witt, USC beach volleyball alum Alexa Strange and Deketa Stubblefield, Avery Bush and Litara Keil, Aleksandra Wachowicz and Christina Vucich, Terri Del Conte and Stacey Smith, Jessica Sykora and Lindsey Knudsen, Florida State’s Macy Jerger and Tory Paranagua, and the list goes on and on. The qualifier is strong enough that at least one team will emerge from the qualifier into the semifinals or better.
All of which leaves Hannemann excited about his season: “Partnering with WSOBV and Leonard Armato has given us a much bigger opportunity to do more for the sport. 2017 will be our best season yet.”