The year before the Olympics are the most important opportunities for up-and-coming players to establish themselves as bona fide main-draw talent. Many of the top teams will be on the road at Volleyball World events, fighting for Olympic points, which leaves space for the tweeners — mid to lower main draw and upper qualifier talent — to make moves.
Such was the case last weekend at AVP Miami, when the tournament coincided with Volleyball World in La Paz, Mexico.
Below are the players to watch, or stocks to buy, as I’ve called them the last two years, in the 2023 AVP season.
Dickens — formerly Lindelow, for the LSU fans — is one of the best defenders you might not have heard of. She cleaned up in the Tour Series last year, making three semifinals and the final in Waupaca. She finished her season with a third in Central Florida defending for Carly Skjodt, losing a white-knuckler to Emily Capers and Geena Urango. I’d expect Dickens to continue that trajectory in 2023.
King. Carl. I’ve loved Skjodt’s physical style of play since I watched her play her grad year at Pepperdine after an All-American career as an outside at the University of Michigan. She’s refined her game since, adding some touch and finesse, a refining that caught the eye of Geena Urango, the Atlanta champ who picked up Skjodt to block for her in Miami.
Like Skjodt, Kraft is a Pepperdine-molded blocker who made huge moves in her 2022 rookie season. She finished third in her first event, in Muskegon with Allie Wheeler, added another third in Atlantic City, then beat Lili and Larissa Maestrini in the Virginia finals to win her first event. She has AVP points, Volleyball World points, blocks well, defends well, and will be one of the first phone calls when a dissatisfied defender needs a blocker.
If I had to put all my chips in one basket this season, I’d be backing up the truck and betting every last penny on Maddie Anderson. In three years — including the COVID-shortened 2020 season — she’s 85-21 at Florida State. In three professional events last summer with Molly Turner, she won a gold in a Futures out of the qualifier, qualified for the Dubai Challenge, then won silver in the subsequent Challenge in Dubai. When she graduates from Florida State, she’ll pick up again with Turner, which will be my dark horse team to win an AVP this season.
Poppinga has only made one non-Tour Series main draw, which came in Central Florida in December, where she and fellow LMU alum Marine Kinna finished ninth. She’s since been practicing every morning with the USA developmental program, adding reps and refinement to a type of athleticism that is honestly comparable to Brandie Wilkerson. She began in Miami with a veteran defender in Katie Spieler, who will be an excellent model for Poppinga to follow as she continues to develop.
Two years ago, I named my annual “Most Underrated Award” after Carly Kan, as she was perpetually under the radar, despite having success with everyone she played with. It’s easy to fly under the radar when you live on Oahu. Alas, the radar has officially picked her up after she won AVP Central Florida with Jen Keddy in December. But still: Kan is only just getting started, and I’d expect nothing less than breakout year after her breakout event.
Some measurables for you: Deberg stands 6-foot-4, was a three-time All-American indoors, and is 44-12 on the beach — and counting — in two seasons at LSU. Regardless of how the rest of her final season in Baton Rouge goes, she’ll have offers to play indoors overseas or could be picked up by a talented defender on the beach and immediately make an impact on the AVP. She played four AVPs last year, with a high of third in Waupaca with Kahlee York. She’s still a touch raw, but has all of the tools necessary to become a fantastic beach volleyball player.
Brook Bauer, Katie Horton
We forgot to mention these two when we were discussing players on the podcast, and shame on us, but mostly me. I’ve loved Bauer’s game since I watched her as a freshman at Pepperdine. So smooth. So steady. So smart. She played eight AVPs last year, all with Horton, and made the final in Huntington, where they fell to the slightly above average team of Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes. Horton proved she could compete at the highest level internationally when she made back-to-back semifinals in Dubai with Julia Scoles, winning a bronze in the first event. This is a fun, smart beach volleyball team, who is off to an excellent start with a semifinal showing at the King of the Court, and a fifth in Miami.
Tucker would prefer it if he remains that really fast defender that people have seen before but still don’t really know his name or what his deal is. Like Carly Kan, however, his days floating under the radar are over, thanks to a win in Laguna Beach, a third in Huntington Beach, and a subsequent promotion from Paul Lotman. A race to take note of this year is the total digs on the AVP between Tucker, Taylor Crabb, and Tim Brewster, all of whom dig balls at a rate no other defender, save for maybe Miles Partain, will come close to.
Cook had a funny year in 2022, sort of drifting as Logan Webber’s backup partner to John Hyden, picking up a few other blockers when Webber couldn’t go. He proved himself enough, getting scooped up by Jeremy Casebeer for the 2023 season, where they’ll begin safely in the main draw. It’ll be a physical, big-serving team, and the partner consistency will be huge for Cook.
The Serbian Prince alas makes his AVP debut. Years ago, Klasnic was training in Florida, and Phil Dalhausser openly asked him why he wasn’t playing on the AVP. Klasnic was stunned: Phil Dalhausser — the Phil Dalhausser — thought he was good enough to play on the AVP? Finally, Klasnic has his visa situation sorted out, and he can play on the AVP. Internationally, he’s been Serbia’s top defender for years, and won his first gold medal last year at a Futures in Turkey. He’s a crisp, steady defender who makes next to no mistakes and will be a bad draw for whomever gets him in the qualifiers.
Caldwell sometimes just can’t get out of his own way. Is he a defender? A blocker? Right side? Left side? He still might not know. He began last year blocking for Adam Roberts, and they were solid, finishing ninth at AVP New Orleans and fifth at a Futures in Turkey. Then, in the middle of the year, he decided to defend for David Lee, and promptly won a Tour Series in Atlantic City. Then he defended for Ed Ratledge … then Bill Kolinske…Ratledge again…then Lee…then Kolinske one more time, before finally defending for me in the Cape Town Elite 16, where we lost an absolute doozie to England’s Bello brothers. After returning from a brief indoor stint with India’s Prime Volleyball League, Caldwell will begin 2023 blocking for Chase Frishman. He’s obviously good enough to win, either as a defender or a blocker, and I’m betting he’ll figure it out at some point this year.
Caleb Kwekel, Dylan Zacca
Like Brook Bauer and Katie Horton, we forgot to mention Kwekel and Zacca on the podcast itself, and I feel obligated to do so here. There is a notable dearth of young male talent on the AVP, and Kwekel and Zacca, at 20 and 21 years old, respectively, are doing their part to fill that void, alongside Miles Partain and Tim Brewster. They authored what I’d consider to be the upset of the year in 2022 when they stunned top-seeded Chaim Schalk and Theo Brunner in Central Florida, and they had a strong showing at the King of the Court, running their ball-control, jump-setting offense out of the qualifier all the way to the quarterfinals. Regardless if they stay together as a team, both Kwekel and Zacca should be on your list as individuals to keep an eye on.