SANDCAST: Beach volleyball is back, answering fan questions heading into 2021 season

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SANDCAST beach volleyball 1/27/2021-Tina Graudina-USC-NCAA players of the week 3/5/201-beach volleyball
USC's Tina Graudina celebrates a block/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Once more, we write: Beach volleyball is back again. Kinda. Sorta. We hope.

It will be tentative, as all things in 2021 are likely to be, ranging across the broad spectrum of sports. But last week, the FIVB made it official: If nothing else, there will be a minimum of two events this season: A one-star in Doha (Februay 22-26), and a four-star in Doha (March 12-16), with both genders competing in Qatar for the first time in beach volleyball history.

The impact of that announcement has been immediate on the beaches of Southern California. The partnership shuffle has begun in earnest. Casey Patterson and Chase Budinger are back, training regularly, preparing for Doha. Billy Allen flew down for a two-week training block with his new partner, the up-and-coming Andy Benesh. Avery Drost is entertaining the possibility of returning to blocking for Sean Rosenthal.

The college ranks, too, are beginning to find form. Savvy Simo, monthly co-host of SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter, and her UCLA Bruins are set to serve their first ball of the season on February 25.

There has been no official word yet from the AVP, though the fact they pulled off the magic act that was the Champions Cup leads one to believe there will be events to be played this year — somehow, some way.

With the upcoming season becoming more of an inevitability, SANDCAST answered a host of fan questions leading into what can now officially be dubbed the pre-season.

What is the most anticipated college match of the season?
I say this without any intentional hyperbole, and you’re welcome to disagree: This USC team might be the most talented college beach volleyball team ever. More talented, yes, than the Kelly Claes-Sara Hughes-led team that won three straight national championships.

I’ll now avoid going to Westwood for the next few months.

In all seriousness, the Trojan roster is an embarrassment of riches. Tina Graudina, the Latvian FIVB Rookie of the Year, who has already qualified for the 2021 Olympic Games — do we now call it Tokyo 2021, or stick with Tokyo 2020? — will return to the lineup. Julia Scoles, an enormous talent who had an impressive summer with Hailey Harward, transferred in from Hawai’i. Haley Hallgren, who competed on court one with Harward in the truncated 2020 season, returns, as does her sister, Harper. Delaynie Maple and Megan Kraft, fifth-place finishers at AVP Hermosa in 2019, have entered the college ranks, while the Nourse Twins, Audrey and Nicole, have another season of training under their belts, working all off-season with now-UCLA assistant Jose Loiola.

Put simply: Their No. 1 could compete with most No. 5 teams.

I’d separate the college beach world into three distinct tiers, the top being USC, UCLA, LSU, and Florida State.

The most anticipated college match(es) of the season, then, would be anytime any of those four teams play one another, particularly UCLA and USC.

Tina Graudina-USC-NCAA players of the week 3/5/201
USC’s Tina Graudina will be back in the lineup this season/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Who do you predict will team up after the 2021 Olympics?
Geeze, guys, can’t we just get through the 2021 Olympics first? Of course, it is intriguing to look forward, and to wonder. I get it.

The shuffle is inevitable. For the men, it will hinge on the decision of one Bug: Taylor Crabb. His current partner, Jake Gibb, with whom he is leading the race to Tokyo, is retiring after this season, making the best American defender a free agent at the conclusion of the 2021 season.

What Taylor Crabb decides to do will then set off a chain reaction down the line: Will he go with Tri Bourne, a childhood friend whom he chose in the McKibbin King of the Beach? Will he return with his brother, Trevor, with whom he has already enjoyed tremendous success? Or maybe another — Chase Budinger, perhaps, or Brian Cook, another longtime friend and gigantic talent?

There’s no sense in predicting anything, but it’s worth noting that what Taylor decides to do will change the landscape of American beach volleyball for the next quad.

The women, however, are not so singularly dictated. It’s a wonder if April Ross will go for the 2024 Paris Games, which will obviously impact what Alix Klineman does. But there is no shortage of female players eyeing 2024 as well: Sara Hughes, Kelley Kolinske, Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes, Traci Callahan. What Betsi Flint will do post-pregnancy will have an impact, and where Emily Day — currently practicing with Hughes — will go is also a domino waiting to fall.

For now, let’s relax on the conjecture for post 2021, and enjoy the fact that people are training again for 2021.

FIVB Chetumal 11/17/2019-Jake Gibb-Taylor Crabb
What Taylor Crabb decides to do after 2021 will determine the men’s landscape moving forward/Mark Rigney photography

If no Olympics happen, will this be the greatest AVP season since its newest revival?
What. A. Question.

Ask any old school player not named Sinjin Smith and Randy Stoklos about the Olympics, and this is the answer you’ll get: The Olympics are a wonderful experience, and great for the sport of beach volleyball as a whole, but they’re the worst thing that’s ever happened to the AVP. The Olympics, whether we — we meaning fans, players, media — like it or not, are the biggest attraction to the sport. Problem is, the best American players are almost contractually obligated to represent the United States overseas in the biggest events, many of which inevitably collide with AVP events.

If there is no Olympics — and I hope and believe there will be an Olympics — then there is little to no incentive for Americans to skip an AVP for anything less than a five star. The AVP prize money is equivalent, if not better, than most four stars, only without the 22-hour travel itineraries and the expenses that come with it. The only events players would skip an AVP for would essentially be the Majors, which are becoming an extinct species with each passing year.

If there were to be no Olympics, then, well, yes, the AVP would be the primary beneficiary, as most everybody would stay home, keep the field fully loaded, and provide an excellent, talent-rich product similar to what we saw in the Champions Cup.

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