The first tournament of this weird but wonderful sprint of an AVP season is in the books. The Monster Hydro Cup provided mostly everything a beach fun could want, which is basically this: Competitive beach volleyball. Nobody could go in person, of course, but Amazon’s stream was fantastic, and even though the qualifier can’t be streamed — because there are more players on site, there have to be less media; it’s a trade off — the players who streamed received huge numbers on social media.
Sports are back! One, anyway.
To some, it was clear who spent the off-season training and who spent the off-season on Netflix. On this week’s SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter, we discussed who made an excellent debut this weekend, and what stocks are on the rise in beach volleyball.
Skylar del Sol
del Sol was one of the best players on the NVL for four years. In 2016, after winning four of six events with Piotr Marciniak, he was named the Most Valuable Player on the tour. His transition to the AVP, however, hasn’t been as smooth as some of the other bigger talents on the NVL. Eric Zaun won the AVP Rookie of the Year in 2017. Rafu Rodriguez won AVP San Francisco. Marciniak made a semifinal. It seemed only a matter of time until del Sol made a similar breakthrough.
This weekend was that breakthrough.
Say what you will about the field being limited, but del Sol’s seventh-place finish with Ed Ratledge is one of the more impressive seventh-place finishes out there. He had to beat his old partner, Marciniak, and Ratledge’s former teammate, Rodriguez, in the first round of the qualifier. In the next match, against Ricardo Santos and Miles Evans, he was on a court with an AVP champion (Ratledge), a four-time Olympian (Santos) and an AVP finalist (Evans), and del Sol was the best player on that court.
He controlled the next match just as well, a 21-18, 21-19 win over Andy Benesh and Eric Beranek that put them into the main draw. After a loss to eventual champs Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena, del Sol and Ratledge pushed Jeremy Casebeer and John Hyden to three sets. They’re back in the qualifier, yes, but del Sol proved that he’s an AVP main draw player to stay.
Sara Hughes, Brandie Wilkerson
These two are always knocking on the door at AVPs. They finished third in Manhattan Beach and Chicago last year, getting eliminated by April Ross and Alix Klineman both times. The Monster Hydro Cup was similar in that it was Ross and Klineman who delivered both of their losses, but it was also slightly different. For one, Hughes and Wilkerson beat two phenomenal teams in Kelley Kolinske and Emily Stockman (21-15, 21-13) and Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes (21-18, 21-15) quite comfortably. Hughes, in my mind, played the best defense of any player in the tournament, men included, while Wilkerson’s jump-float serve was every bit as formidable as Dalhausser’s jump serve.
They controlled both matches against Klineman and Ross, jumping out to early and sizable leads before slowly losing them. But the fact that they controlled the majority of both of those matches is indicative of the phenomenal volleyball they were playing.
Tri Bourne, Trevor Crabb’s defense
If you’re a regular listener to SANDCAST, you’ll know that Bourne repeatedly spoke to how little he and Crabb knew what they were doing on defense last year. It was the first time either had played defense in their entire careers. As such, earning points was difficult.
They looked like a completely different team last weekend. Bourne seemed more comfortable at the net, and both were making touches they weren’t making a year ago, keeping plays alive and the rallies long.
Offense will rarely be much of an issue with this team (unless Dalhausser is at the net, then it’s a problem for anyone), and with the defensive end of the game being vastly improved, it could be time for Bourne’s first AVP win since 2015.
Kelly Claes, Sarah Sponcil offense
If you’re looking for a team that thrives in a completely different manner than Bourne and Crabb circa 2019, this is the one. While Bourne and Crabb relied largely on offensive consistency and the occasional earned point, Claes and Sponcil have been one of the more difficult teams to score against. Claes’s blocking is excellent, and her pulling off the net is effective. Meanwhile, Sponcil is as gritty as they come, getting balls up that ought not be touched.
Occasionally, however, the offense would fall flat, and they’d lean on their scrappy defense to atone. This weekend was the debut of a new, option-heavy offense that led to a semifinal berth and wins over Stockman and Kolinske and World Champs Melissa Humana-Paredes and Sarah Pavan.
With Sponcil’s passing being near perfect on the weekend, it made it easy for Claes to option wherever and whenever she pleased. Those options, even if they don’t work – they almost always did – then make it difficult for the defense to be comfortable, which resulted in a high side-out percentage and a third-place finish.
Phil Dalhausser, Nick Lucena
Don’t bet against these guys. Just don’t do it. Doesn’t matter if they live in Florida, and they don’t have the opportunity to train against all of the best teams in the country. Doesn’t matter if you think they don’t care about beach volleyball because they aren’t the hot-mic personalities that Casey Patterson is.
They’re the best team in the country. Period. No way around it.
Dalhausser reminded us, once again, that he’s the best blocker in the country, maybe the world, with the exception of Anders Mol. His jump serve was at a level that Bourne says he hasn’t seen in a long time, serving impassible balls by the drove last weekend.
Lucena, meanwhile, sided out at one of the highest rates you can ask of a guy who gets served every single ball, every single tournament. Their stock was already high, but this weekend was a good, and maybe necessary, reminder that this is the best team in the United States.
Traci Callahan, Crissy Jones
It is impossible to know if all the work you’ve put in will pay off, or if it was just a lot of work that won’t show results just yet. Callahan and Jones put in more reps than any team I saw this off-season – granted, I did not see them all, but I saw many – and it paid off immediately. They made it through a brutal qualifier on Friday, and then became the only qualifying team to secure a main draw spot in this weekend’s Wilson Cup by earning a main draw win, over Emily Day and Lauren Fendrick.
The only two teams to beat them were the two best in the world: April Ross and Alix Klineman, Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes. They’ll get another crack at the Canadians in the first round of the Wilson Cup. Not exactly a dream draw, but the best part? They’re no longer starting in a single-elimination format, a position they earned.
Slunks is the fledgling beachwear brand that is worn by a good number of the younger, up-and-coming players, including Chase Frishman, Troy Field, Andy Benesh, Eric Beranek, Mike Brunsting, yours truly. This weekend came the debut of their biggest athletes yet: Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena.
Not a bad debut, either, as Dalhausser and Lucena won, getting some valuable airtime for Slunks, which recently released its new line of board shorts.