Summer is not yet here. Snow still blankets much of the country. Many who will read this story or listen to its accompanying podcast — SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter — will do so in the mountains, with skis and snowboards nearby, a warm drink at the ready.

Yet when summer does, alas, begin, it will do so in a fervor not experienced by beach volleyball players and fans in more than a decade. And it will hardly end. The ambitious first AVP schedule under the new leadership of Bally’s will feature 16 events, stretching from May in  Austin, Texas to November in Clearwater, Florida. In between, there will be a staggering amount of mid-level tournaments, from $5,000 purses on the AVP America Big Money Tour to regular $20,000 AVP Nexts to enormous tournaments on the swelling Grass Tour.

It wasn’t surprising, then, that when we opened up our inboxes for our monthly mailbag episode, that they quickly filled with questions about the new schedule and its various intricacies.

The first, and most common:

What do we think about the AVP schedule? 

We love it. All three hosts, which includes, in this episode, Savvy Simo, are positively beatific about it. Sixteen events? On the heels of two years in which there were a grand total of six? Compared to an FIVB schedule, also under new leadership, that is struggling to put on the full calendar it promised?

“This is the best I’ve seen,” said Bourne, who has been playing on the AVP Tour since 2012, the first year under Donald Sun.

Of course, all of this restructuring has come with changes, and justifiable reservation about those changes; this is a sport very much known for overpromising and underdelivering. Traditional qualifiers, run the day before the event in a single-elimination format, are, for the most part, finished. The Manhattan Beach Open will still feature a traditional qualifier, but every stop of the Pro Series tier — Austin, Texas; New Orleans, Louisiana; Hermosa Beach, California; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Atlantic City, New Jersey — will have a different method through which players will qualify.

A better method, in our mind.

Rather than a single-elimination qualifier run the day before the event, a tournament which will leave the four surviving teams gassed and exhausted — and the other dozens of teams who did not qualify with nothing save for empty beer cans — the AVP has turned to satellite qualifiers. Every stop in the Tour Series tier — Muskegon, Denver, Waupaca, Atlantic City (there are two Atlantic City events), Virginia Beach, Huntington Beach, Clearwater — will serve as a pseudo-qualifier, with the winners receiving a bid to a main draw in a later Pro or Gold Series event.

Corresponding AVP Next tournaments will also serve as qualifiers. There will be an AVP Next in San Antonio, for example, which will qualify the top four teams for the Pro Series event in New Orleans the following weekend.

That AVP Next has $20,000 in prize money.

How much money was there in previous qualifiers? None.

What was the format of previous qualifiers? Single-elimination.

Under the new qualifying format, players will be playing full tournaments, for legitimate prize money, and those who qualify will then go into the main draw fully rested and able to compete at the best of their abilities.

As for those who don’t qualify? They’ll leave having played more matches, coming home with cash in hand, or at least enough to cover their travel, which should be enough encouragement to nudge them to continue playing in more events.

It’s a virtuous, sustainable cycle the AVP has created, both for the tour and its players.

“You’re playing a true tournament format, too. You’re not just playing this free for all,” Bourne said. “You’re getting reps, playing an event, but also winning an event — you’re getting used to being a champ. I think that’s really important for anyone.

“And if you win one of the Tour Series in, I don’t know, Denver, now that you’ve won Denver, everyone who watched, they want to see you play. You’re not just some random team who scrapped their way in.”

Yes, this makes the entry to barrier higher. It’s much more difficult to win a double-elimination tournament than it is to qualify in the previous format, which usually meant stringing together three or four wins (this is not easy at all, mind you). When Raffe Paulis and I won an AVP Next Gold — since rebranded as an AVP Tour Series — in Chicago of 2019, we had to play nine matches in two days, and we had to win eight of those. We were rewarded in kind, splitting $2,500 in cash and earning a main draw bid to the Manhattan Beach Open.

Winning that tournament was far more difficult than when we qualified a year prior in Austin, where we had to win just four matches. But a higher barrier to entry to the professional level is an indicator of a healthy sport.

When Sun first took over the AVP, there were a few select tournaments in his first year in which the numbers were so small that, on the women’s side, teams could simply sign up and be seeded directly into the main draw. It might have been great for those teams, but it’s not a great product for the sport. In the 10 years since, qualifiers boomed, to the point that they needed to be capped, then split into two days and, now, split into their own separate tournaments, with a full field.

It’s possible that it is more difficult to qualify on the AVP Tour now than it ever has been — and that should be celebrated by both main draw and qualifier players alike.

As that barrier to entry rises, the value of being a professional beach volleyball player ascends with it. As that grows, so, too, do the opportunities to become one.

Sixteen events, I remind you.

Sixteen.

A long, fun summer awaits.

Travis Mewhirter-Raffe Paulis
Travis Mewhirter and Raffe Paulis after qualifying in Austin of 2018.

Who are your choices for the Surprise Team of the Year?

This is a funny question with a funny answer, because beach volleyball is a funny sport. The only “teams” who are truly set this year, or any year, are those at the top. After, say, the top six teams — and even that might be a stretch — it’s mostly a free-for-all, with players and teams shifting with the breeze and where they deem the grass greener.

So to choose a “surprise team” is quite limiting in the fact that there are so few true teams from which to choose. Because all of those teams are already at such a high level, it’s impossible to claim them as surprises.

My preamble finished, my pick is Troy Field and Chase Budinger. `

Budinger is, of course, no surprise at all. He was arguably the best offensive player on Tour last season and made three straight finals with Casey Patterson. Field, however, hasn’t made a final since 2019, and his best finish in the last two years is seventh, which he did as a blocker.

For the first time, Field will begin his season playing defense, a position in which he has loosely dabbled but never given his full attention. He played well in a NORCECA qualifier with Ed Ratledge a few years ago, losing — if my memory serves me correct — in three sets to Ryan Doherty and Billy Allen, and he took a silver in a two-star FIVB in Rwanda with Budinger in 2021.

Inexperienced or not, Field is honestly fantastic on defense already, and will only get better. Budinger, too, is becoming a formidable presence at the net and has an aptitude for peel-digging that is supremely underrated. And even in the stretches where they struggle to earn points, they can rest easy knowing that when they’re in system, they will be virtually unstoppable. Both play at an altitude most blockers simply cannot reach, and any high, deep swing will be difficult to stop.

When Bally’s finally opens up the books, I’d bet on Field winning his first AVP this season.

On the women’s side — again, this is not a true surprise team — I’d take Sara Hughes and Kelley Kolinske. Throughout the Tokyo qualification process, I never thought Kolinske got her proper due as one of the best blockers in the world, but make no mistake, she is one. Kolinske and Emily Stockman were somehow sneakily in the top 10 in the world for two years, and it barely went noticed.

Hughes, meanwhile, has been stuck in partner limbo for the last three seasons, but when she had a steady partner in Summer Ross, they were phenomenal, making four straight AVP finals in 2018.

I’d expect both to return to that tier, and get noticed doing so.

Sara Hughes-AVP
Sara Hughes stretches for a dig/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

What are your biggest wins of this off-season?

Tri Bourne: “Every off-season I try to reassess: What did I accomplish this last year? I pick and choose what I then want to take into the next year. This year was a lot of defense. The more film I watched, the more I thought ‘Holy s*** we’re bad at defense.’ I’ll acknowledge that we’re good volleyball players, but we are so bad at defense. I think it’s actually been working in our favor because they don’t know what we’re doing, because we don’t know what we’re doing. But there’s just so many inefficiencies where we could make our lives so much easier if I wasn’t jumping on contact every time.”

What’s Bourne been dialing in this off-season, then? Defense. Hours upon hours of defense.

As for me, the biggest win of the off-season came in the most unexpected of places, at the most unexpected of times: Springfield, Missouri.

My sponsor, Vollis, threw a clinic for me to run alongside my good friend and longtime one-tournament-per-year partner, JD Hamilton. The clinic would be run on a Sunday, and there was an open tournament the previous day, which we figured we might as well play since we were there.

Both of us had our reservations about the trip: Missouri? For beach volleyball? In February? It didn’t help that a winter storm cut our clinic numbers in half, left the roads coated in ice, and depleted the men’s open field, too. We loosely debated bailing like many did, but I wanted to see JD, and besides, there wasn’t much else going on, anyway.

I’m glad I went.

The facility, Volleyball Beach Ozark, is one of the best man-made beach sites I’ve seen yet, up there with Mangos in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. There are 10 courts, spaced apart, with sand close to the depth of Hermosa Beach, widely regarded as some of the deepest in the world. With a retractable 40,000 square foot dome that features a ceiling so high it was never once hit, it has become the home of the Missouri State beach volleyball team until the weather warms up and they can play outside.

That was actually the idea of the owners, Michael and Kelsey Sylvara: Design a facility that could not only be home to an NCAA team, but eventually host NCAA and AVP events. They did just that.

Beyond the success of the tournaments — JD and I won, and on Sunday, after the clinic, Christie Iwanicki carried me to a co-ed win as well — it was the unbridled enthusiasm of the players that was the highlight of not just the weekend, but the entire off-season. Meeting people like Clint Ross, who played the co-ed tournament with his wife, Donna, is such a treat. They got married last summer, at a beach volleyball court in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in which John Hyden ran a clinic, the groomsmen were decked out in AVP volunteer uniforms and the official wore an AVP referee jersey.

How can you not love that?

There’s so much magic in these little pockets of beach volleyball, all over the country. It’s why I love playing in tournaments in far-flung, landlocked places like Ohio or Waupaca — you simply cannot imagine the enthusiasm and love for the sport until you see it. People love volleyball there, truly, but they’re not trying to “make it,” not trying to achieve a livable income off of it, not needing it to be something more than what it is. For them, simply playing beach volleyball is enough. It was a welcome and much-needed reminder to me, as so often I get caught up in this Hermosa Beach bubble, where it’s Olympics or bust, AVP victories or nothing at all, first or last.

In most cities around the country, volleyball for volleyball’s sake is enough.

I love that.

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