HERMOSA BEACH, Calif — It is both the off-season and it is not. The AVP Phoenix Championships — a fantastic event, by all accounts — came and went in a thrilling weekend over the waning days of summer. And yet, in an odd scheduling scramble, there remain two more tournaments in this AVP season: The Huntington Beach Tour Series in November, and the Central Florida Pro Series in early December.
Beach volleyball in December? Outside?
Such is the result — a fine one, in my eyes — of an audacious schedule with the most events the majority of players on the AVP Tour have ever seen. Internationally, too, the season stretches on, all the way until mid-January, for the World Tour Finals, held in Doha, and its Scrooge McDuck-sized pile of prize money: $150,000 to the victors.
On our semi-monthly fan question episode of SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter, we covered all of those elements of this sport — the quasi off-season, the AVP’s year, why Bourne and Trevor Crabb (and all American men, it seems) have shut it down internationally for the year, and, of course, a limited look ahead at what’s to come when Olympic qualifying begins in a few months.
Below is just a sampling of what we chatted about on the podcast, joined, as always, by Savvy Simo.
Jukebox Hero: Projections on new Olympic pairings
Joe Meserve: Who will Zana Muno most likely make an Olympic run with?
Slate Volley: Who is the future of beach volleyball and possible teams coming up?
Black Mamba Beto: How nervous is Tri with Miles Partain teaming with Andy Benesh?
Brik G: Suspected team mix-ups for the next season and Olympic qualification period?
Every time we open up the mailbag for new submissions, we are flooded with a variety of the same question, just from different people: What are the Olympic partnerships for Paris going to be?
And, every month, the answer remains the same: No moves will be made until two women by the names of April Ross and Alix Klineman decide, publicly, what they’re going to do.
There’s four realistic options on the table:
- They can both retire
- They can return and play together
- One retires while the other plays
- Both play with different partners.
Options one and two result in virtually the same answer: Teams remain mostly the same, only the race either does or does not include the defending Olympic gold medalists.
Unless either Ross or Klineman makes a call to any of the current top players, I’m not so sure there’s going to be a mix-up from any teams who are realistically in Olympic contention. Kelly Cheng and Betsi Flint have found their rhythm internationally, winning gold in Hamburg and claiming fourth in Paris. Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth are inseparable, as they should be: They’ve won five tournaments this season, including two on the Beach Pro Tour, in Australia and Türkiye. Sara Hughes and Kelley Kolinske displayed they can compete with anyone when they won a gold medal in Itapema, Brazil. Terese Cannon and Sarah Sponcil, winners of AVP Hermosa and bronze medalists in Kusadasi, Türkiye, are counting how many dinner dates they’ve had, for crying out loud. Megan Kraft and Emily Stockman just slapped around Brazil’s Barbara and Carol (admittedly after getting slapped around themselves by Katja Stam and Raisa Schoon) in Paris and are really only just beginning. Corinne Quiggle and Sarah Schermerhorn made a final in a Challenger. As for Zana Muno, a dark horse Olympic contender, who knows? She’s been the best defender yet to get a full-time commitment from a top blocker, so perhaps a successful run through the Fall international schedule with VolleyballMag Rookie of the Year Julia Scoles will put her into the mix.
But the overarching point is this: Everyone seems happy, is playing well, and a massive shift seems unlikely (though certainly not impossible; this is beach volleyball, after all).
If Ross and Klineman were to go separate ways, both of them wield what I’ll call the Dalhausser Power of the Phone Call. When Tri Bourne partnered with John Hyden, Hyden told his new young teammate that he was all in — except if Dalhausser called. Should that happen, he was bailing for the Thin Beast. Ross and Klineman both have that same power: They call, you answer. The only players I’d imagine might actually not answer that call would be Kloth and Nuss, who are such a rare gem in this sport: living in Louisiana, college partners, two outstanding seasons as professionals, close friends. I think they’re locked, no matter what.
As for everyone else? I think it’s mostly settled, but again: Everything trickles down from the top, and until Ross and Klineman makes their moves, nobody else is going to make theirs.
Thoughts on Phoenix?
The Phoenix Championships certainly caught at least Tri and I by surprise. When the AVP announced it was hosting an event in an NBA arena, in Arizona, at the end of September, where it would be competing with college football, both of us met it with no small amount of hesitation. The optics could have been horrific, had nobody shown up.
Color us surprised.
The crowd was fantastic, showing up in more than 3,000 paying fans on day one, and nearly hitting 7,000 on day two. The players seemed to unanimously enjoy the experience. It was a proper post-season event in a sport that hadn’t really had one Stateside in quite a while.
“I thought it was awesome,” Bourne said. “Everything you’d think of walking into an NBA arena, it felt like you were going to an NBA game kind of thing, when you’re in the stands with the concessions and all kind of things. I walked through the front, they had all the signs and billboards and it had all the players on it and sponsors. It really felt like you were going to a big event.
“We didn’t fill the whole stands, but the court was front and center, VIP sold out the first day, it was just epic. The arena felt like it was loud and pumping, you could see all four sides going on the jumbotron. It just felt like a real big sporting event. The sand was jumpy, there’s no wind, it felt indoor, it felt different, but it was sweet. That’s our one-off event where the indoor guys were going to be bombing their serves, feeling more comfortable, and we had four indoor ex-NCAA MVPs in the finals.
“Everyone was watching one thing, not walking around the venue to other courts. I thought it was just epic. The first match of the first day, the whole section was full. And if that’s year one in Phoenix? Think about year, two, three. The word’s going to get out there.”
Three thumbs up for Phoenix from the three SANDCAST hosts.
What player surprised you the most this season?
Tim Brewster, hands down.
I knew, coming into this season, that Brewster was a fantastic volleyball player; I wouldn’t have traveled to Mexico (twice), Cuba, Australia, and Panama City, among others, if he wasn’t. But this good? Honestly, I didn’t think he was ready to do the types of things he did in 2022.
It was awesome.
When we returned from Cuba with a silver medal in hand — Brewster’s first of what looks like will be many international medals, after securing a gold in Punta Cana last weekend with Kyle Friend — I told him I needed a break, and that he should find a left side blocker and give his natural right side another go. He found Andy Benesh and promptly won the San Antonio AVPNext, technically qualifying for his first AVP main draw. Benesh, of course, was not a full-time option for Brewster, and Brewster couldn’t accept his hard-won bid to AVP New Orleans, because Benesh was competing with Nick Lucena at the time. Brewster still needed to find his guy.
In Kyle Friend, he did.
Sometimes it just takes the right fit, and the beauty of a player like Friend is that he is a perfect fit for virtually anyone he plays with. He has this shapeshifter personality where he can just sort of become whomever it is he needs to become for whomever he’s playing with, which is similar to how Betsi Flint operates. He wound up being a seamless fit, both as a player and person, for Brewster, and they shined, making three Tour Series semifinals, taking seventh in Atlanta and a fifth in Chicago, where they stunned Chaim Schalk and Theo Brunner and very nearly upended Taylor Crabb and Taylor Sander.
It’s a small shame that Brewster had his breakout year at the same time Sander decided to return to the beach, because Rookie of the Year would have been Brewster’s.
Regardless of who won what is, at the end of the day, a meaningless honorific, Brewster had a fantastic year that caught even me, who’s been bullish on Brewster for years, by surprise.
How to get the most out of an off-season?
Bourne has been playing professionally full-time since 2013, so he’s had 10 attempts at perfecting his off-season recipe. And he’s had 10 different off-seasons.
“It changes every year, and there’s no right answer,” he said. “I’ve tried it all. It’s just a balance. There’s no right answer. You need the mental rest. You need to just not think about volleyball, relax, recharge your batteries and wanting to play, being excited. Beyond that, how can you maximize being better? Is it film?
“For me, I used to take a lot of time off. I’m trying to add little things in where it’s not going to burn me out but it is going to help me get better, little film sessions here and there. I’m going to give my body fully to my trainer, and for me that’s exciting, to build my body up and bring this new weapon into season.”
I haven’t ever really had much of an off-season. Starting as late to the game as I did — I picked up a ball for the first time in the summer of 2014 — I am perpetually playing catchup. Whenever I see other players taking time off, I view it as my opportunity to get reps where they’re not. The problem with that strategy, for me, is that by mid-summer, when other players begin peaking, I’m breaking down, both mentally and physically. I no longer have that excitement Bourne mentioned; I’m grinding. I’m not jumping my highest and hitting my hardest; I’m creaking through tournaments.
This year, I’m taking a three-pronged approach to the off-season: What’s best for my mind, what’s best for my body, and what’s best for my game? Watching film fits into all three categories, as does playing no-jump, which is fun, light, and easy on the body, while also getting reps. I’ll be lifting a ton with my trainer, Nathan Michaels.
We’ll see the results come 2023, and when that year ends, we’ll have a different recipe to try in 2024.