The dominoes are falling. A long but eventful off-season is coming to its end. Manifold questions about the future of beach volleyball abound: What will the AVP look like under the Bally’s umbrella? What will Volleyball World add to the FIVB? How will the new structure of Elite 16, Challengers, and Futures work out? What will the final schedules for both tours look like?
But those are questions that only time can answer. They are questions that, to lean on a familiar coaching adage, are out of the players’ control. What is in their control? Their training. Their partners. Their new teams.
And, boy, are there new teams. Dozens of them. The partnership dominoes are quickly falling throughout the beach. You can hardly sling a Wilson without it landing on a court featuring a 2022 pairing. Rather than break down all of those new partnerships in a single story, we are rolling them out in features throughout these next few weeks, although if you are interested in our quick analysis and thoughts, you can listen to today’s episode of SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter.
This little write-up, then, is about the individuals who, in my opinion, have the highest potential for growth this year, and are in positions to achieve new heights.
These are the 2022 beach volleyball stocks to buy.
Of all players, both men and women, I think Flint is the most underrated — and therefore most undervalued as a stock in this case — player on the AVP, and I’d put her in the discussion as the most underrated in the world. Some of this is undoubtedly due to her quiet personality. She puts in her work and wins her matches and doesn’t make a ton of fuss about it, an enviable trait in modern athletics. But Flint, make no mistake, is one of the best defenders in America, and, in confirmation of that, she received a call to play the next Olympic quad with Kelly Claes (more on them Thursday).
Aside from April Ross, no American possesses a serve as deadly as Flint, and she proved as much by being voted AVP Server of the Year in 2019. Her ability to set virtually any ball with her hands opens up a variety of creative offensive plays that Claes has come to love. She’s terminal offensively, possessing both the heat and precision to blend attacks with swings and shots.
It might take a few months for Claes and Flint to find their rhythm as a team, but they’ll begin their international season in the Elite 16, the highest platform there is. Exactly where Flint belongs.
Kraft, along with fellow 19-year-old Miles Partain, are my moonshot picks, players who won’t only be phenomenal this year or the next, but, should they stick with it, several Olympic quads down the road. Already, at the precocious age of 19, Kraft has competed alongside veterans such as Sara Hughes and Olympian Tina Graudina. Dain Blanton put her on court one at USC as a true freshman, where she helped the Trojans win a National Championship. She’s won a U-19 World Championship with good friend and teammate Delaynie Maple. Before college, she claimed a fifth on the AVP. Standing 6-feet, and already the owner of an impressive resume, Kraft is a can’t-miss talent, and one who hasn’t been missed. She’ll be playing the upcoming season with Emily Stockman, who narrowly missed out on qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics.
It’s only the start for Kraft.
Kristen Nuss, Taryn Kloth
Yes, yes, this is a team. But Nuss and Kloth, now in their sophomore seasons as professionals, are perhaps the only two individuals in the sport of beach volleyball who are too inextricably linked to separate. They played their final season at LSU together, compiling an undefeated year, before moving onto the AVP, where they became the immediate darlings, winning in Atlanta out of the qualifier, taking fifth in Manhattan and a third in Chicago.
There was no question whether or not they would be asked to split up. The only question that remained was whether or not they would. They didn’t, remaining loyal to one another, establishing the trust and foundation for one of the teams that could truly have lasting power in a sport short on it.
Cannon is the model of the payouts that can often come with perseverance and a willingness to absorb losses, extract value, and press on. Midway through the 2021 season, when Cannon was amidst a rough stumble through the country quotas on the World Tour, would have been the best time to bet on some Cannon stock, but now is certainly not a bad time, either. After finishing her 2021 season with four straight top-10s, including three consecutive medals, capped with a bronze at the Itapema four-star, Cannon was tabbed by Sarah Sponcil for the upcoming Paris quad.
Like Flint and Claes, they’ll begin the year in the Elite 16. Like Flint, the only direction Cannon is headed is up.
It wasn’t all that long ago when Hughes was considered a lock to become the next great defender in the United States, the up-and-comer to fill Misty May-Treanor’s shoes. All her life, she had enjoyed abundant success, winning National Championship after National Championship at USC, winning more than 100 straight matches with Kelly Claes, winning her first AVP.
I’ll still push back on anyone who describes her move to play with Summer Ross as a mistake. When Ross was healthy, her and Hughes were fantastic. They made four straight AVP finals in 2018 and won two. They won a four-star in Moscow. Had they stayed the course, they’d have been in the mix to qualify for Tokyo. But life happens, and Ross injured her back, leaving Hughes in a partnership limbo until the Tokyo Games concluded and the top could realign.
While her teams have fluctuated, Hughes’ work ethic has remained dedicated, getting out with Jose Loiola and Scott Davenport, working, working, working, until she could build a team again. Now she has, as she is announcing her partnership sometime in the coming weeks.
Her stock is set to rise again.
While all of the players above have bright futures ahead, they’re all also headed towards successful 2022 seasons. Maple, a sophomore at USC who competed alongside Kraft in both high school and on the AVP, is going to have a brilliant career as a beach volleyball player. But, like most college students, her seasons will be limited until she graduates. NCAA athletes cannot compete on the AVP Tour until their college season is finished — they can, however, represent USA Volleyball, which is why Kraft could continue to compete internationally throughout USC’s spring season — so Maple will have to wait until mid-May to begin her quasi-professional seasons until she leaves USC.
But when she does?
To the moon she’ll go.
Keep an eye on…
It doesn’t even matter if Miles Partain is still at UCLA, or that he’s 19 years old, or that he’s been split-blocking with his brother, Marcus, for most of his life: He’s still the second-best defender in the United States, behind only Taylor Crabb. Numbers wise, he was actually better than Crabb during the 2021 AVP season, averaging more digs per set than any player on tour.
If Partain weren’t competing for UCLA — he’s a sophomore setter for the Bruins — there is no doubt in my mind he’d have been picked up by a blocker and be making the push to Paris right now. Heck, he was named the AVP Rookie of the Year before he ever stepped foot on a college campus.
After this quad is finished, and Partain has graduated from UCLA?
Los Angeles 2028 awaits.
When Troy Field donned his pink hat and jumped his 45-inch jump for the first time, the collective beach volleyball world took note. How could it not? The 28-year-old is able to do things on a beach volleyball court that mere mortals just can’t do. He hits angles that shouldn’t be available, makes touches on balls that shouldn’t be touched, and occasionally throws in a windmill for no other reason than because he can. Sometimes all of that explosiveness and creativity has gotten him in trouble; sometimes it’s been the reason he has been able to make one AVP final and another two semifinals, all in 2019 with Tim Bomgren.
Field has steadily transformed his game into a more consistent, controlled chaos, using all that athleticism to make three FIVB finals — he won one, in Nijmegen, Netherlands with Miles Evans — and add another top 10 throughout 2021. Now partnered with Chase Budinger, he will only get more polished from here.
Speaking of Budinger, no, it’s not too late to jump on the Budinger Bandwagon. Sure, he might have made three straight AVP finals last year, but he’s still only scratching the surface of where his career is heading. For all of his success on the AVP, Budinger hasn’t yet made a full-time commitment to the FIVB, playing in eight events over the previous four seasons. That is set to change this summer, and every summer thereafter, as he and Field hit the road on the pursuit to Paris in 2024. They might have their hiccups here and there, but the more they compete, the more those will smooth themselves out.
Taylor Sander had admittedly little knowledge of the more complex aspects of beach volleyball prior to his baptism by fire at last November’s four-star tournament in Itapema, Brazil. When, a week prior to leaving, a friend called for a dive line block — signaled by three fingers rather than the standard one — Sander had no idea what he was calling.
“I was like ‘Bro, what?’” Sander said, laughing.
And then he got a ninth.
At a four-star!
When he didn’t know any defense beyond a basic line and angle block.
Sander is every bit the athletic marvel he has proven to be indoors for the previous two Olympic quads. Already, he may be in possession of the most dangerous serve in the United States, and he proved borderline unservable in Brazil.
And that, I just cannot stress enough, was on two weeks of practice and a few fun fours tournaments. Imagine what he and Taylor Crabb will be able to do with a full off- and pre-season under their belts.
Every name on this list possesses some sort of athletic freakishness to them. Cory is no different. Holding down the pride of Louisiana alongside Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth, Cory won virtually every “minor league” tournament there was to win last year, claiming AVP Next Gold titles in New Orleans, Waupaca, and Seaside. He and Logan Webber, who is now playing with John Hyden, made a pair of main draws, in Manhattan Beach and Chicago, and displayed an ability to compete with the best on tour.
And that was Cory’s first year as a defender.
With a full season on defense under his belt, he’s only getting better from here. And with a one-way ticket purchased to California, he’ll be mixing it up with the best the United States has to offer, putting him on the fast track to becoming an obvious prospect to blockers on the market.
Benesh’s rise on the beach has been a swift one. After striking out in the AVP Champions Cup, losing in all three qualifiers — granted, these qualifiers were nasty affairs — he was picked up by Billy Allen. In a single season with Allen, Benesh set his career high finish in Atlanta (fifth), upped it to a third in Manhattan Beach, then matched that third in Chicago.
For the second straight year, Benesh has been picked up, this time by Nick Lucena, who was in need of a blocker after Phil Dalhausser retired from international volleyball. It’s expected that the two will make a push internationally, beginning Benesh’s World Tour career in earnest.
I’m biased here, because I’ve been playing with Brewster since we upset Billy Allen and Andy Benesh in the Itapema country quota, but I also consider myself to be somewhat tethered to reality, and in my view, few are improving at a faster clip than Brewster. Just 21 years old, Brewster is a digging machine, scooping ball for ball with one of the best defenders I’ve ever played against in Ukraine’s Sergiy Popov. His offense is becoming more dynamic by the week, with a funky arm swing and wrist mobility typically reserved for the likes of Casey Patterson. He might not make the splash that, say, Cory or Partain will, but he’ll be steadily rising for years to come.
Keep an eye on…
PLEASE JOIN THE TEAM!
Keep free volleyball journalism free by becoming a VolleyballMag.com Sustaining Member: https://volleyballmag.com/sustaining-membership/
Or make a contribution through Venmo @VolleyballMag