The finals of AVP Miami had a new location on Thursday afternoon, a whopping six rounds earlier in the tournament, a few thousand miles south and one time zone East, in Itapema, Brazil. Unlike Miami, Taylor Crabb and Taylor Sander would need no miracle comeback to win the final round of the Itapema Challenge qualifier against Chase Budinger and Miles Evans. They wouldn’t spot Budinger and Evans a 12-3 lead in the second set, as they did in Miami. Not in Itapema. Not on the Beach Pro Tour.
The Taylors jumped on Evans and Budinger and allowed no let-up, winning the first set, 21-17, and pounced on them in the second, 6-1, behind brilliant serving from Sander, who finished with five aces and untold number of out-of-system passes forced. It would only get smoother from there, as Crabb and Sander punched their main draw ticket with a 21-13 second set win.
This is exactly how Sander and Crabb wished to begin their 2023 season. They sat out the La Paz Challenge, choosing instead to play AVP Miami to tune themselves up for the gauntlet that is the Beach Pro Tour. They were tested plenty in South Beach, coming back from a 10-13 third-set deficit to Kyle Friend and Tim Brewster in the quarterfinals, surviving an 18-21, 21-18, 21-19 semifinal bout with Cody Caldwell and Chase Frishman, and dipping into their bag of magic tricks to flip a 3-12 deficit in the finals to win, 21-19. They’d been tested, just as they wished, finetuning whatever it was that needed finetuning.
“We have time to be peaking,” Sander said. “It’s going to be a really long year, looking at the schedule, so if we can do a steady climb and be our best later on, I think it’s going to be better for everybody.”
What is especially promising about their two matches in Itapema on Thursday was the way in which they won: A pair of sweeps over Israel’s top pair and Budinger and Evans while debuting a new-look offense, with Sander on the left side and Crabb on the right. That was an idea hatched by interim, and potentially long-term, coach Evie Matthews, who has long been in favor of an option-heavy, tempo offense, the type ran by his former team, Tri Bourne and John Hyden.
With Sander, a fantastic outside hitter during his decorated indoor career, on the left side, it opens up a bigger potential for options. Crabb is also no stranger to the right, having played it well with his brother, Trevor Crabb, for years and winning a bronze medal with Paul Lotman this past fall in Dubai while on the right.
As Sander mentioned, the road is long, and the start couldn’t have been smoother.
Andy Benesh, Miles Partain fend off Alison to qualify
Smooth is not likely the word of choice to describe Andy Benesh and Miles Partain and their much-anticipated 2023 debut in Itapema. It began as rough as one could imagine, with an 11-21 first-set loss to Hungary’s Arthur Hajos and Bence Streli. The score was indicative of how ugly it was for the Americans. Yet they rebounded, fending off a Hungarian comeback in set two to win, 21-19, before Benesh found his rhythm at the net in a dominating third set, blocking five balls in a 15-8 win, finishing the match with eight in total.
The Americans would need all of the blocks Benesh had left in the night-cap with Alison Cerutti, one of the greatest blockers to ever step foot on a beach, and Oscar Brandao. Seven times would Benesh stuff the Brazilians in a rollicking 21-19, 19-21, 15-12 win that finished with a Partain dig and swing in transition.
Itapema marks the fourth event for Partain and Benesh, a partnership that began in the fall of 2022 with a fifth-place finish in the Maldives, a gold in Dubai, and a ninth the following week in Dubai.
Savvy Simo, Toni Rodriguez stay hot in Itapema
Savvy Simo and Toni Rodriguez had no such stress on Thursday, continuing a torrid streak that began three weeks ago in La Paz, Mexico, where they danced all the way to the gold medal match after beginning the tournament in the qualifier. On Thursday, they again made quick work of the qualifier, sweeping Brazil’s Ana Case da Silva and Carolina Horta (21-13, 21-13) and Spain’s top pair of Maria Carro and Angela Lobato (21-15, 21-18).
Boding better for Simo and Rodriguez is the fact that they are the only pair of three American teams in the qualifier to make the main draw. Corinne Quiggle and Sarah Schermerhorn fell in the final round to Austrian sisters Dorina Klinger and Ronja Klinger, 21-16, 18-21, 15-13. One round earlier, Allie Wheeler and Zana Muno were swept by Germans Laura Ludwig and Louisa Lippmann, 21-14, 21-12.
Laura Ludwig makes 2023 debut
It was the first event of the year for Ludwig, a World Champion and 2016 Olympic gold medalist. And it was a debut that fell a bit flat, with a second round loss to China’s Xinxin Wang and Lingdi Zhu, 21-11, 16-21, 11-15.
Chinese women shine in qualifier
Wang and Zhu were one of two Chinese duos to make the main draw in Itapema. Jie Dong and Fan Wang knocked out Austria’s No. 2 duo, Lena Plesiutschnig and Katharina Schutzenhofer, in the final round, 15-21, 21-13, 15-9, to make their first main draw of the season.
Argentinian men stun the field
If you required a double-take of the first men’s match of the day in Itapema, you are likely not alone. Argentina’s Julian Azaad, a 2021 Olympian, and his new partner Maciel Bueno, stunned top-seeded Brazilians Saymon Barbosa and Vinicius Rezende, 22-20, 23-21. The Cinderella run didn’t stop their, as they won a thriller over Spain’s Huerta brothers, Javi and Alejandro, 20-22, 30-28, 15-12 to earn a spot in the weekend’s main draw.
Meanwhile, their fellow countrymen, Nicolas and Tomas Capogrosso, the former of which played with Azaad in the Tokyo Olympics, won a pair of three-setters, over Brazil and Switzerland, to qualify.
The main draw for the Itapema Challenge begins on Friday at 4 a.m. Pacific. You can watch all matches on Volleyball TV (I’ll be commentating center court from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Pacific)