AVP Chicago: Travis Mewhirter’s preview of Gold Series season-ender

AVP Chicago-beach volleyball
Caitlin Ledoux sets Xi Zhang against the backdrop of the Chicago skyline/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

AVP Chicago begins Thursday, another “Gold Series” tournament as the season comes to a close. The annual event is at Oak Street Beach on Lake Michigan and this year, the qualifying has been expanded.

Imagine, for a moment, that AVP Chicago was a 16-team draw, like Huntington Beach, Austin, Seattle, San Francisco and New York.

Actually, scratch that. I don’t want to imagine that.

I don’t want to imagine Marty Lorenz and Chaim Schalk, AVP semifinalists and one of the best defenders in the world, in the qualifier.

I don’t want to imagine the brothers Bomgren, Tim and Brian, back in the qualifier. The last time we saw those guys in the qualifier was New Orleans of 2015. They came out and took a third.

I don’t want to imagine Piotr Marciniak and Rafu Rodriguez, semifinalists just two events ago in Hermosa Beach, back in the qualifier.

Even if it’s an odd sort of team, a pair of defenders, I don’t want to imagine longtime veterans Mark Burik and Adam Roberts back in the qualifier.

That’s exactly how it would look, though, if the AVP hadn’t increased the size of the draw to 24 teams in Chicago. Thank goodness for that.

Yes, increasing the size of the draws makes for more navigable qualifiers, and as a qualifier player myself, I’m biased towards anything that might make my path a smidgeon easier. But aside from making the qualifiers more appealing, I love the increased draws because those four teams I just mentioned deserve to be in main draw. They make the main-draw product better.

Don’t we all win when that happens?

Don’t we all win when a team like Lorenz and Schalk, seeded 13, could make a run to the semifinals, a Cinderella that isn’t really much of a Cinderella at all?

Don’t we all win when a pair of lovable Midwestern brothers, as kind of people you’ll meet, upset a few teams, get the fans behind them because, honestly, how can you not root for the Bomgrens?

Don’t we all win when we get Rafu chest digs and Marciniak jump-bumps, all the way to stadium court semifinals?

Of course we do.

Qualifying for an AVP main draw should be difficult. But it shouldn’t be difficult to the extent that deserving teams are being cast to the cold, dark world of the qualifiers. Rafu knows about that. Twice this year he was unjustly knocked out of small-draw qualifiers – Huntington Beach and New York – because a few Olympians, Schalk and Reid Priddy in one case, Schalk and Ricardo Santos in another, decided to play. Had it been a big draw, like Chicago, he’d have been in. 

The main draw would have been better because of it.

I think the AVP has done the right thing in increasing the size of the draws, and it would surprise me if there’s a single event smaller than 24 teams next season, given the consistent size of the qualifiers, and the product put on in the main draw.

Beach volleyball, growing in quantity, quality, demand – every category, really.

Imagine that.

Men’s qualifier: One last beast
This is an odd one, somewhere between stacked and just sort of a normal, difficult, unenviable qualifier.

Ben Vaught and Branden Clemens are back in the qualifier as the one seed after having avoided them for Hermosa and Manhattan. I’d be thoroughly floored if any of the top three seeds, Vaught-Clemens, Raffe Paulis-Jeff Samuels, Ian Satterfield-Dave McKienzie are knocked out prior to main draw.

The fourth seed, Myles Muagututia and Kyle Friend, is where it gets tricky.

It gets tricky because, down the entry list, is Shane Donohue and Kyle Radde.

Donohue has been living the most all-American life of anybody in the country I think. He got married, has a kid on the way, is building a house – and, oh, in his spare time he’s also won the Pottstown Rumble, qualified for New York, qualified for San Francisco, and won another cash grass tournament. 

It has been a while since Radde’s name has surfaced on the beach. He cobbled together a tantalizing 2014 season, qualifying for St. Pete’s with Dana Camacho before losing in the final round in the next three qualifiers.

He hasn’t played an AVP since, which is a shame, because he’s a physical marvel.

Donohue-Radde = land mine No. 1.

Other favorites, land mines, and potential sneaky teams
Tim May and Brian Cook: I always poke fun at blockers who team up with other blockers, because it’s kind of funny to watch. I’ve been proven wrong by Jeff Samuels and Mike Brunsting, two blockers who turned out to be quite good, so respect to them for that. And the thing is, Cook and May might actually be a solid defensive team because whoever they’re playing will never be in system. May and Cook come packing two of the hardest jump serves of anybody on Tour not named Dalhausser. It’ll be ace, error, or out of system play. If anything, it’ll be fun to watch.

Paul Lotman and Gabe Ospina: What a pleasant second-half of the season these fellas have had. They qualified for a main draw in the NVL’s lone event and went on to take a third. This preceded a main draw in Manhattan Beach. Side note: This is what blockers get for teaming up with defenders (Lotman, vexingly, split with Alejandro Parra, another blocker, for the first half of the season).

On the cusp
DR and Nathan Vander Meer; Francisco Quesada-Paneque and Troy Schlicker; Jon Drake and Chris Luers; Dan Buehring and Matthew McCarthy; Jake Rosener and Garrett Wessberg.

It’s a large lump of teams, I know, and they’re not all equally talented, but they’re all, more or less, in the same phase of their volleyball careers: Dancing on the border of consistently qualifying and going home early.

All of them have main draw experience, though not an abundance of it. All of them are capable of making it, and it really wouldn’t be a surprise if they did, but it also wouldn’t require a massive upset to topple any of them.

Team I wouldn’t want to see
Alejandro Parra and Travis Schoonover: They’re coming off a disappointing finish in Manhattan Beach, where they were upset in their first round by Hawk Hatcher and Chris Austin. I’m going to chalk that up as a fluke, first-tournament-together jitters. On paper, these two are perfect: Big, physical players with large windows. Parra isn’t an excellent setter, but Schoonover has a big enough window so that he does not need an excellent set. Defensively, Parra’s block will complement Schoonover’s defense well. I don’t really know what happened in Manhattan, to be honest. Stuff happens.

I think they qualify to close the year.

Sneaky good
Kyle Stevenson-Travis Woloson, Ozz Borges-Bruno Amorim, Dave Smith-Nate Yang, the Partain brothers, Charlie VanRees-Logan Webber, Kacey Losik-Garrett Wilson, Van Zwietens, Dillon Lesniak-Salvador Pastor, Hagen Smith-Cole Fiers.

I won’t go into detail into each team here, or this story would be an extra 1,000 words and my editor would punt his laptop, and I don’t want to make my editor punt his laptop. All of these teams are solid – not great, not spectacular, just solid. Most have at least one player with main draw experience. If not, they’ve at least performed well in competitive opens elsewhere. Don’t sleep on this group.

Land mine!
Everybody’s favorite –- or least favorite, depending on your draw -– section of the preview.

Your land mine of the tournament goes to Adam Jewell and Mike Clark. I don’t know what Jewell’s game is looking like these days, but I do know that he was Jake Gibb’s breakout partner back in the mid-2000s, winning Austin in 2005, taking a second in Belmar a few weeks later.

Personally, I’d rather not play an AVP winner in the first round of a qualifier, thank you very much.

As for me? It’s college football season, and as a Pac-12 beat writer during football and basketball, I don’t think my editors would appreciate me skipping another Saturday to go play volleyball and explore another city and not write about football. So I’m done for the year, and my shoulder is very appreciative of that, as are my golf clubs, which have alas seen the light of day again.

Now the difficult work of sitting back, watching football, and writing about it begins. It’s a tough life, but somebody’s gotta do it.

Women’s qualifier: Chalk walk
I’m so confused. How does the men’s field get one shy of 80 teams in the qualifier, and the women post half that many? All year long, the men have had bigger qualifiers than the women –- another fact that is sort of head scratching to me –- so this isn’t a new phenomenon, but the disparity has never been this vast.

Isn’t volleyball known to most as a “girl’s sport?”

In the 2015-16 school year, 436,309 girls played on a high school volleyball team. Only 55,417 boys did the same.

I’m not sure where the gap between the two begins to shift, particularly given that women can now compete in beach volleyball in college, and because of Title IX, that opportunity will likely never be afforded to men.

There’s a bigger story somewhere in there. For now, there’s a breakdown of a qualifier to do.

Favorites –- heavy favorites
It’s not that I feel bad for Jace Pardon and Lara Dykstra, but I feel … something. Once again, they are the No. 1 team in the qualifier, their 1,264 points just 25 off the mark from sliding into main draw automatically.

This will be the fourth qualifier for Pardon this year, and she has been seeded Q2 or Q1 in all four. It’s a good place to be, but it’s not main draw, and the difference between flying to Chicago knowing you’ll get a main draw paycheck and flying to Chicago unsure if you’ll be packing up Thursday night is massive.   

I doubt Pardon or Dykstra is all together concerned about needing to qualify. In Manhattan Beach, where they were seeded Q1, none of the three teams they played scored a total of 21 points in the entire match.

Like I said, I don’t feel too bad for them, because they’re miles ahead of most any qualifier team seeded outside of the top 10. Qualifying shouldn’t be an issue. It’s just a mental and physical burden they’d rather not have.

I’d say that same type of mindset will apply to all of the top six seeds: Pardon-Dykstra, Karissa Cook-Katie Spieler, Brittany Tiegs-Pri Lima, Brittany Howard-Nicolette Martin, Bre Moreland-Allie Wheeler, Aurora Davis-Bree Scarbrough.

Each one of those teams has been regularly featured in the main draw all year long. And it’s not just that they’ve made it. For the most part, they’ve picked up a few wins and had some decent finishes along the way.

Simply qualifying is likely not the ceiling of their goals in Chicago. I’d expect most are seeking finishes in the top-10, since the majority of those players have seen that number before.

And it’s not that the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds, Delaney Knudsen and Kerri Schuh and Mackenzie Ponnet and Christina Vucich, should not be viewed as favorites. It’s just that they haven’t qualified with the consistency of the previous six.

Knudsen and Schuh have made a combined three main draws this year, and in the tournaments they haven’t made it through, they’ve come so tantalizingly close. Schuh has lost in the third set of the final qualifying round twice this year, and Knudsen has done so three times. That’s heart wrenching just to write.

As a journalist, I’m not supposed to root for any team in particular, but my goodness, I can’t help it. It’d be nice to see them close the season on a positive note in Chicago.

Ponnet, the 8 seed, is playing with Vucich for the first time all year. She’s made it through twice, though she has had some of the unluckiest draws, getting Jace Pardon and AVP finalist Alex Klineman in Huntington Beach, Sarah Pavan and Lane Carico in New York – and taking them to three – and Dykstra and Allie Wheeler in San Francisco. Vucich made it through in Hermosa but was upset in Manhattan by the 44th-seeded Carlee Roethlisberger – yes, that Roethlisberger – and Sasha Karelov.

Taylor Nutterfield-Claire Smalzer, Camie Manwill-Aleksandra Wachowicz, Avery Bush-Litara Keil, Elise Zappia-Jacqui Wood, Meg Dawson-Jessica Sykora. 

Given the surprisingly small size of the field, this is not an exceptionally long list. That, and I don’t recognize many names past Sykora.

Nutterfield and Smalzer have two near-misses on the resume this season, in Huntington Beach and Austin.

Manwill made two straight main draws, in Seattle and San Francisco. Wachowicz is still seeking her first main draw after losing in the final round of the Manhattan Beach Open qualifier to Pardon and Dykstra.

Bush and Keil also fell in the final round of Manhattan, to Terese Cannon and Nicolette Martin.

Zappia was the Cinderella story of Hermosa, going from Q37 to main draw. Wood also made main draw in Hermosa, partnered with Kathrin Winkler.

Hermosa was also the site of Sykora’s first main draw, where she also picked up two main-draw wins. 


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