It’s here. The AVP season – after boycotts and contract negotiations and way too many rumors and not nearly enough being grateful to play a sport, on a beach, in the most beautiful, God-blessed area in the country – is finally here, with the AVP Huntington Beach Open.
You’re excited. I’m excited. The only people who might not be excited are my good buddies Aaron Wexler and Joel Blocksom, who had the extraordinary misfortune of drawing the ho-hum team of Chaim Schalk and Reid Priddy.
They’ve only been to, oh, I don’t know, more Olympics than Wexler and Blocksom have played in tournaments together.
That’s all a part of it. Every tournament has a land mine.
That Canadian-American, medal-hogging 32-seed is this year’s No. 1 land mine, though the 60-team qualifier is chock full of them.
Ric Cervantes and Mike Stewart at No. 57? Brutal draw for Ohioans and No. 8 Jon Drake and Chris Luers, who made two main draws last year.
Tim May and Travis Schoonover at 28? Raffe Paulis and Billy Strickland, fresh out of retirement, at 22? Both could easily qualify and it shouldn’t be surprising.
It’s gonna be fun.
Now, every other major sport, prior to a massive tournament or playoff – NCAA March Madness, NFL playoffs, NBA playoffs, Wimbledon, Triple Crown, whatever – typically gets comprehensive media coverage, breaking down upset potential, predictions, analysis, all of it. Beach volleyball doesn’t have that, so, seeing as I’m likely the only sports writer-turned-aspiring-AVP-player, I’m going to give this a whirl, breaking it down region by region.
REGION ONE: Mount Olympus
Catchy name, right? That’s because, obviously, there are two Olympians, Chaim Schalk of Canada and Reid Priddy of the United States. If you’re Kevin McColloch and Roberto Rodriguez-Bertran (“Rafu”) this has to be one of the worst draws in the history of beach volleyball. In ’08, there was an odd policy where guys like Dax Holdren, a 2004 Olympian, and Billy Strickland were in the qualifier for whatever reason, but this is worse. McColloch and Rafu had a breakthrough season last year, becoming the first 16 seed to beat a 1 in a main draw during Seattle, coming through the qualifier to stun Casey Patterson and Jake Gibb. They were monsters. They earned the best possible seed…and, barring some insane fluke, will get a pair of Olympians in the first round.
Nice reward, huh?
Regardless, I’d expect McColloch and Rafu to come through with surprising ease. Priddy is still transitioning his skill set from indoor to beach, which is much more difficult than it sounds (though I wouldn’t know; never played indoor), and McColloch and Rafu have proven capable of beating two exclusively beach-playing Olympians.
Two teams to watch:
- No. 16 Paul Araiza and Matt Motter
- No. 9 Ben Vaught and Branden Clemens.
Araiza has been a steady main draw player for a few years now, and Motter, a physical blocker, has a gnarly jump serve, will probably bounce a few balls close to or on top of the pier, and likely won’t get a single serve. They’ll give McColloch and Rafu another pretty rough test.
One of my best friends in California, Ben Vaught, lives at the beach. He’s put more reps in than anybody. And he’s reaped the rewards, sealing up the West Coast AVP Next bid for the Manhattan Beach Open. Him and Clemens are a team that I doubt few genuinely look forward to playing.
Dark horse team
- Ric Cervantes and Mike Stewart: They’re only seeded so poorly because they never play any AVPs, but rest assured, it wouldn’t be that big of an upset if they top No. 8 Chris Luers and Jon Drake. I’ve seen both teams plenty. I’d label this a 50-50 match.
Favorites to qualify
- McColloch and Rafu
- Priddy and Schalk
- Araiza and Motter
- Vaught and Clemens
- Drake and Luers
REGION TWO: The Man in the Van
Why is this bracket called The Man in the Van? Because my buddy, Eric Zaun, is the top seed in this bracket, and yes, he’s living in a 2006 Dodge Sprinter, like an absolute boss. Zaun, a 6-foot-4 defender who had a ton of success on the NVL, was picked up by Ed Ratledge, and the two are coming off a win over a stacked Open CBVA in Manhattan Beach. They are the heavy, heavy favorites to win the bid.
Tim May and Travis Schoonover are a mis-seeded 28. Realistically, they’re a top-15 or so team in the qualifier. May’s serve, a skud missile of a jump-spin, is a monster, and Schoonover, another product of the NVL, is a long-time beach veteran. I’d slot them as the favorites to play Zaun and Ratledge in the final round.
The Man in the Van Region is significantly lighter than Mount Olympus. I wouldn’t expect as many upsets or long, three-set matches. We might get some excitement with Dave Smith and Nate Yang against Ratledge and Zaun in round two, but I wouldn’t necessarily expect it.
A fresh Ratledge and Zaun is easily a top-10, top-8 AVP main draw team.
Favorites to qualify
- Ratledge and Zaun
- May and Schoonover
- Buehring and McCarthy
REGION THREE: Next Gen
So much young talent in this region, hence the name, Next Gen. Maddison and Riley McKibbin, in their first full season together last year, qualified in all but one main draw, the only exception coming in a super-windy San Francisco qualifier. On a normal day, I’d expect them to make at least 9 out of 10 AVP main draws. This is one of them.
But there are so many young teams with exceptional talent. Reuben Danley, a lefty who is tougher to read than an organic chemistry textbook, and Dylan Maarek, one half of the duo responsible for upsetting the McKibbins in San Francisco, could do it easily, and nobody should be surprised. Danley was a beast in 2009-2010, and can still ball, and Maarek made two main draws last year, in Chicago with Jeff Samuels and Manhattan with Andy Ces.
Jake Rosener, a longtime blocker, is giving defense a try for the first time. He and Garrett Wessberg serve and sideout well, and beat No. 7 Paul Lotman and Alejandro Parra in a CBVA Open just a few weeks ago.
Ian Satterfield and Travis Woloson, another 20-something pair, is solid, and their likely second-round match, against Raffe Paulis and Bill Strickland, should be a fun one. In most qualifiers, that would be a third- or fourth-round matchup, not a second-rounder. But, alas, this is Huntington Beach. No easy paths.
At the bottom, the second-seeded team in Next Gen, is Derek Olson and Jeff Samuels. Olson had a weird year after breaking up with Jeremy Casebeer last year, but I’d argue is still a top-15 defender in the country, and Samuels, a springy blocker, is making the transition from a successful career on the NVL to the AVP.
I’d still put the McKibbins as the odds-on favorites, just because their team chemistry is surpassed only by the Bomgren brothers, but damn, any of five or six teams could make it out of this one.
Favorites to qualify
- Riley and Maddison McKibbin
- Derek Olson and Jeff Samuels
- Reuben Danley and Dylan Maarek
- Ian Satterfield and Travis Woloson
- Raffe Paulis and Billy Strickland
- Jake Rosener and Garrett Wessberg
REGION FOUR: Chalk Walk
This might be the only region in the qualifier without a land mine or an improperly seeded team, which is why I expect it to be a chalk walk: No major upsets.
DISCLAIMER: I am in this bracket. I’m the 18-seed with my good buddy from Michigan, David Ryan Vander Meer, or DR. Obviously, I can’t give an entirely objective breakdown, so I won’t try.
Here’s my general thought: Chase Frishman and Mike Brunsting should qualify. They’re the best team in this region, probably the best in the entire qualifier, if you ask me. Chase was the rookie of the year last year. If it weren’t him, it would have been Mike. They’re exceptionally talented, ball control-oriented, physical and crafty. Chase will be as good as Taylor Crabb, if not better. Mike will be one of the gnarliest 6-foot-4 blockers on the AVP Tour one day. This qualifier is a stepping stone for them. They’re probably more focused on Friday, and figuring out how to conserve their energy to win a few matches and make it to Saturday, if not Sunday.
Upsets can happen, obviously. Me and DR can beat them. Michael Boag and Eric Beranek, a team formed in USA Volleyball’s Elite Development Program, can beat them. Paul Lotman and Alejandro Parra, probably the most physical team in the qualifier, can beat them. Miles Evans and Brian Cook can beat them, and are probably the most likely to do so.
But nobody should beat them. They’re the clear favorites.
All things objective, I expect a chalk walk, no major upsets.
With me being subjective? DR and I will be cruising to the main draw.
Hey, one can dream.