AVP San Francisco: We’ve entered the era of the Baby Court

Maddison McKibbin and Ty Loomis celebrate winning AVP San Francisco.Maddison McKibbin and Ty Loomis throwing sand, celebrating a win in AVP San Francisco.

I’m doing it. After AVP San Francisco, I’m pouring myself a big, heaping, ice cold glass of the AVP Cool-Aid and I’m tilting that thing back.

I’m sold.

I wasn’t for a long time. I thought the Civil War between Donald Sun and Kerri Walsh-Jennings and the NVL and Leonard Armato had the potential to fracture the sport beyond repair. Either that, or the added competition of another heavyweight, Armato, was going to push Sun to put together a massively improved product.

In the wake of AVP San Francisco, appears to have done the latter.

Every single event this season has been spectacular – and that’s with two major events being sucked dry of the top talent due to bigger FIVBs!

Huntington was mobbed. Austin was sold out. Seattle and New York, the beginning of the Gold Series, were like the supermodels of AVP sites. San Francisco proved telegenic as always, and the fire marshals have had to limit spectators two years in a row now because the stadium was packed beyond capacity.

Nobody is making millions playing the AVP just yet. But the product is proving attractive, and the sport is progressing.

It helps, of course, that the weather has been abnormally wonderful for every event. Jeff Conover, the AVP tournament director, said that, at one point, nine of 10 AVP events had rain or just tough weather.

This year, we’re 5-for-5.

I’m in, and it seems I’m not alone.

After another fantastic event at AVP San Francisco, I’ve gotta say: Well done once again, AVP Tour.

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Hawaiians on a “manifest destiny”

Since November, I’ve been working on my third book, which will be a non-fiction dive into beach volleyball. For the past eight months or so, I’ve been cobbling together interviews and digging into a borderline obsessive amount of research on this magnificent sport. Below is a snippet from the rough manuscript that I’d like you to read:

Let’s fast forward a moment. 

We’re going to a birthday party.

It’s either 1999 or 2000. Taylor Crabb can’t remember exactly. Since that day in 1915 [when the Outrigger Canoe Club was founded], Outrigger has built three beach volleyball courts, though today, the two courts reserved for the adults are not where the action is. Just to the side you’ll find what has become affectionately known as the “baby court,” which is, as always, teeming with youngsters.

“When you’re nine, ten, eleven, all the way to fifteen, that’s the court you want to play on,” said Riley McKibbin, “because you can hit the ball over the net and you don’t even have to run down a high line shot because it’s like three steps away.”

On this occasion, the baby court is packed for Reese Haines’s birthday, for which his father has arranged a 2-on-2 tournament.

Look there, it’s McKibbin and Bourne. They’re the geezers of the group – almost teenagers! It explains why they’re playing together. And there’s Trevor Crabb and Brad Lawson, too. As for the youngsters? That’s Taylor Crabb and Riley’s kid brother, Maddison. Another set of brothers, Erik and Kawika Shoji have scored invites as well. 

Take a snapshot of this precocious crew. You may never see another one like it.

Fast forward again, all the way to 2016. That little birthday crew? They have blossomed into the most formidable group of volleyball players in the world. All in all, in 2016 alone, the nine kids in attendance at that party would go on to combine for eight AVP finals, eight AVP semifinals, four NORCECA wins, eight top-five finishes on the FIVB Tour, one beach Olympic qualification, 10 additional AVP main draws, and two indoor Olympic bronze medals.

The reason I leave you with that little preview – the goal is to have the book ready to go prior to the 2018 season – is because each of the last four AVP finals have featured at least one member from that Baby Court crew. Trevor Crabb lost the finals in Austin to Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena, who are, objectively speaking, the best team in the world. Taylor Crabb picked up his first win in New York. Trevor lost a three-setter in Seattle. Maddison McKibbin, who began the year in the qualifiers and hadn’t made a semifinal, smoked Eric Zaun and Ed Ratledge in the semifinals to make his first final, alongside Ty Loomis.

“The Hawaiians, man,” Avery Drost said. “It’s manifest destiny.”

And indeed it was, even without arguably the best of the Hawaiians, Tri Bourne. McKibbin put the final block on a 24-22, 21-19 for his first win, the Baby Court’s second of the season, and Loomis’ first since 2009.

Speaking of…

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Ty Loomis is back and throwing sand so let’s celebrate that

One of my favorite videos on the internet is the 2009 AVP Coney Island final between Ty Loomis and Casey Patterson and Sean Scott and John Hyden.

There are a lot of reasons for this – baby-faced Casey is great, and gollee could the AVP pack the stadiums back then – though none better than the demeanor of Patterson and Loomis. They scream and celebrate and hoot and holler every single point. Every pokey, dig, block, ace, kill, whatever, receives an Olympic gold medal-type celebration. I think at one point they celebrate how great their celebrations are.

It’s great television.

The two youngsters beat big bad Hyden-Scott to win their first AVP tournament.

Patterson has since enjoyed an abundance of success. Loomis, however, went the next eight years without another finals appearance.

It’s been odd watching Loomis struggle this season, and a little bit of last year, when he once failed to make it out of a qualifier (for transparency’s sake, he smashed me in that qualifier, in Huntington Beach). Prior to San Francisco, his best finish this season was ninth. In Seattle two weeks ago, he only won a single set.

San Francisco was a different story. Loomis, after battling a balky knee in New York, appeared to be fully back. He smashed angles and chopped lines, dug almost everything hard driven that was sent his way, and typically buried the transition.

In the finals, he was phenomenal. His line shots were good enough that Billy Allen hardly bothered to make a move on a few. His angle swings were vicious. His cut shots were sharp.

Of course, his fervor for celebrations has not waned, throwing sand, yelling, pumping up the crowd.

When McKibbin threw down the final block, Loomis tackled him to the ground and they barrel rolled together, one big sandy mess.

Was it the show that Loomis and Patterson put on in 2009? I’m not sure.

But who knows, maybe eight years from now, we’ll look back upon the Loomis-McKibbin victory with similarly fond nostalgia.

Kelley Larsen has taken over

One of the most dominant blocking performances I’ve seen on the women’s side of the game did not, oddly, come from Kerri Walsh-Jennings. It was delivered by Kim DiCello in the 2016 New Orleans finals.

Playing alongside the diminutive and appropriately crafty Kendra VanZwieten, DiCello touched everything. Whatever she didn’t roof she at least soft-blocked, and she went on to finish the tournament with 26 blocks, double that of the next-closest contender.

Kelley Larsen is giving DiCello a run for her money.

Her performance in the San Francisco finals was stunning. Betsi Flint, Larsen’s defender, is an excellent volleyball player, but the match was completely and totally controlled by Larsen. She forced Lane Carico and Alex Klineman, a team she had lost to earlier in the tournament, well outside of their comfort zones. There may have been more shots and swings that she got her hand on than shots that she didn’t.

Fittingly, she closed the tournament with 17 blocks, second to Klineman’s 21. Flint, meanwhile, playing behind that massive block, finished with 119 digs, 32 more than No. 2 Carico.

That’s an average of 8.5 digs and 1.21 blocks per set.

Volleyball is generally, and correctly, viewed as an offensive game. The best sideout team typically wins.

Larsen and Flint are flipping that script, with a win in San Francisco to back them up.

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Carico has found her blocker – I think

It makes me really, really happy when I kind of go out on a limb and make a somewhat bold prediction and it comes to fruition. It doesn’t happen often, so allow me one second to celebrate correctly believing in Alex Klineman and Lane Carico.

They’re good. They’re very good, and there’s really no reason why they shouldn’t be. Their games complement each other splendidly.

I couldn’t be any more impressed with Carico this season. Last year, alongside Summer Ross, she made the finals in New York and cemented herself into Manhattan Beach lore by getting her name on the pier.

And then she voluntarily (!!) dove back into the qualifiers.

She nearly didn’t make it out in New York, going to three sets in the second round of the qualifier. At the end of the day, she did make it out, though her and Sarah Pavan took a disappointing 13th, which preceded a somewhat disappointing fifth with Lauren Fendrick in Seattle.

Klineman, meanwhile, whiffed on both New York and Seattle, and didn’t win a match in Austin. Neither were playing particularly well coming in, but something about the two playing together atoned for whatever individual struggles they were having.

After a tight first round, they waxed Geena Urango and Angela Bensend, 21-11, 22-20; controlled a good match against Betsi Flint and Kelley Larsen, 21-13, 30-28; smacked Urango and Bensend again in the semifinals, 21-16, 21-16.

Carico has done a fair amount of bouncing around with partners this season, playing with five thus far.

It appears she’s found her match.

Behind Klineman’s block, she finished second in digs. Klineman led both in blocks and aces.

Carico’s long search for a blocker may alas be over.

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“Name’s Allen, Billy Allen.”

My god. Billy Allen.

I knew Allen was a phenomenal volleyball player, and a spot-on James Bond doppelganger (Ed Ratledge deserves credit for pointing that out). Prior to San Francisco, he was playing better than anyone on Tour without question. And if you missed his semifinal against Ricardo Santos and Reid Priddy, you missed one of the finest displays of volleyball this season.

Somewhere in the second set, Stafford Slick, Allen’s blocker, began suffering what was being called spasms in his oblique. He swung left-handed, refused to do anything but shoot when using his right, had his block cut in half because he couldn’t fully extend.

Simply put: Slick was playing at perhaps 40 percent, if that.

Enter Allen.

Down 14-10 at the freeze, with no momentum, no positive energy, no nothing, really. Ricardo, a typically stoic individual, was pumping up the crowd. Priddy was abusing volleyballs. The freeze appeared to only delay the inevitable: The Olympians were going to make a final.

Allen evidently had other plans. Slick couldn’t block, so Allen did, and he roofed Priddy – something Slick had a lot of trouble doing – picked up a soft-block and transitioned it for a kill, peeled to funnel weak shots to Slick, put balls away on two, set Slick where he needed it.

He took over, in a sport where willing a win is nearly impossible. In other mainstream sports – basketball, football, soccer – you can assert yourself by demanding the ball. Just watch Russell Westbrook.

But that’s exceptionally difficult in volleyball, where the other team can freeze a player out, which is exactly what Priddy and Santos were wisely doing to Allen. They served Slick every ball, transitioned everything to Slick, attacked Slick’s block instead of Allen’s defense. Allen elbowed his way back in. He took more seam on serve-receive. He blocked. He went on two.

He took over, asserting himself not just as possibly the best defender on Tour, but as the best overall player.

The same magic couldn’t be mustered in the finals. Slick appeared markedly better in the finals than the semis, but he still didn’t look all there, and Allen still had to press. Quite honestly, it’s remarkable that both sets went to extra points, given that Slick, maybe the most physical player on Tour, couldn’t be physical.

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