I’ve been thinking a lot about Huntington Beach. Not because it’s where I spend most of my mornings. It reminds me of months ago. It reminds me of ages ago, a time long, long before Chicago, the final event of the AVP Tour 2017 season.
As I sat and watched the livestreams from Chicago, I couldn’t help but be a little startled by how much has changed in the four months – four blindingly fast months – that have transpired since the AVP’s season opener in Huntington Beach.
I kept up with the AVP’s live stats of Ben Vaught-Branden Clemens in the first round against Mark Burik-Adam Roberts. That match alone is an embodiment of all that has changed since Huntington, where Vaught and Clemens were the sport’s most lovable underdogs, 20 and 22 years old, Ben the hometown kid with the messy blonde hair and aw shucks smile and Clemens the All-American from Harvard playing in his first ever qualifier.
Nobody expected them to qualify. Not in their bracket, which included the one seed, Kevin McColloch and Rafu Rodriguez and Olympians Chaim Schalk and Reid Priddy. And then they did, pulling off what is still probably the biggest upset of the season, toppling the Olympians in three, making their first qualifier.
In Chicago, they were not underdogs. They slept-walked through the qualifier, as expected. And I was a bit shocked by how soundly they were beat by Adam Roberts and Mark Burik.
In four months, Vaught-Clemens had made the transition from Cinderellas to main draw regulars, to the point where some may have viewed their loss to AVP veterans Roberts and Burik as an upset.
Strange years, too, for Burik and Roberts. Burik was supposed to play the season with Bill Kolinske, until an eleventh-hour holdout from Kolinske regarding the oft-maligned AVP contract ended the partnership before it began. Fortunately for Burik, Robbie Page also held out, not notifying Avery Drost, with whom he had practiced all winter, until the afternoon of the registration date.
They made for a slapdash but solid team, Burik and Drost. They took Taylor Crabb and Jake Gibb to three in Huntington Beach, in one of the most underrated matches of the year. But something was a little off. Chemistry didn’t seem to be there.
Drost went to his buddy, Ty Tramblie. Burik turned to a young up-and-comer named Mike Boag. They lost in the first round of the New York qualifier, marking the first time Burik failed to make it out of a qualifier in more than a year. Drost, meanwhile, struggled with Tramblie, who subsequently disappeared into the world of coaching, also hobbled in part by a few nagging injuries.
And then Drost found his guy.
A year ago, Chase Frishman was named the Rookie of the Year. Lots of promise, potential, though I don’t think many saw him as elite just yet, still figuring out methods by which to make his diminutive frame formidable at the game’s highest level.
In their first tournament together they took fifth, marking Frishman’s best finish and also the end of his partnership with Mike Brunsting, with whom he had played every other AVP to that point.
The next tournament, Captain America and Frishman, with the backing of Frishman’s supporters – Ledge Legion or Frishie’s Friends, depending on your preference – picked up a third in Hermosa Beach. The partnership was cemented.
No need to worry about Brunsting. Not really. He split-blocked with Jeff Samuels, and though they were an odd team on paper, they made it work, taking a ninth and a thirteenth before Brunsting was picked up by the garrulous, sand-throwing Ty Loomis, his most reputable partner to date.
The fact that Samuels was playing AVP at all is a marker of change as well. Gone is the NVL. Why they fell apart I don’t really know, but just one event into the season, it collapsed, though its top players, either out of prescience or fortuitous timing, had already made the move over.
Eric Zaun, an East Coaster who cut his teeth on the NVL, began the year in the Huntington Beach qualifier with Uncle Ed Ratledge. They even lost a set.
And then they took a fifth in Austin, stunned Billy Allen-Stafford Slick and Casey Patterson-Theo Brunner in New York. On the Livestream, Tri Bourne said he’d never heard of the kid. Over the remainder of the season, everybody had heard of the kid and his van-living ways.
Reid Priddy doesn’t live in a van. But he has a badass RV, an element of his “beach hacking.” That’s what he’s calling his transition from one of the greatest indoor players in United States volleyball history to a defender aspiring for Tokyo 2020.
It’s funny to think back to Huntington Beach, when Priddy lost to Vaught and Clemens in the final round. Seems years ago. It was only 17 weeks.
In that span, Priddy bludgeoned his way to a fifth in Austin with the remarkably physical Maddison McKibbin. He even impressed enough to be picked up by Ricardo Santos. Statistically speaking, there are no better blockers in the history of beach volleyball than Santos, a man with medals of every color.
He provided a wonderful new flavor to the tour, Santos. In his first tournament, in New York, he and Schalk toppled mighty Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena, who at that point seemed adamantine when it came to volleyball in the States. Untouchable.
Santos and Schalk made the immortals bleed, as the saying goes in 300. Volleyball in America was better for it.
For so long, an AVP tournament had followed the same, tired script: Patterson-Gibb or Dalhausser-Lucena. Occasionally, during a scheduling clash with the FIVB, up-and-comers or strong mid-tier teams could emerge.
In 2017, with the establishment of two, perhaps three, additional elite teams, there was no tired script. Not really.
In three consecutive tournaments – New York, Seattle, San Francisco – American fans welcomed a new winner on the AVP Tour.
In the off-season shuffle, Taylor Crabb, the 2016 Defensive Player of the Year, had picked up Gibb, the best American blocker not named Dalhausser. It took just three tournaments for them to pick up their first win, in New York, and nothing displayed the hilarious gap in their personalities as when Crabb chugged his bottle of champagne, threw it to the ground, and declared New York his personal playground for the night. Gibb said he was flying home.
They did it again in Hermosa Beach, though not before Crabb’s childhood friend, Maddison McKibbin, threw some sand and rolled around with Loomis, all the way to McKibbin’s first win, in San Francisco and Loomis’ first since 2009.
It was only four events prior that McKibbin was in the qualifier, in Huntington Beach.
Oh, how things change indeed.
Two weeks prior to McKibbin’s first victory came Stafford Slick’s, in Seattle alongside Billy Allen, the mayor of Lake Sammamish. They did so by defeating Trevor Crabb and Sean Rosenthal, who proved themselves to be an oddly wonderful team. For so long, Rosenthal has played behind massive blockers – Gibb, Dalhausser, Larry Witt, Mark Williams. Crabb, standing 6-foot-4-ish, doesn’t fit the Rosenthal prototype, and yet there they were, in the finals in Austin, in the finals in Seattle, in the finals in Hermosa, in the finals in Manhattan, bridesmaids, bridesmaids, bridesmaids, bridesmaids.
As an aside to their bi-weekly appearances in the finals, their partnership also inevitably formed the Tour’s most attractive rivalry: Crabb vs. Crabb, Baby Crabb vs. King Crabb, older bro vs. younger bro.
Every match provided magnificent theatre, adding a trash-talking banter the AVP may not have realized it even needed.
Yeah, things got boring for a while there on the AVP. We knew who’d win. We knew everyone would be polite and shake hands and babysit for one another. There was all of that in Huntington – the pleasantries, the platitudes, the niceties. Even Trevor behaved.
Like him or not, Crabb’s needling provided an undeniably intriguing element to every match he played.
In the semifinals of Manhattan Beach, he and Priddy had to be separated after an exchange under the net.
We didn’t see that in Huntington. The sport’s better for it. As Gibb told me after Hermosa, in which he beat Crabb twice and heard an earful and then some: “Everybody doesn’t have to like everybody.”
No, though some teams did prove impossible to dislike.
It was a joy to watch Rafu Rodriguez and Piotr Marciniak. In Huntington, Rodriguez played three total sets – in the qualifier. Marciniak didn’t even play.
By Chicago, they were viewed as legitimate dark horses, having made the semifinals in Hermosa Beach a month before. Two events before that, they had very nearly stunned Patterson and Theo Brunner, pushing them to three in the first round.
And what a vexing team they were, Patterson and Brunner. Flashes of brilliance interspersed with results of the puzzling variety. A win over Alison and Bruno would be contrasted with a loss to Ratledge and Zaun. A fifth in Porec would be preceded by a fifth in Seattle.
In Huntington, it wouldn’t have been wrong to label them as the clear second-best team, behind the unanimous No. 1 of Dalhausser and Lucena.
By Chicago? The top-tier had been muddled. Where to put Crabb-Rosenthal and Crabb-Gibb? Where to slot Priddy-Santos and Allen-Slick?
Yes, much has changed since Huntington.
Riley McKibbin was hurt and came back, Curt Toppel and Derek Olson popped in for the occasional cameo, Tri Bourne became a member of the media.
Some things, though – well, some things never change. Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena grew so bored, it seemed, of their uninterrupted dominance that they split-blocked in Chicago, and it says something about their absurd athletic ability that the best blocker on the planet can play defense and the best defender on the planet can block and they’ll still make a final in a fully loaded AVP.
Dalhausser and Lucena are still the best team in the world. That has not changed. But what came after their final, in which they lost to Ryan Doherty and John Hyden, provided a massive whiff of the stuff.
America’s darlings of beach volleyball, Sara Hughes and Kelly Claes, played another darling in Summer Ross and Olympian Brooke Sweat.
The USC national champs, they of the 103-match winning streak in college, made it look frighteningly easy, finishing an incredible year on an incredible note, a 21-17-, 21-18 victory for their first AVP win.
But it was the dichotomy between the men’s and women’s finals that perhaps marked the greatest change of them all. In the men’s final, there was 33-year-old Doherty and a pair of 37-year-olds in Dalhausser and Lucena, and there was the ageless Hyden, 44 years young, erasing the immortal Karch Kiraly from the record books as the oldest to ever win an AVP.
In the women’s final, the oldest player, Sweat, is in fact two years younger than the youngest in the men’s final. Ross was an elder at 24, when compared to 21-year-old Claes and 22-year-old Hughes.
Indeed, the tides of change have been lapping at the AVP. On the women’s end, that generational shift seems to be upon us with the youngest team in history claiming victory. On the men’s, quite the opposite: There has never been an older final with an older victor.
Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Tokyo is still three years away. And if there’s one thing this season has taught us, it’s that in volleyball, change can be swift and abrupt, and change, as we see with Claes and Hughes, can be a full on generational shift.