Prom season has apparently started early in the beach volleyball world. And by prom season, I mean, of course, choosing-your-partner-for-the-next-year season, which in this case is AVP 2018. It seems a little early, to me, for players to be announcing season-long commitments, barely a month after the close of 2017, but much of that is likely due to the FIVB beginning its season earlier and earlier, and if players intend on playing internationally, which our Olympic hopefuls obviously do, I suppose it makes sense for them to lock in their partners now.
So in case you missed Ed Chan and VolleyballMag’s report yesterday, 2016 Olympian Casey Patterson has teamed up with Seattle champ Stafford Slick; Slick’s now-former defender, Billy Allen, has scooped up Ryan Doherty. These dominoes began falling about a week prior, when Doherty announced via Facebook that his 2017 partner, John Hyden, had picked up Patterson’s 2017 blocker, Theo Brunner.
I wouldn’t expect any other major swaps until Tri Bourne is healthy again, and nobody, not even Bourne, is quite sure when that will be. For now, he’s evidently having a ball on his honeymoon in Bali. When he gets back, we’ll be launching our podcast — shameless plug! — The Sandcast: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter, and I’ll be sure to make him uncomfortable and grill him about his partner prospects.
Until then, I’d say that the United States — not necessarily the AVP, which would have to include international stars Chaim Schalk and Ricardo Santos — has six, maybe seven top-tier partnerships: Phil Dalhausser-Nick Lucena, Jake Gibb-Taylor Crabb, Trevor Crabb-Sean Rosenthal, John Hyden-Theo Brunner, Billy Allen-Ryan Doherty, Casey Patterson-Stafford Slick, John Mayer-Jeremy Casebeer.
We know Dalhausser and Lucena, Gibb and Crabb, Crabb and Rosenthal, Mayer and Casebeer. So I’m just going to take a look at the new formations.
AVP 2018: Billy Allen-Ryan Doherty
These two are like those absurdly athletic jocks in high school that moonlight as the biggest nerds in the class. Allen, the mayor of Lake Sammamish, is co-host of the wonderful podcast, Coach Your Brains Out, is a soon-to-be author, and one of the most well-read players on Tour (Mayer might have him beat). Doherty has won multiple AVP tournaments, is currently studying for the CFA and is posting about concepts like the Dunning-Kruger effect. This comes, of course, after he has already played professional baseball and written a book of his own.
I love this team not just because I’m nerdy like them in that I love to read and write, but because they make so much sense as a volleyball team. Though Hyden didn’t know it at the time, this past year it seemed he was grooming the 7-foot-1 blocker to specifically play with Allen. With Hyden, Doherty’s setting seemed to take a massive leap, to the point that he was running bump shoot sets to the pin. With Slick, an intrepid hand-setter, Allen ran a creative offense both in system and transition, taking quicks, shoots, back-sets, constantly changing the tempo and location. Doherty can do that — and he also stands nearly half a foot taller than Slick.
Allen has already proven he can beat top-notch AVP teams by split-pulling with Mayer. I’m excited to see what he can do with a 7-foot-1 blocker, who can option at will, and with whom neither player will have to switch their natural sides.
Doherty, meanwhile, gets the added benefit of a hand-setter — not that Doherty really needs an exceptional setter in order to side out — and someone who is a little less, uh, curmudgeonly on the court.
AVP 2018: Stafford Slick-Casey Patterson
If nothing else, this team will be the AVP 2018 Crowd Pleasers. Aside from perhaps Taylor Crabb and Dalhausser, no two individuals can bounce a ball higher and with more consistency than Patterson and Slick. And that’s an element of this team that Patterson seems quite excited about.
(Side note: If Slick hadn’t shaved his majestic locks, this team would be the Paul Mitchell Dream Team, with Patterson’s suavehawk and Slick’s viking-esque look).
Personality-wise, this could be similar to Patterson and Ty Loomis circa 2009, when Patterson picked up his first AVP win, playing, it should be noted, on the right side. They’re both loud, gregarious, prone to celebrations. They’re entertainers, and few things entertain a crowd quite like pier-bouncing and loudly informing the opposing team that they had, indeed, just pier-bounced.
But aside from the made-for-NBC chemistry, I like Patterson with Slick significantly more than Patterson-Brunner. In all honesty, I thought Patterson and Brunner were going to be an excellent team, an opinion that only solidified after they beat Alison and Bruno in their first international tournament. But as high as their ceiling was, they never consistently hit it. Switching sides is difficult, and switching sides while also switching from one of the world’s best-setting big men in Gibb to one whose primary — and perhaps only — soft spot is setting seemed to be too much to consistently play at an elite level. That just seemed, to me, the cause of their relatively disappointing year. I don’t doubt Patterson’s ability to side out on the right, and I especially don’t doubt it with Slick’s setting.
Boding particularly well is that any perceived growing pains Patterson had from switching sides should be, for the most part, finished. They didn’t play great at the NORCECA qualifier a month or so ago — which ended up not mattering at all — but that was their first tournament, after neither player had touched a ball much since Chicago (in all transparency, neither did Mayer or Rosenthal or Crabb or most of the players aside from Miles Evans and Billy Kolinske),so I’m not going to judge them based off of a casual tournament in which there was no shortage of rust.
AVP 2018: John Hyden-Theo Brunner
John Hyden knows infinitely more about beach volleyball than I do, and he therefore knows infinitely more about his own partner selections than I do. But I’m having trouble with this one. For the past several seasons, Hyden has enjoyed immense success with partners who could run a spread, creative offense that has taken the FIVB by storm.
He would run pin-to-pin with Bourne, an exceptional hand-setter, and he had Doherty doing much of the same. I’m not sure this is possible with Brunner, who hand-sets only here and there, when it seems there really isn’t much of an option.
But, then again, Hyden’s most successful years came alongside Sean Scott, and in my countless hours of YouTube trolling of Sean Scott videos, I’ve only seen Scott hand-set a handful of times. So perhaps Brunner is Hyden’s idea of a much bigger, equally athletic, Connecticut-grown Scott, a Hawaii native. Nick Lucena played with both Scott and Brunner. So did Todd Rogers. Both of them said that Scott and Brunner are two of the most sound blockers they’ve played with. Defensively, I have no doubt this will be one of the best teams the United States has to offer. Offensively, we’ll see, though to doubt Hyden’s ability to side out seems an unwise thing to do, so I won’t do it here.