April 7, 2022, Panama City Beach, FL - The first AVP of the season will not commence for another few weeks, in Austin, Texas. And yet, much of the field in Austin will be decided this weekend, in Panama City Beach, Florida.
In the first of what is a radical – and welcome, in the eyes of most, change to the qualifying system, AVPAmerica is now hosting AVPNexts, among other events, to serve as satellite qualifiers. At least four bids to the Austin main draw are on the line – it could be more, should anyone drop to play in the Volleyball World Challenger event in Doha, Qatar, which coincides with Austin – this weekend.
More than 50 teams on the men’s side will be descending upon Panama City Beach this weekend in the hunt for those four spots, and another 32 on the women’s side will be competing as well (the NCAA beach volleyball season does not finish until May 8, depleting much of the women’s field).
Below are 10 teams to watch on the women’s side. A few quick notes before we begin:
- There are dozens of good teams in this event. I chose 10 that have a mix of a fun storyline and the ability to qualify. When San Antonio rolls around, I’ll choose 10 different ones.
- I deliberately chose not to include teams who are already in the main draw of Austin, which are: Lili and Larissa Maestrini, and Sarah Schermerhorn and Corinne Quiggle.
Allie Wheeler, Zana Muno
A year ago, Wheeler seemed primed to have something of a breakout season, both on the AVP and Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour. She won a pair of medals in Sofia, Bulgaria – one gold, one bronze, both with Corinne Quiggle – qualified for the main draw in the Gstaad four-star, and claimed ninth in the Rwanda two-star. Then, just one set into her AVP season, her back locked up – and that was that. After a few months of rehab, Wheeler is back on the sand with Zana Muno, who along with raising chickens and feeding half the tour with the eggs that come with them, also digs more balls than any defender in America (she averaged an absurd 8 per set in Chicago). Muno is fresh off a bronze medal in the Coolangatta Futures event with Toni Rodriguez (more on her below), and she qualified for a pair of NORCECAs with Wheeler on Wednesday morning in Manhattan Beach.
Jessica Gaffney, Molly Turner
Turner didn’t play much last season, but when she did, it was tremendous volleyball. She took a career-high third in AVP Atlanta with Terese Cannon, claimed another top-10 in Chicago, then hit the road and won a silver medal in Italy to finish the year. She and Gaffney began the 2019 season together, making the main draw in Huntington Beach, but they haven’t ever made a full commitment. They began this season with a road dog trip to Tlaxcala, Mexico, taking a red-eye on a moment’s notice to compete in a Volleyball World Challenger event in mid-March. All things considered, they played excellent, falling to Germans Svenja Muller and Cinja Tillman, 18-21, 18-21. With a full week of training and a reasonable travel schedule into Panama City Beach, they’ll only get better.
Aurora Davis, Teegan Van Gunst
Supermom Aurora Davis has proven, time and time again, that she can play with virtually any type of player, any kind of personality, any style of play, and she’ll find a way to win. On the grass with a relative rookie in Lydia Smith? Sure, she’ll win Pottstown and Grass Nationals. In Bulgaria with Sarah Schermerhorn? She’ll take a pair of top-10s. Split-blocking with Kim Hildreth? Another two top-10s, in Bulgaria and Slovenia. She’s with Teegan Van Gunst in this one, who is without her twin, Annika Rowland, for the first time in her professional career. And if there’s one partner who could help her ease the transition, Davis is the perfect fit.
Katie Dickens, Jennifer Keddy
Dickens and Keddy were one of the biggest surprises of AVP Atlanta, seeded No. 14 in the qualifier and making the main draw without dropping a single set. Two weeks later, in Manhattan Beach, they proved it was no fluke, pushing UCLA stars Savvy Simo and Abby Van Winkle to three sets in the fourth round. They’d lose, sure, but the message was clear: they can compete with anyone. And they’ll do so again this weekend in Panama City Beach.
Kaya Marciniak, Megan Rice
This team just makes sense in so many ways it would be difficult to count. Both live in Florida, both have full-time jobs, and both are tremendous beach volleyball players despite the relative lack of training that comes with being a responsible adult who works a full-time job. Rice took a pair of fifth-place finishes on the AVP last year, both with Sarah Schermerhorn, and while Marciniak did not play any on the AVP Tour, she’s continued competing in Florida, making three finals in all three events this season.
Carly Skjodt, Geena Urango
Carly Skjodt’s last name is pronounced Scott.
Now that that’s out of the way: This is an exciting team. Skjodt played her only NCAA season on the beach as a graduate transfer for Pepperdine, where she immediately started on court one with Brook Bauer. A year indoor overseas in Portugal was all she needed to know that the beach was where she is meant to be, and in her first season back, she has a great partner in veteran Geena Urango, who is still one of the best servers on the AVP (and who would also like you to use her discount code for Blenders Eyewear URANGO20 #influencing).
Toni Rodriguez, Savvy Simo
The first time Toni Rodriguez and Savvy Simo played against one another, neither remembered it. Rodriguez was at LSU, Simo at UCLA, and it was Rodriguez who got the better of the Bruin, sweeping her future partner at the annual East Meets West competition. Now they’re together, as two of the more promising talents in the USA Volleyball pipeline. While Simo has yet to dip into the international waters, Rodriguez recently won a bronze medal with Zana Muno at the Coolangatta Futures event in her international debut. Her second career AVP main draw is likely just around the corner.
Violeta Slabakova, Aleksandra Wachowicz
If these two make the semifinals in Panama City Beach, therefore securing a spot in the AVP Austin main draw, good luck to Mark Schuermann getting these names right on the mic. Slabakova is Bulgarian, Wachowicz Polish, and the two have the type of chemistry you can only develop when you’ve been roommates for more than a year. Despite giving birth to a son, Nico, less than a year ago, Slabakova is already back on the beach and playing well, winning a pair of events with Wachowicz this season, the first of which came just six months after Slabakova had Nico.
Adrianna Nora, Sara Putt
In her last eight events, Sara Putt has played with eight different partners. Panama City Beach ends that streak, as she’s playing her second straight event alongside Adrianna Nora, a former outside at Minnesota who has one of the heaviest swings on the beach. Both currently live in Florida, and therefore have had no shortage of tournaments this season, with Nora competing in seven and Putt in four.
Kim Hildreth, Deahna Kraft
This team will not be playing in Austin, regardless of their result in Panama City. Kim Hildreth is signed up with Katie Spieler, who is coming off knee surgery, and the two are directly into the main draw. But it’s worth noting that Deahna Kraft is an excellent blocker, ranked 11th in Pepperdine history for most wins (67), and the points she and Hildreth will get in Panama City will prove invaluable in the events to come. So defenders take note: Kraft will soon be a solid pickup.
~ Travis Mewhirter: @trammew