MAY 20, 2022, SAN ANTONIO, TX – The predicament for the field in this weekend’s AVPNext in San Antonio, Texas, is a new one: Do we buy one-way flights or roundtrip?
A one-way flight is a sure sign of confidence, a single swipe of the credit card that says, in effect: I’m taking another one-way flight to New Orleans on Monday morning, where I’ll be competing in the following weekend’s Pro Series main draw. This wasn’t the case, a little more than a month ago, in Panama City Beach, Fla. home of the first satellite qualifier, which served as both a $20,000 tournament and a qualifier for the Pro Series in Austin, held last weekend. Round trips were the obvious move.
Here, there is no obvious move.
This is one of the tricky travel scenarios created by this new qualifying system, one in which there are exponentially more tournaments to play, more prize money to win – and more flights to take. It’s beautiful, really, a problem beach volleyball players haven’t had in quite some time.
More flights mean more tournaments. More tournaments mean more volleyball. More volleyball means a heck of a good summer.
And the summer is just getting started.
Below are 10 women’s teams to watch in this weekend’s AVPNext in San Antonio. As always, these are not necessarily the 10 best teams – just 10 teams who could play very well, have interesting storylines, or are, indeed, one of the best teams.
Many of the best teams are not included because they were written about in the preview for the Panama City Beach event, or because they are already into the main draw – see: Hailey Harward, who will be playing in New Orleans with Emily Day, which will keep Carly Skjodt from qualifying, even if they win.
Six qualifying spots are on the line in San Antonio, and potentially seven, should Corinne Quiggle and Sarah Schermerhorn remain in Europe to compete in the Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour Elite 16 in Ostrava, which conflicts with New Orleans. Any team who makes the semifinals will, therefore, qualify for New Orleans, as well as at least the highest pair of teams in the quarterfinals.
Carly Kan, Kaitlyn Leary
Kan and Leary have played three tournaments this summer, making the finals in the AVPNext Panama City Beach qualifier, finishing 13th in AVP Austin in what was Leary’s first main draw, then winning a gold medal in both of their international debuts at a NORCECA in La Paz, Mexico.
Three tournaments, three seminal moments.
They’re back in San Antonio, looking to make it four straight successful events to begin a promising 2022 season.
Aurora Davis, Lydia Smith
And the flavor of the week for Aurora Davis is…Lydia Smith! Davis has an ability like no other to play with virtually anyone and have success with them. In her first tournament with Teegan Van Gunst, she made main draw for AVP Austin and finished ninth, upsetting Megan Rice and Kaya Marciniak.
This will not be her first tournament with Smith. They won Pottstown together last summer, and have played five AVPAmerica events already this season, winning the Rockstar Season Opener as well as SSOVA’s Spring Break Big Money Tour event.
Mackenzie Ponnet, Chelsea Rice
These two seem to be having an intimidating contest with their husbands as to who hits the ball harder, which bodes well for all four. Rice is right up there with Adrianna Nora as one of the hardest-hitting women on tour, while Ponnet brings a little more craft and a veteran’s savvy to the table. She’s been playing in AVP main draws since 2017, with a career-high third in 2018 at the Hermosa Beach Open (fascinating note on that: Ponnet and Sheila Shaw lost the first set of every single qualifier match and ran the table all the way to the semifinals).
Macy Jerger, Abby Van Winkle
Any blocker-blocker pairing is always a crowd-pleaser, and on the men’s side, it seems to be working quite well: Three of the four teams who made the semifinals in AVP Austin were double-blocker pairings, and the winner was comprised of a team, Andy Benesh and Phil Dalhausser, who hadn’t played a single point of defense in their entire professional career.
Perhaps Jerger and Van Winkle can bring the trend to the women’s side. Jerger stands 6-foot 1 and Van Winkle 6-foot-2. Both competed at the highest levels of NCAA beach volleyball, Jerger at Florida State and Van Winkle at UCLA. Both have made AVP main draws. Whether this is a traditional team or not, they’re skilled enough to make another.
Kahlee York, Megan Gebhard
Gebhard has as much momentum as anyone heading into this tournament, with back-to-back semifinals made in NORCECAs in Aguascalientes and La Paz, Mexico. In the latter, she claimed bronze with Savvy Simo for her first international medal. A bronze here in San Antonio would be everything she and York need to move into New Orleans in what would be both of their first main draws.
Madison Shields, Samantha Parrish
While Carly Kan is the leader of the unofficial “Most Underrated AVP Player” award, Madison Shields was the runaway favorite for the unofficial “Most Underrated NCAA Player” of 2022. An indoor convert at Pepperdine, Shields, a 5-foot-7 libero, immediately started on court one for the Waves – as a split-blocker with Melanie Paul, another defender.
How’d that work out?
They both finished All-WCC and All-America. Paul is now off to compete for Germany and, next year, LMU. Shields, who will finish her collegiate career next season at USC, is looking to make her first AVP main draw.
Makenzie Griffin, Skyler Germann
When the NCAA season finishes, the entry lists suddenly become filled to the brim with what I’ve affectionately labeled the “College Mafia” since Zana Muno and Crissy Jones blitzed their way to a third in AVP Hermosa in 2019 fresh out of college.
Griffin and Germann enter San Antonio as one of the top-seeded teams of the College Mafia. While many are just beginning the competitive portions of their season, Griffin and Germann – and anyone else who has competed in the NCAA – are primed, with more than 30 matches at Long Beach State under their belt and full-time training since January.
Katie Horton, Brook Bauer
It’s always a wonder, how an athlete will do when transferring to a new school, new environment, new coach, new team, new culture. Brook Bauer answered any questions there may have been in her only season as a Florida State Seminole, winning 29 matches while losing only 12, named First Team All-American while leading the ‘Noles back to the NCAA Championship.
Now she’s partnered with former Seminole Katie Horton, who is having a fascinating season of her own, hitting a Volleyball World Futures event in Australia this past March, finishing fifth out of the qualifier.
Hailey Hamlett, Kaylie McHugh
Hamlett and McHugh are on the heels of a wildly successful NCAA season at TCU, one of historic proportions for the Horned Frogs, who enjoyed the best season in school history. McHugh finished the year 19-9, mostly on court two, while Hamlett went 21-8, much of which was spent on court three. They finished the regular season together, winning three straight matches on court two over Missouri State, Stanford, and Pepperdine.
Kendra VanZwieten, Kim DiCello
The seeding won’t remain as it is originally listed, with these two sand-baggers coming in at No. 45 on the entry list, but it would have made for a good laugh if it did. DiCello’s maternity points will kick in when the tournament begins, and they’ll be properly seeded at the top, where they belong. And they do, to be clear, belong at the top: In 2016, they won an AVP in New Orleans, which just so happens to be the tournament for which San Antonio is serving as a qualifier.
No matter how much time off either of these two have taken from the game of beach volleyball, they’re still elite players fully capable of making a run through a competitive AVPNext – and deep into the main draw, should they qualify.
~ Travis Mewhirter: @trammew