Precisely how long is the “honeymoon phase” of a beach volleyball partnership? One season? One tournament? One road trip’s worth of tournaments?
There is no exact answer, although Kerri Pottharst, a three-time Olympian who won both a bronze and gold medal for Australia in 1996 and 2000, respectively, has declared the honeymoon phase to be definitively over for Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes.
“They have arrived,” Pottharst said on Saturday evening in Torquay, Australia.
They’ve arrived, all right. That night, Cheng and Hughes put the final exclamation point on their debut stretch of tournaments, a three-event November swing that saw them win an AVP Tour Series in Huntington Beach, a Challenge in Torquay, and then an Elite 16 in Torquay — all without losing a single set.
“We’re going to take these two wins, proudly go home, show off our gold medals, enjoy Christmas with our families,” Hughes said afterwards. “Most importantly, we’re going to get back to work because we’ve got a big year next year.”
Hughes and Cheng will undoubtedly begin the 2023 season as the favorites in the eyes of most to qualify for the Paris Olympics, particularly given the fact that their route to gold in Torquay included victories over Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth in the semifinals, and Betsi Flint and Julia Scoles in the finals.
“We’re ready,” Cheng said of being the hunted come 2023. “We’re very ready.”
Torquay Elite 16 Notebook
The other Torquay honeymoon: There was another honeymoon phase in Australia, this one enjoyed by Flint, Cheng’s former partner, and Scoles, the rookie who has had a standout season on both the AVP and Beach Pro Tour. Unlike Cheng and Hughes, Flint and Scoles did not have two tournaments of experience heading into the Elite 16, yet they were equally as dominant prior to the finals, sweeping five straight opponents, including Germany’s No. 2 duo of Julia Sude and Isabel Schneider in pool play and Australia’s top pair in Mariafe Artacho and Taliqua Clancy in the semifinals. In just four international tournaments, Scoles has advanced to the medal rounds in three, winning bronze in Dubai with Katie Horton and silver in Torquay with Flint.
More honeymooning! Torquay, though windy and rainy and gray and sometimes cold and sometimes warm, was quite the honeymoon destination for Americans this fall. Joining Cheng and Hughes and Flint and Scoles on the honeymoon trip was Miles Evans and Paul Lotman, who had never played together prior to the Elite 16. No matter: They finished fourth, losing to Italians Adrian Carambula and Alex Ranghieri in the bronze medal match. While the disappointment of losing the bronze surely stings, the event was a massive victory for both, especially Lotman, who in three events and six weeks has become the No. 3 ranked player in the United States. Since playing his first Beach Pro Tour event in Dubai in October, Lotman has vaulted, most notably, Tri Bourne, Trevor Crabb, Andy Benesh, Miles Partain, Chase Budinger, Troy Field, and even Taylor Crabb, who helped Lotman launch his international career with a fifth and third in Dubai Challenge events. Whether Lotman chooses to pursue a run at the Paris Olympics is, at the moment, unknown, but at the very least, he has become a viable contender to do so.
Artacho, Clancy bring home yet another medal: Traveling to and from Australia is not easy, nor is it easy on the bank account. As such, the beach world doesn’t see a ton from Mariafe Artacho and Taliqua Clancy, Australia’s top-ranked team and the silver medalists at the Tokyo Olympics. But when they do play, they’re nothing shy of tremendous, as their bronze in Torquay made it three consecutive medals on the Beach Pro Tour, and four straight when including the Commonwealth Games. Their run began with a bronze at the Gstaad Elite 16, which preceded gold at the Espinho Challenge, which was followed by a silver at the Commonwealth Games — and then three months off. Their bronze in Torquay, claimed with a thrilling 14-21, 21-19, 15-13 win over Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth, helped the Australians jump to No. 4 in the world.
Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth qualify for World Tour Finals: With a fourth in Torquay, Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth jumped up to No. 8 in the world, supplanting Sarah Sponcil and Terese Cannon as the No. 1 team in the United States. More important: Their No. 8 rank qualifies them for the World Tour Finals, which will be held in Doha, Qatar January 26-29. The prize purse for those finals? $400,000, with $150,000 to the winners. They are the only Americans in the field, for either the women or the men, although two wild card spots remain for both genders. It would seem likely that one would go to Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes, given their dominance over the past two weeks.
Note: World Rankings are calculated differently than entry rankings. The World Rankings are a team’s total of their best eight finishes in the last 365 days; the entry rankings used for events are the best three of the team’s last four finishes. The Olympic rankings, when qualification begins in 2023, are a separate system, which includes the team’s best 12 finishes from the Olympic qualification period.
AVP Central Florida delivers volleyball in … December?
The AVP has been the dominant domestic beach volleyball tour in the United States since 1984, when a group of players banded together with an agent named Leonard Armato and formed the Association of Volleyball Professionals. They retook control of the tour, wrested power from the promotional company, Event Concepts, that had been running it since 1976, and began running their own events. Over the next 38 years and 582 tournaments, never had there been a tournament held in December. Until last weekend.
The AVP’s 2022 season, and its inaugural under the ownership of Bally’s, extended the year all the way through the first week of December, making it the longest-running season in the tour’s history. This wasn’t entirely the plan, of course, as the schedule was initially set to conclude in September. But after a number of players were injured at the Atlantic City Tour Series in mid-July, the AVP scrapped the Pro Series in September and swapped in Central Florida’s Hickory Point Beach in December instead.
“It took about 20 years for you guys, but you finally came to Central Florida,” said Phil Dalhausser, who won with Taylor Crabb. “It’s great, I have a bunch of kids from my Academy and obviously the family is here. Let’s come back next year.”
If they do, the question would be when.
AVP Central Florida Notebook
Put the one seed on the barbie: Given the timing of the AVP Central Florida Pro Series, strange things were bound to happen. And strange things did. A number of players and teams had taken a mini off-season beginning immediately after the Gold Series in Chicago, which is held annually on Labor Day weekend. They practiced sparingly, if at all, in the lead-up to Central Florida. Others continued training throughout, making Hickory Point Beach prime grounds for upsets and career-highs and lows. Both occurred, most notably with top-seeded Chaim Schalk and Theo Brunner going 0-2, losing to Caleb Kwekel and Dylan Zacca in the first round, then to Bill Kolinske and Cody Caldwell in their next match.
To find the last time a one seed bowed out in last place, you’d have to go all the way back to Tempe, Arizona in 2004, when Sean Rosenthal and Larry Witt, carrying the one seed for the first time in their careers, lost both of their matches, to Ed Ratledge and Chad Mowrey, then to Adam Roberts and Matt Heath.
Note: Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena were the top seeds in Atlanta in 2021, and they also finished last. However, I did not include that here because their second loss, which was preceded by a stunning upset at the hands of Mike Groselle and DR Vander Meer, was a forfeit.
Highs abound in Central Florida: With the low taken care of, let’s take a look into the many, many career-highs had in Central Florida.
- Phil Dalhausser etched his name into history yet again, joining just Kent Steffes and April Ross as the only players to win three tournaments with three different partners in a single season.
- Tim Brewster and Kyle Friend set career-highs with their third place finish, losing only to Tri Bourne and John Hyden in the semifinals. Their previous high in a Pro or Gold Series was a fifth in Chicago.
- JM Plummer and I also set career-highs in Tavares with our fifth-place finish, a massive step up from our previous best of thirteenth. Same goes for Seain Cook, whose only Pro or Gold Series main draw came in Manhattan Beach this year, where he and Noah Dyer finished 25th. He took fifth in Central Florida with Logan Webber.
- Dylan Zacca’s main draw debut was an excellent one, beginning with the upset he engineered with Caleb Kwekel over Schalk and Brunner in the opening round. The ninth-place finish is a career-best for both of the 20 year olds.
- For the women, you’d almost have to search to find a single player who didn’t set some career milestone or other. Carly Kan and Jen Keddy made their first quarterfinal, then semifinal, then final, then earned their first victory. Both of their previous bests were ninth-place finishes.
- Third-place finishers Carly Skjodt and Katie Dickens also improved upon their previous bests of ninth. Carly Wopat’s third with Megan Rice marks the best of her career, as does the seventh enjoyed by Iya Lindahl and Tiffany Creamer, and the ninth from Avery Poppinga and Marine Kinna.
NORCECA starts Thursday
Just when you thought this beach volleyball season might alas be over, the show goes on. The final event of the 2022 season — maybe, who knows — will take place this weekend in the Dominican Republic this weekend, with the NORCECA Continental Championships. Only one team per country is permitted, and the United States is sending Chaim Schalk and Theo Brunner, and Julia Scoles and Betsi Flint.
The stiffest competition for the men will be Canada’s top pair of Dan Dearing and Sam Schachter, Cuba’s Jorge Alayo and Noslen Diaz, and Mexico’s Juan Virgen and Miguel Sarabia. For Flint and Scoles, their most notable competition will be Canada’s Amanda Harnett and Marie-Alex Belanger and Cuba’s Charlot Nahomi and Dayani Zerqueira.