Alas, we get our first look.
It was supposed to come this past week, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., site of the late Fort Lauderdale Major. But with the plug pulled on the season-opening Major of the beach volleyball season, we were forced to wait.
For some, that wait ends this weekend, as four U.S. women’s teams, all new partnerships, will make the trip to Phnom Penh, Cambodia for a two-star FIVB. Typically, no, two-stars would not garner much attention, but the four pairs heading overseas are four of the more intriguing partnerships on the women’s side. While the men’s scene was turned upside down and shaken sideways, with all but two of the top teams breaking up, the women’s was relatively quiet.
Nearly all of the top teams remained together, while the mid-tier partnerships, the ones seeking breakthroughs, sought new partners to make that jump.
Four of those – Amanda Dowdy and Corinne Quiggle, Jessica Gaffney and Molly Turner, Brittany Hochevar and Carly Wopat, Caitlin Ledoux and Geena Urango – will be competing in Cambodia.
It made for a unique episode of SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter, one in which the hosts break down what individuals and teams are primed to make the biggest strides this year. Now, we left out the blue chips that are unquestionable, the Dalhaussers and Rosses, Klinemans and Hughes, because they’re already blue chips. Our focus was on the players and teams to make the biggest moves.
Here are the five best female and male beach volleyball stocks, either as individuals or team, to buy this year:
Chase Budinger: It seems incredibly unappreciated, what Budinger was able to accomplish last season, his first on the AVP Tour. Not only was it his rookie year as a professional, it was the first time he had picked up a volleyball in a legitimately competitive arena since high school, and even then, it was indoor.
And in just one season, Budinger was able to make a final? Beat Evandro? Win Rookie of the Year?
With a full season under his belt, Budinger should be one of the biggest risers this year.
Tri Bourne, Trevor Crabb: Every time Bourne won a match last season – and he won many, including one over Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena and two over the Spanish, whom he had never beat – a large part of me wanted to remind people how absurd it was that he was winning. For a year and a half, he basically couldn’t sweat. And now he was beating the best team in the U.S. and another he had never beat with John Hyden playing defense? Bourne and Crabb were an excellent team even before either had learned how to play defense. Now that they’ve had Jose Loiola coaching them for an entire off-season, and Bourne is healthy enough to, you know, sweat, who knows how high they can climb this season.
Troy Field: The comparison I like to make with Troy, relative to the stock market, is Tesla. Here’s Tesla, a product of, honestly, genius. It has incredible upside, a potentially limitless ceiling. Sometimes it’s brilliant, and looks as if it could very well revolutionize the industry. Others, it busts. Anybody who has seen Field play has seen him make plays you simply can’t teach. It’s a rare type of athleticism that is going to win points, matches, attract partnerships (and sponsors). And then sometimes that athleticism gets a tad out of control, a bit like Elon Musk at Tesla, and he takes a few steps back. But he’s new to the game, and with two years of high level beach under his belt, a number of those odd mistakes should be smoothed out, and the ascent he’ll make this year will be quick.
Eric Zaun, Jeremy Casebeer: This is without a doubt the most interesting beach volleyball team in the United States, mostly because any team with Eric Zaun on it will be interesting, but what a dynamic. Here we have two bombers from the service line, who swing upwards of 80 percent of the time, who are a bit combustible in both good ways and bad. This is a team that could just as likely dump two straight matches and take 13th as win an entire tournament. Currently, they’re training in Brazil, against the best in the world, getting team-focused reps. I wouldn’t voluntarily bet against them.
Andrew Dentler, DR Vander Meer: It’s hard for me to lump these two together as a team, because qualifier teams are not exactly known for their longevity. But from what they’ve shown so far, this is going to be an excellent team. They’ve played in three AVP Nexts, winning one, placing second in another and fifth (I don’t know what happened there) in the next. Plus, Dentler, who was the unofficial adult of the year in 2018 – he got married, had a kid, finished his masters, bought a house – should have a little less on his plate to focus on volleyball.
Others to watch
Brittany Howard, Kelly Reeves
Last year was really only the second year in which Howard’s focus was solely beach volleyball. She competed for Pepperdine in her grad year, and then she came out and won Rookie of the Year in 2018 on the AVP Tour. The vast majority of rookies in any sport come with no small measure of volatility, but Howard and Reeves were models of consistency, finishing in the top 10 in every AVP, including a third in San Francisco, while picking up a pair of bronze NORCECA medals and competing in four FIVBs.
Year two should be another step up.
Geena Urango, Caitlin Ledoux
When Urango made her SANDCAST debut, in December of 2017, she said that playing international volleyball wasn’t really a priority of hers. She loves to travel, just not to play volleyball. She enjoys actually enjoying the places she visits without the burden of competition.
Now, however, with Ledoux, it seems she’s reprioritizing, if just a bit. They went to Chetumal, Mexico for a three-star in October and made the finals. In the three prior tournaments they had played together, they made the finals (in San Francisco) and the semifinals (in Hermosa Beach) and claimed seventh at p1440 San Jose.
Wopat has known success at every level of beach volleyball – state champ in high school, All-American in college, National Team level afterwards. Now she’s on the beach, already scooped up by one of the most consistent defenders in the game in Brittany Hochevar. With her focus entirely on the sand, Wopat should be expected to make big moves in 2019.
Kerri Walsh Jennings, Brooke Sweat
Remember when it was December of 2017, and Tiger Woods was the 1,199th ranked golfer in the world? And by August of 2018 he was back in the top 25? That’s a little bit of what 2019 could be for Walsh Jennings and Sweat.
Not that Walsh Jennings could have ever fallen that far in the sport, but it’s still a parallel of one of the greats in the game being sidelined for a bit and now making one final push. At no point would it be wise to count out Walsh Jennings, especially since she’s playing with perhaps one of the more underrated players of this generation in Sweat, who has won with essentially everyone she’s played with.
Kelly Claes, Sarah Sponcil
Classic case of the rivals turned teammates, who put on a delightful run through The Hague, winning a silver medal, which will pair nicely with a bronze from their debut tournament in Qinzhou, China, in October. This is a team that could very well supplant the top teams in the U.S. in spite of the fact that Sponcil is still competing for UCLA.
Others to watch
Corinne Quiggle, Amanda Dowdy
Delaney Knudsen, Jessica Sykora
Molly Turner, Jessica Gaffney
Emily Hartong, Alexa Strange