DENVER, Colorado – The 2022 AVP season has not gone exactly to script for Andy Benesh. Had it gone to script, he’d still be assuming the role of patient understudy, competing exclusively with Nick Lucena, a 42-year-old two-time Olympian with whom he had begun the year and planned to compete both domestic and international.
But things have not gone to script. Even by beach volleyball standards, the initial plan has been scrapped and shredded and tossed into the breeze and Benesh has been scrambling more than a bit, becoming, by his own admission, a readily available substitute partner for anyone who happens to need a 6-foot-9 blocker.
As it so happens, that’s a highly sought-out skill set.
On Sunday afternoon, under a gray and spitting Denver sky, Benesh embraced Miles Evans, another new partner – his fourth in four AVP events thus far – at a new event. The only element that tends to remain the same is the result: A win in hand. Benesh and Evans, who competed for the first time together at a Volleyball World Futures event in Songkhla, Thailand, in April, where they won silver, made it gold at the AVP Denver Tour Series, beating Evan Cory and Bill Kolinske, 22-20, 21-17.
“It was a great win against some great athletes,” Evans said.
Some athletes is quite an understatement.
Benesh and Evans made their road to the final virtually as long as possible. A hiccup in the first round, losing to 16th-seeded Travis Mewhirter and John Michael Plummer, 20-22, 21-15, 10-15, sentenced them to a long and grueling road through the contenders bracket. Four matches they’d play on Saturday, requiring wins over Raffe Paulis and Brian Miller, Phil Dalhausser and John Sutton, and Peter Connole and Silila Tucker just to make it into the seventh-place rounds. There, on Sunday morning, they’d meet Mark Burik and Brandon Joyner, authors of one of the biggest upsets of the tournament when they stunned second-seeded Billy Allen and Jeremy Casebeer, 19-21, 21-17, 20-18, in one of the finest matches of the tournament.
There would be no upset on Sunday. Evans and Benesh, with four matches worth of reps at the Denver altitude, had found their groove, winning 21-11, 21-15, which preceded another clean sweep, this time a vengeful win over Mewhirter and Plummer in the quarterfinals, 21-17, 21-16.
It may not have been the way they planned it – what about this season has gone to plan for either of them, anyway? – but Benesh and Evans were back in the semifinals, matched up with the only team who had yet to drop a set: Miles Partain and Paul Lotman. So efficient were Partain and Lotman about their business in Denver that you could be forgiven for forgetting they were there at all. They had played three matches and won all three, sweeping Tim Brewster and Kyle Friend, Connole and Tucker, and Dave Palm and Rafu Rodriguez.
There would be no sweep over Benesh and Evans. It would take three sets, but Benesh and Evans would prevail, 21-16, 19-21, 15-11, setting up a final with Cory and Kolinske. All four players on the court on Sunday afternoon were no stranger to such a stage.
Evans competed in his first AVP final in Hermosa Beach of 2019 with Ryan Doherty, losing a thriller to Casey Patterson and Chase Budinger. Benesh’s first AVP win came just two months ago, in Austin, Texas, with, of all people, Phil Dalhausser, while Lucena was coaching Florida State at the NCAA Championships. Cory and Kolinske, meanwhile, had made their first AVP finals each in Muskegon, falling to Rodriguez and Palm, 14-21, 24-26.
The experience showed, as the four put on an excellent final at The Island’s colossal 18-court facility. Big serves, big swings, big blocks, clutch digs. It was the big swing from Evans, though, into the angle, too sharp for Cory to dig, that provided the final, championship-sealing point, the first, long-awaited win of his AVP career, and the second this season alone for Benesh.
They hugged. Slapped hands. Evans, briefly, bowed to Benesh, in appreciation for his massive block.
That final point marked both a perfect end and a strange beginning to their partnership.
This weekend, for the Pro Series in Hermosa Beach, they’ll be on opposite sides of the net once more, with Benesh resuming his partnership with Lucena, and Evans turning to Ed Ratledge, with whom he qualified in Muskegon. And then, of course, because this is beach volleyball, they’ll be right back together, jet-setting across the globe, to Portugal and Morocco for Volleyball World Challenger events.
None of this may have been the way either of them planned it, when this season began. But with a pair of AVP wins for Benesh, and the first for Evans, who needs plans, anyway?
Going off script is working out just fine.
~ Travis Mewhirter: @trammew