MAY 27, 2022, METAIRIE, LA – Good luck going anywhere – literally anywhere – in the entire state of Louisiana for more than five minutes without seeing purple and gold, and the most-recognized three-letter acronym around here: LSU.
It’s everywhere. Grabbing groceries at the local Zuppardo’s Family Market, picking up coffee at Café Du Monde, getting reps in at Coconut Beach – you’ll see those three ubiquitous letters. And you’ll certainly see them this weekend at AVP New Orleans when four former LSU Tigers will be competing in the main draw. Most notably is, of course, Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth, the champions from AVP Austin who are coming off another momentous win in Kusadasi, Turkey, for a Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour Challenger.

But in making the first main draw of her young and promising career, Kahlee York will have her equal share of local support.

While she may not be a born and raised local, as Nuss and Toni Rodriguez are, York was still a three-year starter for the Tigers, closing her career at LSU with a 24-8 record on court five. Now she’s making her professional debut an hour from Baton Rouge, alongside Megan Gebhard, who is also making her domestic professional debut. Already this season, however, Gebhard has competed professionally internationally, making a pair of semifinals on the NORCECA circuit alongside Savvy Simo – more on her and Rodriguez below – and winning a bronze medal in La Paz, Mexico.

It’ll be a Cinderella team with a Cinderella-style fanbase, exactly the type of support you’d want when stepping onto the game’s biggest stage for the first time.

Molly Turner, Jessica Gaffney

This will not be the first time Turner and Gaffney step onto the game’s biggest stage. They’ve been in and out of AVP main draws for years now, and Turner has been deep into AVP – and Volleyball World – Sundays before, finishing third in Atlanta a year ago with Terese Cannon.  They ran the table in San Antonio, winning every single set en route to their first sizable win as a partnership. They’ll look to keep that momentum going on the second of a three-tournament road trip that will end next weekend in Lithuania.
Savvy Simo, Toni Rodriguez

Toni Rodriguez has baby pictures of her in a full LSU getup.
“It’s home. It’s always been home,” she said. “I bleed purple and gold. This is my school.”

As it should be. Injuries and COVID pushed her eligibility to a staggering seven years in Baton Rouge, where she became an integral member of both the indoor and beach teams at LSU. Now she’s all-in as a professional, winning a bronze medal in Australia earlier this year with Zana Muno, claiming a seventh in Austin with Simo. Now, on the back of a third-place finish at the AVPNext in San Antonio, Rodriguez will look to use the home-court advantage of Coconut Beach to land another career-best.
Mackenzie Ponnet, Chelsea Rice

Momentum is everything in sports, and these two have plenty of it. On April 30, they won a CBVA which doubled as a qualifier for AVP Hermosa Beach – the final of the series will be held in Hermosa Beach this weekend, so Ponnet and Rice are out of contention. In San Antonio last weekend, they finished fifth, which was good enough to qualify for their first AVP main draw as a team. The last time Rice was in the main draw, she took a ninth in Chicago with Carly Kan.

Half of Ponnet’s previous six AVP finishes have been in the top-10.
Is another top-10 in the future in New Orleans?
Macy Jerger, Abby Van Winkle

This is the first AVP tournament Abby Van Winkle hasn’t played with a fellow UCLA Bruin. The 6-foot-2 blocker has previously competed alongside Megan Muret, Lindsey Sparks, Piper Monk-Heidrich and, most recently, Savvy Simo. Her first time wading outside of the Los Angeles market went well enough, as Van Winkle and Macy Jerger, a Florida State alum, qualified for the AVP New Orleans main draw via a successful run through the AVPNext in San Antonio. Jerger, a 6-foot-1 blocker, was an All-American in her time at Florida State and made consecutive AVP main draws in 2021, the final of which came in Chicago with Devon Newberry – another UCLA Bruin.
Katie Horton, Brook Bauer

There is a lot of history here for both of these players. In 2016, when Bauer was just a teenager at St. Thomas Aquinas before she began an All-American career at Pepperdine and Florida State, she qualified with Madison Fitzpatrick in the most bizarre AVP qualifier in recent memory. Rain had shortened qualifier matches to sets of 11, 11, and 7, should a third be needed. She qualified, winning all three matches, 11-9, before claiming ninth.

Now she’s back in the main draw, after qualifying via San Antonio with Katie Horton, another Florida State alum who briefly lived in Louisiana. So this team is, in a way, a home team, but also not, as Bauer helped Florida State stymie LSU yet again in the CCSA conference. New Orleans is, if nothing else, a setting with no shortage of positive memories and vibes – and only more to come this weekend.

~ Travis Mewhirter: @trammew

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