May 6, 2022, AUSTIN, TX - Earlier this spring, when the AVP announced its schedule as well as the subsequent changes to the qualifying process for the Pro and Gold Series events, it produced the rarest of feats: Qualifier players agreed with near unanimity.
Off-site qualifiers, satellite tournaments held at least a week before the event itself rather than a day-long grind the day before, are, as Hagen Smith described it, “game-changers.”
Smith knows well enough. He’s qualified three times via the traditional route, advancing from qualifiers the day before the main draw, and on Saturday he sealed up his first main draw via the satellite route, winning a pair of CBVAs alongside Jake Dietrich. He’ll go into AVP Hermosa Beach later this summer on legs that haven’t jumped and dove and exploded through four matches the day before.
Like nine teams heading into AVP Austin this weekend, he’ll have fresh legs. He’ll know exactly who he’s playing, and when.
For years, teams who have emerged from the qualifiers have been all but sacrificial lambs for the automatic main draw teams who play them in the first round the ensuing day. Years ago, Phil Dalhausser even admitted that a qualifier team shouldn’t expect to win in the first round of the main draw, rather hope to “maybe make them sweat a little bit.”
Meet the nine teams who are going to attempt to do more than simply make teams “sweat a little bit,” the nine who qualified via the Panama City Beach AVPNext qualifier on April 9-10.
Rafu Rodriguez, Dave Palm
Oddly enough, this team did not play in Panama City Beach. Palm competed with Mark Burik, and the two were excellent, advancing to the semifinals and securing their main draw bid before bowing out to eventual champs Logan Webber and Seain Cook. A little more than a week later, however, Burik broke his foot, leaving Palm to find a suitable replacement.
Rafu is more than suitable. He’s an AVP champion, armed with one of the nastiest, trickiest serves on tour, with the sweetest hands and the sliciest shots. It’s odd that the two haven’t played an official event together, given that they both live in Florida and that Rafu is a phenomenal defender and Palm an excellent blocker. Perhaps Austin will be the beginning of the next big Florida team on the AVP Tour.
Raffe Paulis, Jeff Samuels
In the handful of events that Paulis and Samuels have played together, almost all of them have gone exceptionally well. They qualified together in Chicago of 2017, then again in Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach in 2018. A year later, they finished second at an open tournament in San Antonio – and then promptly took two years off from one another. When they resumed in 2021, they won an open in Clearwater Beach, Fla., finished second at the AVPAmerica Beach Nationals in October, and did enough to qualify in Panama City Beach on April 10. Now they’re headed into yet another main draw, on the heels of three consecutive successful tournaments together.
Silila Tucker, Lev Priima
For the past two years, Priima has established himself as the king of qualifiers. In 2021, only one team made it through all three AVP qualifiers: Lev Priima and Jake Landel. Now it’s four straight for Priima, as he and the quicksilver fast Silila Tucker qualified in Panama City Beach, finishing fifth after an impressive showing through pool play. They complement each other well, with Priima delivering the size and power and Tucker the craft and speed.
Caleb Kwekel, Marty Lorenz
If you have not yet watched Caleb Kwekel play beach volleyball, be sure to tune into the AVP’s livestream on YouTube and enjoy. He’s just 19 years old but is built, as his training partner, Phil Dalhausser, says, “like a grown man.” He flies, and after years of training with Dalhausser and Nick Lucena and Rafu Rodriguez and Piotr Marciniak, he’s not intimidated by any blocker on the AVP Tour. It helps, too, that he’s partnered with a longtime veteran in Marty Lorenz, who plays with such a delightful control and efficiency and is a perfect complement for Kwekel. Together, they run a fun, creative offense, not exactly flashy, but certainly fun to watch.
Jess Gaffney, Molly Turner
Last year was something of a quiet breakout year for Molly Turner, if that’s not too much of an oxymoron to say. She took a career-high third in AVP Atlanta with Terese Cannon and, a few months later, won her first FIVB medal, a silver in Cervia, Italy. Gaffney has not yet had that breakout, but there’s no reason that she couldn’t. She’s 6-foot-1 and still holds the record as the lowest seed to ever emerge from a qualifier when she and Iya Lindahl entered the 2018 AVP Hermosa Beach as the 84th seed in the qualifier and made the main draw.
Her best finish to date? A ninth, in Huntington Beach of 2019.
Her partner for that finish? Molly Turner.
Kaitlyn Leary, Carly Kan
There is no official award for the Most Underrated Player on the AVP Tour, but if there were, Carly Kan would – or should, anyway – be the unanimous selection. She’ll qualify defending. She’ll qualify blocking. She’ll do it split-blocking, too, as she did with Kaitlyn Leary in Panama City Beach, where they made the finals and pushed Brazilians Larissa and Lili Maestrini deep into the third set.
Leary, too, deserves much of the credit for the tremendous finish in Panama City Beach. She was positively excellent, and it was her heavy swings that did much of the work in getting them to the finals. After trying her hand in 10 qualifiers, she’ll be making her AVP main draw debut in Austin.
Toni Rodriguez, Savvy Simo
The beach volleyball year is young, as Austin marks the season-opening event on the AVP Tour. Yet these two are in mid-season form, as both have hit the road hard early, with Rodriguez competing on back-to-back-to-back weekends in Coolangatta, Australia, Panama City Beach, and Itapema, Brazil, where she finished with a bronze medal, a main draw bid, and a win over Brazil’s Fernanda Alves, respectively. Simo, meanwhile, played in her first career international event, a NORCECA in Aguascalientes, Mexico, with Megan Gebhard, finishing fourth. Finally, the two get to settle down a bit, traveling just a few hours south to Austin, where they could easily land a few upsets and compete deep into the weekend.
Aurora Davis, Teegan Van Gunst
Teegan Van Gunst had played 11 AVP events prior to the Panama City Beach qualifier, and all 11 of them were with her twin sister, Annika Rowland. How she’d play with someone who hasn’t shared every second of her life with her was a small question mark, one that was answered in Panama City Beach, when she qualified with Aurora Davis.
Davis is, of course, the perfect partner for someone who is playing with someone new for the first time. There is not a single skill in the game in which Davis is not exceptional, and her temperament allows her to succeed with any type of personality. Davis is coming off a win at last weekend’s Clash, the season-opening event on the AVP Grass Tour, where she played with, you guessed it, an entirely new team.
Carly Skjodt, Geena Urango
Geena Urango is no stranger to beach volleyball success in the south. Her longtime partner, Angela Bensend, is a Texas native, and the two were known as TexMex. What she and Skjodt will be known as this weekend in Austin is yet to be seen – IndianaMex just doesn’t have the same ring – but what is known is that they’re a solid team. Skjodt has one of the biggest arms on the women’s side, and Urango is still very much the same deadly server who finished in the top four in aces on the AVP in 2015, 2016, and 2017.
~ Travis Mewhirter: @trammew