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Gold Medal Girls & Guarantees: AVP 2021 Gold Series MBO

I’ve been wanting to recap the Manhattan Beach Open since the first round of matches on Friday. It was just too deliciously fun being back at the MBO. Stadium court was at capacity from Saturday morning, an hour before the first match, until Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb were named MBO Champs (save a few hours of sleep… for most). 

My professional responsibility at an AVP event is to watch or track each match to write semi-detailed, statistic-centric recaps. Which means I get paid to watch volleyball. Which means I had basically the best weekend of work imaginable. And also that my legs are exhausted. 

Once one court ended, the next one was ramping up. We saw the longest AVP set and the winningest international beach player in Women’s history. One team had two insane come-from-behind Freeze wins (including a 49-serve marathon Freeze). And, of course, Trevor Crabb not only went back-to-back in the biggest tournament in beach volleyball, but he also made good on a very confident (read: cocky) Instagram post. I. Love. It. 

We’ll get to the Winners in a second because a myriad of other epic moments happened before Sunday afternoon. 

One of my favorite MBO teams was Nick Lucena and TJ DeFalco. Pre-MBO, I was excited about their hype. When Nick sky-balled his first Stadium Court serve (honoring a promise to Mark Schuermann at dinner on Wednesday night), I knew we were all in for a treat. Nick and TJ exude personality, confidence, and star power. Nick is always a good time, and TJ complemented that with his version of natural showmanship.

Plus, TJ was really freaking good. In his MBO 2021 debut match, he hit .621 with 19 kills and only 1 error. I guess someone doesn’t get nervous in front of a crowd. In one game, TJ hit the ball so hard and so high over the net that when Lev Priima blocked it, the ball bounced off of DeFalco’s chest and over the net for a kill. How do you even stat that?

But Nick proved the best part about this team (sorry TJ). Nick could have dropped out when Phil did, citing exhaustion or not having his partner or any other reason to subtract a travel tournament from his schedule. But the MBO is too good; it won’t be denied. The 41-year-old Olympian picked up a young indoor guy he barely knew and split-blocked for two days (racking up 4 terminal blocks on the tournament). Nick’s sheer presence is an ode to this tournament’s prestige, not to mention how much fun he appeared to be having on court. 

It was also super fun to see Brazil’s Larissa and Lili. I will get into their story in a couple of days, but just know Larissa is straight volleyball royalty. And she proved it with her epic 3rd place MBO run with her wife and beach partner, Lili. 

I have to talk about them for a minute here, though, because Larissa and Lili’s win to make the Semis was one of many come-from-behind victories this weekend. After losing the first Quarterfinal set to Brandie Wilkerson and Sara Hughes, they recovered in full form to push a third. Larissa and Lili were down at the Freeze, 13-14, then got up 15-14, and then Wilkerson/Hughes tied it 15-15. After 22 serves in the Freeze, a million digs, and a ton of memorable plays from everyone, Larissa got a scoop-and-deliver kill to book her ticket to the Semis. Larissa had 16 kills, 14 digs, and 3 aces. Lili had 25 kills, 5 digs, and 2 blocks – one of which was for a real in the Freeze.

Billy Allen and Andy Benesh had two bananas Freeze comebacks this weekend. First, in the third set against Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb. Jake and Taylor froze the score at 12-14. We then saw 13 straight sideouts from both teams, a seemingly endless Freeze. That is until Billy and Andy scored FOUR-straight real points to win 16-14. Though Jake and Taylor hit .556 as a team, Jake had 5 terminal and 4 controlled blocks, and Taylor had 12 digs – Allen and Benesh never backed down. They both had 19 kills, while Allen put up 13 digs and Benesh had 5 terminal and 4 controlled blocks.

That wasn’t even Billy and Andy’s most epic comeback. To get to the Semis, they had to go through beach legends, Ricardo and Johnny Hyden. Down one set, Andy and Billy were facing a 17-20 match point Freeze. Over 49 serves (which is more than a complete set), Allen and Benesh clawed their way back to win the second set, 23-21. They then dominated the third, winning 15-9 against exhausted opponents. John Hyden and Billy Allen were sideout machines on opposite sides of the net. John had 41 kills, Billy had 36 and Andy had 26. Billy also had 12 digs, and Andy had 3 terminal and 3 controlled blocks. But the stats aren’t the story, so much as their composure and tenacity in pushing that third set. 

If you can even believe it, I’d still say those weren’t the most exciting moments of the tournament. For me, it was the 39-37 marathon set during our Atlanta Finals rematch of Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes vs. Taryn Kloth and Kristen Nuss. Holy. Moly. 

The stands had been packed since Saturday morning when April and Alix faced the young Atlanta winners Taryn and Kristen. So when Sunday morning rolled around, and the seats were filled 90 minutes before the match (I’m not exaggerating), I was stoked but not surprised. We all wanted a good grudge match between these new rivals. 

Both teams played lights out, staying within 2 points of each other throughout the entire first set. There were 15 lead changes in one set. After Kloth and Nuss got up 5-3, there wasn’t another 2-point lead until the final point. The poise of these four young athletes was absolutely unreal. Neither team looked flustered, and errors were low. Team Slaes hit .487 while Kloth/Nuss hit .425. 

In the end, Sponcil and Claes got their revenge. When they won that first set, we all knew it would be hard for Kloth/Nuss to recover.  Plus, Team Slaes was at the top of their game. Claes had 33 kills, 3 terminal blocks, 2 controlled blocks, and 2 aces. Sponcil had an astounding 22 digs and 15 kills. 

All this happened before the Finals. We haven’t even touched our MBO 2021 Winners. Sometimes I feel bad that I don’t write more on April and Alix, but that’s because they basically roll over every team they play. They have epic rallies and feats of athleticism worth expounding on, but there’s not a lot of drama around their dominance. “April and Alix win again without losing control or coming from behind.” Riveting. 

The A-Team hasn’t lost an AVP match since Waikiki 2019. They haven’t lost a match, period, since before the Olympics. They’re so good it’s almost expected they’ll win. Which is exactly what they did. Besides an almost-Freeze-comeback by Betsi Flint and Emily Day in the Finals (one in which Betsi had 3 aces in a row), the A-Team was barely threatened the entire weekend. Teams are going to have to figure it out or get lucky to have a chance at beating April and Alix in Chicago. 

To compensate for the lack of A-Team drama, we have Trevor Crabb. He once again guaranteed an MBO win via social media last week. Remember: the last time he did that was before winning the Porsche Cup in 2020. I can’t imagine even publicly joking about that, let alone having the guts to mean it. And then deliver. Twice. 

Tri and Trevor’s Path to the Pier wasn’t as carefree as the A-Team. They lost to Chase Budinger and Casey Patterson on Saturday, forcing them to face Trevor’s brother Taylor and Jake Gibb early on Sunday. Trevor and Tri dominated the first, looking absolutely spectacular. Fans then thought it would be a tale of two sets with a decisive third. 

Tri and Trevor were down 5-9 in the second, only to go on a 14-4 run to get to 19-13. A few serves later, and they booked their ticket to the Semis with a straight-set victory. Trevor had an absolutely ridiculous match, proving his Insta-post had merit. Trevor had 15 kills and no errors, hitting .833. He also put up 6 digs, 3 terminal blocks, and 2 controlled blocks.

Their next match against Chaim Schalk and Theo Brunner was no cakewalk either. Chaim and Theo had beaten everyone up to that point, sailing through the Winners Bracket. It looked like they’d do the same against the Hawaiians. That is, until Tri and Trevor had one of the best non-Freeze come-from-behind victories I’ve ever seen. 

Down 12-16 in the second, Theo switched sides and gave Trevor a friendly butt pat. Trevor did not like the gesture, getting in Theo’s face before going to his new side. Whatever was said in that verbal altercation, Tri and Trevor departed fired all the way up. With 4 terminal blocks from Tri lending to an overall 7-0 run, the score was 19-16 favoring Tri and Trevor at the switch. Hard to recover from that. Tri and Trevor proceeded to win the second set and absolutely crush in the third. Tri had a wildly impressive 33 kills, 6 terminal, and 6 controlled blocks.

After that, the Final seemed relatively straightforward. Tri and Trevor got retribution from their Friday loss to Chase and Casey. And, of course, they got their names on the Pier. Tri, who has maybe the most rollercoaster story of any volleyball player out there, was absolutely lights out in the Final, notching 21 kills, 8 digs, 4 terminal blocks, 9 controlled blocks, and an ace. Trevor was the instigator, as usual, firing up his partner and the crowd in equal doses. 

After a dogpile with coach Jose Loiloa, a very hard slap in Tri’s face by their trainer Mykel Jenkins, and a Kona Brewing Co. shower, the two greeted their parents, partners, baby, and friends in a lovely wrap to the weekend. Well, I’m sure their weekend actually ended up the street at the bars. But that’s someone else’s story to tell.