What. A. Weekend.
These athletes didn’t miss a step. The cheers you heard from the staff on Amazon Prime and NBC were 100% real. We had a private viewing to some of the best volleyball players on the planet, and it’s our mission to bring that to you.
I’m giving myself the professional title of Fan Liaison. My job is to keep tabs on every match, taking note of outstanding performances and cool plays. And with that, I try to paint the picture of what it was like being there, who was lights out during which matches, and what to watch for in the upcoming two weeks.
First – the vibe. As we approached the Monster Hydro Cup, I was optimistic but also trying to temper my expectations. I didn’t need to temper. The event exceeded my expectations with everyone firing on all cylinders. From the ops team to the creative direction, from the Amazon crew to Misty May-Treanor’s wise input on NBC, from the Qualifiers to the Main Draw athletes – everyone was on point.
The best part was that, minus the gaping hole in my heart from missing fans, the event felt normal. All the same crews were putting the event on; all the same teams (albeit less of them) were playing; Court 1 felt like Stadium Court with DJ Roueche’s tunes and the Amazonians (I feel like that term fits) calling the matches. For what we’re working with, this event was a home run.
Next – the performances. The Qualifier was brutal and spectacular. I was half dying to play, half relieved I avoided the gauntlet (Alexa Strange and I are #2 on the Reserve Teams list). Here are a couple of teams who stood out.
Eric Beranek and Andy Benesh had an impressive showing in this first event. As the Q12 seed, the very last team to get in, they faced three tough opponents on Friday. They showed some particularly inspiring grit throughout the day, losing the first set in all 3 of their Qualifier contests. In their first match, they’d come back to beat the veteran blocking duo of Ryan Doherty and Avery Drost in a hard-fought 3-set battle. Beranek had a phenomenal defensive game with 15 digs. They faced an even tougher team next in Troy Field (Eric’s best friend) and Tim Bomgren, team TNT. Andy was a monster after the first set, notching 5 controlled blocks and 1 terminal block. His court coverage at the net allowed Eric to get 16 digs behind him. This nailbiter shocked Tim and Troy; though TNT started strong, Eric and Andy’s fire and nothing-to-lose attitude earned them the win. Eric and Andy would eventually fall to a team that had just come off a 3-set comeback victory of their own, Ed Ratledge and Skylar Del Sol. We’ll see Andy and Eric again this weekend, this time as the Q4 seed. Their stellar performance earned them a bye in the first round and (hopefully) an easier trip to the Main Draw.
The other standout Qualifier Team had to be Crissy Jones and Traci Callahan. Not only did they make it through to the Main Draw as the Q7 seed, but they also beat 9-time AVP winner Emily Day and Olympian Lauren Fendrick to make it to Championship Sunday and earn a fifth place. Because the Wilson Cup this upcoming weekend is seeded based on performance in the Monster Hydro Cup, they secured their spot into Saturday and knocked Emily and Lauren into the Friday Quali. While their win in the Main Draw was incredible, some of their best play was in the Qualifier. In their second match, they hit an impressive .453 PCT on 29 kills and only 3 errors while notching 19 combined digs. Amanda Dowdy and Zana Muno struggled with 15 hitting errors and 9 service errors as a team. In Crissy and Traci’s Game to Get In, their opponents gave them a tough match. Kelly Reeves accumulated 11 kills with no errors and 19 digs. Terese Cannon notched 21 kills, 5 stuff blocks, 5 controlled blocks, and 5 aces. But Crissy’s fire and Traci’s speed fueled their third set. Of their 15 points, 14 were kills with only 2 errors from Traci. Most impressive were Crissy’s lungs – her scream cheers gave me goosebumps every time. She’s so fun to watch.
While there were plenty of other stellar Qualifier performances, it’s time for Saturday’s Main Draw.
I love a Crabb Brothers matchup, and we had our first of 2020 in the second round of the Winner’s Bracket. To get there, Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb beat Olympian Chaim Schalk and former NBA star Chase Budinger 21-15, 21-14. Tri and Trevor looked like they never stopped playing. The duo netted seven blocks between them and hit .656, accumulating 24 kills with only 3 errors. Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb both had phenomenal offensive games in their first match against Billy Allen and Stafford Slick. Crabb had 18 kills and Jake had 12, with only 1 error each. Gibb put up 6 blocks, and Crabb even got himself 1. With both teams getting 7 blocks, the impending Crabb Boil was shaping up to be a socially distanced block party.
My favorite moment of the #CrabbBoil was when, in Trevor’s intro, Mark shared that Trevor’s favorite part of quarantine was spending time and bonding with his little brother, Taylor. So cute. But I really hoped their closer friendship didn’t mean we’d get less intensity between the brothers. I live for that stuff. Good news: the rivalry is still in full effect. In the end, the first #CrabbBoil of 2020 went to Taylor 21-19, 21-18, with 10 serves in the freeze. Taylor played a flawless offensive game with 15 kills and no errors. He also posted 17 digs and an ace. Jake patrolled the net with 3 terminal blocks and 5 controlled blocks. Trevor and Tri played a synchronized defensive game split-blocking; both had 10 digs and 3 controlled blocks.
Canadians and reigning World Champs Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes saved their first match in epic fashion, scoring 7 unanswered points to take the third set off Q1 Jace Pardon and Karissa Cook. The Canadians won the first set 21-19 and then dropped the second 14-21. Jace had an excellent offensive match with 25 kills and just 2 errors. But Jace and Karissa’s 6 service errors did them no favors, especially with Sarah and Melissa’s 4 combined aces. The World Champs also played phenomenal defense, with Melissa earning 23 digs and Sarah netting 8 block touches, 6 controlled and 2 terminal. The X-Factor in this match had to be the Canadians’ calm confidence when down 8-12 in the third set. After a timeout, they scored 7 in a row to escape and advance.
The last match of the day was playfully contentious, as former partners Casey Patterson and Chase Budinger played each other for the first time since breaking up. Fittingly, it was a dramatic Chase on Casey stuff block (one of Chase’s 7 block touches, 4 controlled and 3 terminal) that sealed the win for Chase and new partner Chaim Schalk. Theo Brunner, Casey’s new (and former) partner had quite the noteworthy match, with 11 kills and only one error, hitting .588. He also had 9 block touches, 6 controlled and 3 terminal.
Now… Championship Sunday.
You can read all about the matches here. If you’re reading this, I’m pretty sure you watched both Finals and know next-level talent and heart were on display from all eight finalists. I have to say, though, three athletes stood out to me as almost other-worldly this weekend.
Phil and Nick competed on another level; they could not be beaten. While they’ve always been physical specimens, I feel like they had an extra glow about them at the Monster Hydro Cup. Did anybody else feel that? Was it that extra time at home that we’ve all had these last few months? Think about it – these two have been traveling the world nonstop for almost two decades. When was the last time they had uninterrupted extended time with the wives and kids? Have they ever? They seemed simultaneously more relaxed and more intense than I’ve ever seen them. Watching their post-Final interview with Mark was a delight. They were like two teenagers joking around – hitting each other and laughing while also giving intelligent and transparent answers. I loved every minute of it.
And April. Just…wow. She took over every match she played in. Does she even feel pressure? I’m gonna say no. Because when the stakes are high, she plays EVEN BETTER. That’s what makes her the two-time Olympic Medalist and 37-time AVP Champion that she is. Alix, of course, played brilliantly and was a huge part of their win. But I saw something in April that just blew me away. She is so good at volleyball. There was absolutely nothing that could hold her back in the first weekend of this three-week series.
And that’s the best part – we’re just getting started! Stay tuned for more leading into event two of the Champions Cup Series, including my Fanual and a preview of the Wilson Cup.