Coming in as the highest-ranked new Men’s team on the AVP Tour, Nick Lucena and Andy Benesh are poised to take the AVP by storm.
With 16 AVP titles and two Olympics to his name, Nick is one of the most well-established and respected men on our beach. The 42-year-old’s vision is unrivaled, likely honed from years as one of the shorter defenders in the world. He sees the game incredibly well, which helps him dig more balls and consistently sideout.
Playing alongside Phil Dalhausser, arguably the best beach volleyball player ever, Nick has also been served almost every ball for the last six years. You have to have impeccable vision if you’re getting 95% of the opportunities to score.
Nick also seems to be aging backward. Has anyone noticed he looks better than ever? Absolutely unfair for everyone else. Great for him and Andy.
Speaking of Andy – his play really impressed me last summer. I named him both the Unofficial Rookie of the Year and Most Improved. If that seems like an oxymoron, it is. But it was Covid, and everything was upside down; don’t @ me until you read the two articles.
Andy deserved both nods because of his noteworthy 2021 AVP season. He toppled some beach greats in nail-biting matches, took 6th in blocks per set, and hit .415 on the season. Behind his 6’9″ block, partner Billy Allen racked up 4.3 digs per set (4th overall). Andy and Billy entered the three 2021 tournaments as the 12/10/7 seeds. After earning 5th place in Atlanta, they made the Semifinals in the final two tournaments of the year. Not bad for someone who’d only played four previous AVP Main Draws.
Enough of their past experience. What about now?
The classic veteran and rookie duo, while still playing international tournaments, is putting the AVP first. They’ll be playing in Austin, TX rather than the overlapping Doha, Qatar tournament that same weekend. Depending on which other top teams are playing overseas, Nick and Andy may be well-positioned to make the Finals.
Nick lives in Florida, Andy in Southern California. That makes for a more complicated partnership, but not impossible. Nick is experienced enough to not need as much practice as the next guy. And Andy is good enough that he’s able to play with just about anyone when Nick isn’t here. With a few Florida trips peppered into the preseason, I don’t think the distance will be a factor. On the contrary, I’d bet their practices are more focused and intentional. Just ask John Hyden – he swears by less time on the sand and more time in the gym.
Ironically, the first two new partnerships I’m highlighting are coached by Jordan Cheng. He first made a splash on the AVP in Reid Priddy’s box, but he’s best known for coaching Kelly (Claes) Cheng and Sarah Sponcil to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. And yes – Kelly’s married name is Cheng. She liked his coaching so much, she married him! Joking aside, Jordan proved himself as a coach and has added Nick and Andy to his roster.
With a new coach for both athletes, less time at practice, and a new person to learn – you’d think these two would need time to be ready to win. I just don’t see that as the case. Both play a clean, classic style of volleyball. Not a ton of unorthodox play to get used to.
Physically, they picked almost the same partners. Billy Allen is a 6’2″ ball of muscle; Nick is a 6’1″ ball of muscle. Phil Dalhausser is a lean 6’9″; Andy is a lean 6’9″. So the only adjustments will be to personality, experience, and skill level. Even the teams that are rejoining forces are constantly making those same adjustments.
Andy has big shoes to fill, but his stats say he may be ready. With 1.43 blocks per set and 1 controlled block per set in 2021, Andy is enough of a presence at the net to make a big difference. Just as Phil did for two decades. Nick is as quick as ever, poised in the back row to dig or run down everything Andy can’t touch.
Nick knows how to win, hence his AVP Championships and back-to-back Olympic berths. Young Andy has shown some real ice-water-for-blood moments, winning a 49-serve Freeze 23-21 against John Hyden and Ricardo Santos, originally down 17-20. That was awesome. That one-hour-37-minute match said a lot about all four athletes’ resilience, cardio, and fight, but especially the youngest and greenest player on the court.
Nick’s decades of wisdom are already rubbing off on Andy. “Nick brings a lot of experience,” Andy says, “in terms of strategy and how to keep composure through the highs and lows of the match. He’s steady all the way through. He’s helped me add some skills to my toolset; that’s been really helpful. Nick is very competitive, and I think that brings out my inner competitive spirit, too. It’s a lot of fun.”
There are many great teams on Tour, but Nick and Andy have some vital things going for them. They’re prioritizing AVP, giving it their all. Nick is one of the best older guys on Tour; Andy is one of the best newer guys on Tour. That plus their shared ability to win, I wouldn’t be surprised if Nick helps Andy get his first (of many) AVP wins in 2022.