How did so much happen in three events? History was made multiple times over. Surprises and upsets popped up all over the place. Olympians continued their legacies and said goodbye to the sport, all within one month.
Even with the stunted season, I feel pretty satisfied. Of course, we always want more (and I’m really banking on more in 2022), but the 2021 season had enough storylines to keep this volleyball enthusiast happy. Let’s revisit a few.
The Qualifier came up strong this year, gifting us two AVP Finalist teams (including a winner) and a few deep runs. First, Taryn Kloth/Kristen Nuss validated the hype around their college partnership. After qualifying in Atlanta, they proceeded to not lose a single match in the Main Draw, including their knock-down-drag-out 3-set battle against Olympians Sarah Sponcil/Kelly Claes in the Finals.
That was only the first time this young team made history. A week later, another match featuring those Finalists finished 39-37 and claimed the Longest Set in Women’s AVP History. And two weeks after that, in Chicago, Taryn/Kristen took April Ross/Alix Klineman to a 40-38 finishing score.
Though the young LSU Tigers lost both matches, the fact that they can keep their composure and compete with the two Olympic teams is a terrific sign for their future. Taryn hit .528 on the season (2nd only to April) and led in blocks. Kristen, one of the best defenders on Tour, had 259 digs in her 40 sets. Not only is that a whopping 37 more than 2nd place (Sponcil), but that’s also 6.475 digs per set. That’s over 1 whole dig more than April. Woah.
We also saw Larissa and Lili on our Tour, and fans were thrilled. This Brazilian duo blazed through 8 matches in MBO to earn 3rd place. Then in Chicago, they played 10 matches starting with Thursday’s Qualifier to reach the Finals. We all knew they were beach legends, but this feat is IMPRESSIVE. Especially considering their young son Gael travels with them. Acing mom duty while winning on the AVP – love to see it.
What’s interesting is Larissa/Lili’s stats don’t tell the story well. Their hitting percentages are modest. Larissa’s digs per set and Lili’s blocks per set are low comparatively. But they know how to win. They’re hams, revving up the crowd along with themselves when they need the boost of energy. They’re just so fun, and they have that fun all the way to big wins over great teams. It’s inspiring. We need more hams on the Women’s side. Just saying.
On the Men’s side, we got our first surprise from David Vander Meer and Mike Groselle. They shocked all of us by upsetting top dogs Phil Dalhausser/Nick Lucena and 9th-seeded Troy Filed/Eric Beranek in Atlanta. Unfortunately, that’s about the time their success ended. Though they made it to The Game to Get In in the following two Qualifiers, they lost out on another chance for Main Draw glory. Something tells me we’ll be seeing a lot more of these two.
Another stellar Qualifier athlete we’ll be hearing and seeing more of is Miles Partain. His 2019 5th place in Chicago proved his breakout tournament. In 2021, beside partner Paul Lotman on Oak Street Beach once again, Partain earned his best finish – 3rd place. Partain topped the Chicago leaderboard with 59 digs over his 14 sets. He also hit .441, which is highly impressive considering he received almost every serve and had the 2nd most attempts of anyone (behind Casey Patterson). He’s only 19 and already notched Sunday experience. Pretty sweet.
Billy Allen and Andy Benesh had a phenomenal year, putting up impressive numbers and many comeback wins in the Freeze. Billy has been on Tour for over a decade; he has a couple titles to his name and a lot of clout. Picking up Benesh was an excellent move for this vet. Many think he’s the next great American blocker. I’m one of those many.
Andy was 4th overall in blocks and 3rd overall in kills on the season. Add that to Billy’s steady greatness, and you have yourself a consistent Sunday team. Billy and Andy earned 5th place in Atlanta and finished the season with two 3rds. That’s super impressive, but it’s more considering they beat Jake/Taylor in MBO and Phil/Nick in Chicago. Plus, they stayed in the Winners Bracket most of the time. Hoping they stay together. Or Miles Partain and Andy Benesh pair up. You heard it here first, folks.
Casey Patterson and Chase Budinger proved the most consistent Men’s team of 2021. They made all three finals and won two of them. After losing the MBO to Trevor Crabb and Tri Bourne, they bounced back and got revenge in Chicago. Chase has improved every season, but this was his biggest jump by far. The former NBA player found the X-Factor, that undefinable winning bug that’s elusive and rare.
Chase and Casey both hit .456 on the season. First – it’s crazy that it’s the same number. That’s a 1 in 1000 chance. Second – that’s so consistent and hard to beat. Who do you serve when both players are hitting so well? Not to mention they make it really hard to sideout. Casey was 2nd overall in digs and 3rd overall in aces, while Chase was 2nd in blocks. No wonder they’re the winningest Men’s team of 2021 and take the crown for Team of the Year (in my book).
The Women’s Team of the Year is, once again, super obvious. April Ross and Alix Klineman swept the field, taking down everyone in their path (often in 2 sets). April topped the charts in hitting percentage (.532), aces per set (a little less than 1), and set win percentage. They only dropped 1 set all year. It happened in their very first match after returning to the AVP from winning the Gold Medal (so, does that even count?). They haven’t lost an AVP match since Waikiki 2019. They’re unbeatable.
We also said goodbye to a National Treasure in Jake Gibb. We’ll be revisiting his departure from beach volleyball in the coming months. I’m still processing all the emotions and feels from that farewell.
There were a million more fun stories in 2021. Like Trevor once again guaranteeing a win and then delivering (I mean honestly… witchcraft must be involved). Like Molly Turner and Terese Cannon earning third in Atlanta, splitting up for MBO and finishing poorly, reuniting in Chicago and getting 5th. Or Phil and Jake’s 114th and final match against each other.
So many laughs, gasps, cheers, and tears this season. And there were only three events! Wait until next year when we have even more events.