I was recently informed that no official awards will be doled out at the AVP Banquet this year. Makes sense with the abbreviated schedule; I think it’s the right call. And also, it means that my Unofficial AVP Awards are the only honors of the season. That’s right – this is all you’re getting, and now my opinion matters A LOT! I’ll venture to say my opinion is the only one that matters at all! I’m drunk with power.
And now, we find ourselves at the Most Improved Player of the Year. This award hits different this year for me. It’s always inspiring to see the growth of these athletes. But training between 2020 and 2021 was nearly impossible. Not only were we battling Covid and making sure they didn’t endanger themselves or others, but we also didn’t know if there would be any events. The uncertainty drove a few to retire early. The ones who stayed and fought and grinded all offseason for a schedule that may never have materialized are made of stronger stuff than I.
I really struggled to find people for this award. Not because there wasn’t vast improvement all around, but because there was so much improvement. Zana Muno made two Semifinals through the Winners Bracket. Miles Partain asserted himself as one of the newest and best talents on Tour. Terese Cannon was a force to be reckoned with. Chase Budinger doubled his win count with just three opportunities.
My eventual picks stand out because they really went from rags to riches this year. (hyperbolic, of course; don’t @ me). Molly Turner and Andy Benesh both played in the Champions Cup Series Qualifier. Neither of them qualified. They made waves and played well, but they couldn’t seal the deal.
Their offseason work secured them with new, better-suited partners who also came through in the clutch throughout the season. Out of the Qualifier and into the Main Draw, my two Most Improved AVP athletes capitalized on their positions. Andy and Molly showed us the fruit of their early morning practices and late-night film sessions.
Molly Turner has been on the AVP scene since 2017. Before this year, her best finish was 5th place with Brittany Tiegs during Seattle of 2019. Molly, a solid defender and fiery opponent, has played with all types of players. She’s always down for practice and seems to constantly be working on her game. It paid off in 2021.
Right before season, Molly secured Terese Cannon, an excellent burgeoning talent with tons of promise, as her partner. The new team came out swinging in Atlanta, taking down nearly everyone in their path. The only matches they lost were to Atlanta winners Kloth/Nuss, and Molly and Terese took them to three sets both times. Molly had the 3rd most digs and 4th most aces in Atlanta.
Molly played with Macy Jerger in Manhattan Beach and didn’t fare so well. Two weeks later and back with Terese, Molly bounced back and brought it. Once again, Molly and Terese took Kloth/Nuss to three sets. Their second loss came in the 5th place round to the eventual Finalists and beach legends Larissa/Lili.
On the year, Molly had 4.6 digs per set and sits 5th on the list. Fifth! Ahead of her are Nuss, Sponcil, Muno, and Hughes – all proven defenders who rival as “the best.” Molly is right there with them. Beyond her stats, Molly brought greatness out of Terese. They were so in sync and looked to be having so much fun. Unearthing the best in your partner is an unquantifiable X-Factor that makes all the difference.
One of the main reasons I’m picking Molly is because I saw her offseason hustle. She was traveling to tournaments to get game experience, playing early mornings before her full-time job, not missing workouts, and battling her eating disorder daily to properly fuel her body and mind for the rigor of the sport. She deserves ‘Most Improved’ simply for being on the better side of her mental health. Add all she accomplished on paper, and we have our Most Improved Lady of 2021 – Molly Turner.
The Men proved a little more complicated, not because I didn’t have a clear person on my mind, but more because Andy Benesh is technically a Rookie.
Before 2021, Andy had only played in four AVP Main Draws – two in 2018; two in 2019; none in 2020. That qualifies Andy for (spoiler alert) Rookie of the Year. Regardless, I have to honor the strides he made in his game between 2020 and this season. He played all three events in 2020 and has established himself in the beach volleyball world as the potential next Great American Blocker. His name is fully a part of the conversation.
Billy Allen was an excellent pick for Andy. Billy is steady and calm and outstanding. He also had enough points for Andy to avoid the dreaded Qualifier in Atlanta (just barely; they were the 12 seed). As I said in my Biggest Surprises piece, Billy and Andy entered the three tournaments as the 12/10/7 seeds, respectively. After earning 5th place in Atlanta, they made the Semifinals in the final two tournaments of the year.
Though Billy did his fair share in those impressive finishes, an untested Andy was unfazed by the legends he faced. He played exceptionally well in the big games, proving that his inexperience on Tour didn’t matter. Billy and Andy were the comeback kids against some big names, including Jake Gibb, Ricardo, and Andy’s 2020 partner Eric Beranek. They utilized the Freeze in the best way, methodically taking points here and there and clawing their way to important victories.
On the season, Andy was 4th in overall blocks at 56, 6th in blocks per set at 1.4, and had 37 controlled blocks overall (roughly 1 per set). He also hit .415 on the season. For reference, the two athletes that hit right above and right below Andy were Trevor Crabb (.418) and Ricardo (.414). Pretty good company to keep. He also had 467 attempts on the season (2nd only to Casey Patterson), which is 12 per set (including the many 15-point sets he played). That’s an exceptional hitting percentage with that many attempts and being so green.
While Andy’s stats support my case, it’s once again the intangibles that put him over the edge. Andy’s on-court swagger and confidence are where I really noticed improvement. Andy looked like he belonged on Sunday. He didn’t cower or worry about the other side of the net. There were no star-struck moments or fear of being out of his league. Andy came to play. He looked every bit the superstar he could one day become. That’s some significant improvement from having only played four Main Draws over three years. Well done.