So this is a crazy category because I can’t pick one team. Last year was the year of the Qualifiers. In Hermosa alone, three qualifying teams made it to Sunday. THREE!
Megan Rice and Katie Hogan competed in the Finals after playing nine matches to get there. Sheila Shaw broke her hand in the Qualifier and somehow managed to make it to the Semis, while Zana Muno and Chrissy Jones had their breakout tournament at the same time. Hermosa was nuts. But we’ll get into that later.
The first Qualifier to Finals story of the year was Kim Hildreth and Sarah Schermerhorn in Austin, TX.
Hildreth/Schermerhorn vs. Fanoimoana/Martin: Austin Semi-Finals
First serve: 2:15
Favorite Point: 14:00
Kim and Sarah stunned everyone (except themselves) with their exceptional performance in Austin. Once they made it to the Main Draw, they didn’t lose a set until the Finals (where you could tell they were just completely drained from their three days of matches and weren’t playing at their full potential). But the best part of their road to the Finals is that they almost didn’t qualify.
In the game to get in, they lost the first set to Sara Putt and Payton Rund and were down in the second set 16-20. With nothing to lose, Kim went on an insane serving run and won six points in a row to take the set 22-20. They then capitalized on that momentum (and the frustration of their opponents losing a match they had in the bag) and took the third 15-11.
Qualifying teams are the first to tell you how hard it is to qualify. Of course, the talent in the Main Draw is next level. But the grind of the Qualifier feels like another sport altogether. I wrote about it before, and I’ll likely write more another time. There’s just something the stakes. About having to win every match – no exceptions. If not, your dreams are dashed until the next tournament.
But anyway, this is about Kim and Sarah. No strangers to the Qualifier, these two Floridians powered through the pressure and proceeded to crush everyone through Sunday. Though the match I’ve highlighted against Falyn Fanoimoana and Nicolette stays close, Kim and Sarah look in control and at ease. Even though Falyn’s block paired with Nicolette’s digs got them to the Semi-finals, Kim and Sarah really became a unit in Austin. From this tournament on, Kim and Sarah were known names on tour. They became a main-stay Main Draw team by Hermosa, and Sarah was honored with the 2019 Rookie of the Year.
But in true AVP fashion, even though Kim and Sarah got second place in Austin, they STILL had to qualify in New York. And then again in the next tournament in Seattle, where they DIDN’T qualify. How is this possible? It’s because the Qualifier is stacked, and beach volleyball talent is on the rise. I love it. I love the drama; I love the growth. I love this game. Wow – I need to get back on the beach.
Ponnet/Shaw vs. Hogan/Rice: Hermosa Beach Semi-Finals
First serve: 0:45
Favorite Point: 31:17; 1:04:03
As I said, Hermosa was nuts. There was a 47th seeded Qualifier team (Zana Muno and Chrissy Jones) in the Semi-finals. That means, including the 16 auto-Main Draw teams, they were the 63rd lowest-ranked team in the tournament. If that weren’t cool enough, there was also the 13-seed Qualifier team in the Finals. The other Qualifier team I mentioned before was Sheila Shaw and Kenzie Ponnet – two familiar Main Draw names that were a little less surprising to have made it so far. Except… Sheila broke her left hand on Thursday and still won every match in the Main Draw until the Semi-finals. That’s superhero stuff.
So even though Zana and Crissy were the lowest seed of the three and technically had the best run, I think the other two stories are more noteworthy. Zana and Crissy are both recent college grads who hadn’t played yet much in the AVP because of school. They’re both chock full of talent and have exciting careers ahead. So while their performance was admirable, their initial seeding was only so low due to lack of AVP points.
Of these three teams, Kenzie Ponnet and Sheila Shaw had the most cumulative Main Draw experience. Sheila is a veteran, with more than a few 5th-places under her belt. Kenzie’s previous best finish was 13th, but she is a phenomenal athlete and insane defender who’s made it through the Qualifier quite a few times in her three-year career. But Team ShawNet’s road to Championship Sunday in Hermosa beach was rocky. All three of their Qualifier matches went to three with extended freezes. After a grueling Thursday, they then went to sweep their opponents in the Main Draw, staying in the Winner’s Bracket until the Semi-finals.
And of course, you can’t forget the finalists. Katie Hogan (a fellow FIU alum) and Megan Rice had never played a tournament together and (curiously) have never played one together since. The two Floridians teamed up relatively last minute. Megan Rice had played in several AVPs but had only qualified twice before this tournament. Katie had never qualified before. Can you imagine making your FIRST Main Draw and making it to the FINALS? Beach volleyball players literally dream of that.
Katie and Megan play admirably throughout the whole tournament, but this Semi-final was one of my favorite matches of the year. As a third-tier, Main Draw-cusp athlete, I was just so indomitably proud of both teams. It’s heartening to see women you know are training their tails off day in and out make it to Championship Sunday. And to see Sheila’s little bandaged, broken paw still making blocks and one-handed digs is the stuff movies are made of. I love every bit of it.
A note about my favorite points: I remembered the 31:17 point from when I watched this live; I was waiting for it as I rewatched the match on Amazon. Sheila is a monster in this play. She gets two digs, and the second one – she has the wherewithal to overhead dig with only her good hand. Then, she dive-blocks in transition and gets the stuff. It’s a brilliant move. During a rally, players go to what they’re good at. Most players are best at hitting hard angle. So Sheila makes the split-decision to double up – she blocks angle even though Kenzie is also digging angle. I’m not sure if she read the hitter or read the situation, but Megan did not see her. Her block is also remarkable because it’s so hard to properly execute when you’re tired. Dive-blocking requires a lot of pent-up and steady energy; you pause and hold until the perfect moment when you explode from where you’re standing sideways into the angle. Doing this after having pulled to play defense and attacking twice is impressive. And it wins a deciding point giving ShawNet a four-point lead in a set they had to win.
And the second is match point. The full-throttle effort from all four players in this play is admirable. Two teams with nothing to lose playing their hearts out.