CUT SHOTS: BACK TO RIO
By Tom Feuer:
All of the top beach volleyball teams in the world will be playing this week for the first time since February’s five-star FIVB tournament in Ft. Lauderdale. Nevertheless, they are at two disparate locations: the four-star World Tour event in Rio de Janeiro and the AVP Austin, Texas Open.
Since that February event in Florida, the first “real” tournament since the World Tour Finals last September in Toronto, Canada, much of the talk has been about off the court issues that have plagued beach volleyball and kept the sport in the news for all of the wrong reasons. However, there is so much to ruminate, and speculate about, with all of the new partnerships that have changed the balance of power in the sport.
We will focus on the USA men’s teams this week, and then turn our attention to the world powers on Monday the 22nd, followed by USA women and the international pairings.
One of the more interesting, and entertaining teams to watch evolved with the split of the Crabb brothers. Taylor, only 25, has teamed up with Jake Gibb, 41 years old. And while Taylor can introduce Jake to the newest trends in music and social media among other things, it is Jake who will be doing much of the schooling on how to be a professional in the world of beach volleyball.
So far, Gibb and Crabb have produced good, but not great finishes, a fifth in Florida as the 11th seed, with a big win over Spain’s Adrian Gavira/Pablo Herrera, and a third in the season opening AVP event in Huntington Beach. The problem, at this point, is Taylor’s inability to be a closer. Outside of some NORCECA wins against lightweights with brother Trevor, Taylor has taken mostly seconds (three) and thirds (seven) on the AVP tour, which when you are 25 is nothing to scoff at. However, Gibb is certainly not getting any younger and the vertically challenged Taylor, generously listed at 6-0, is not going to experience a growth spurt so there is some pressure to produce results…soon. They will be in Rio this week where all three Olympic medalists will be participating, in addition to an armada of really good home country outfits who are in peak shape having just finished the domestic Brasilian circuit. This will be a crucial test for Crabb and Gibb.
Tri Bourne, 27, has had a debilitating illness which may knock him out for the season but I am still very bullish on his future prospects. At some point in the quadrennial, it might make sense given their respective ages, that Taylor or Trevor, 27, (he would have to split block or play defense) would be a good fit in the run up to Tokyo. Trevor Crabb and Bourne would be similar to Gavira/Herrera, two tweeners with good ball control. However, I think Trevor and Bourne have more athleticism than the Spaniards and better shot making ability. I still believe you don’t necessarily have to have a big man, 6-9 or taller at the net to be a winner as long as you have precision passing, suffocating defense and great athleticism. Trevor Crabb and Tri Bourne would have the prerequisites.
Unfortunately, Trevor Crabb was the odd man out in the offseason partnership merry go round as he ended up with Sean Rosenthal, clearly on the downside of his career. Rosie still has his moments, but there is too much mileage and too many injuries for him to be a consistent sideout player. He will go down as one of the greats, a two-time Olympian, with 13 wins, but at 36, having played at an elite level for 17 years, he is hanging on. Trevor deserves better.
It is unlikely that Gibb and John Hyden will make it through the quadrennial as Olympic prospects, and if they do we are all in trouble (with all due respect). However, Hyden still brings “it” unbelievably enough. If I was playing across the net from the 44 year old wizard, and his current partner Ryan Doherty, I would serve the seven footer every time. If Hyden has a flaw it is with his bump setting which is simply not as precise as the hand setters on the two tours. Other than that, the 44-year-old is still a beach God, the most in shape sand volleyball player on the planet, because he HAS to be to still be a force on the two tours.
Doherty still has his moments of awkwardness, especially with his passing, but I really like the way he sets Hyden, those low nectar balls just off the net that hit themselves. But outside of a second and third on the FIVB tour with Nick Lucena in 2014, it has been almost three years since Doherty has made a podium on the international circuit. By the way, looking back on that Berlin tournament three years ago, it had to have one of THE most improbable finishes of any fully loaded FIVB event. Hyden and Bourne as the 27th seed beat Lucena and Doherty, the 24th seed in the final, with both having to make their way through the single elimination qualifier before they even hit the main draw.
Even more striking was in that 2014 Berlin tourney, Doherty and Lucena beat the eventual Rio gold (Bruno and Alison) and bronze medalists (Brouwer/Meeuwsen) on their way to the final. But in beach volleyball, like with any sport, it is “what have you done for me lately?” In the case of Doherty, internationally, not much. Ryan and John will be in Rio, not Austin, this week so it will be interesting to see if they can build upon the success they had at the AVP in Huntington Beach a couple of weeks ago when they finished second.
Finally, there is Theo Brunner and Casey Patterson, a team that just does not pencil out. Theo is an imposing presence at the net and Casey has his moments on both the offensive and defensive ends, but I just don’t see them making any kind of impression internationally. They both are just too wildly inconsistent. If the moon and stars align they could make a great run from time to time, but they are not going to be the future faces of USA beach volleyball. And speaking of the future, should Dalhausser and Lucena have split after the Rio Olympics? We will answer that and more as the season progresses.
By the way kudos to UCLA senior Hagen Smith, who proved he IS a chip off the old block, that old block being 60-year-old dad Sinjin. Hagen and partner Jackson Bantle won the silver medal in the USA Volleyball Collegiate Beach Championships last weekend in Hermosa Beach. They lost to USC’s Lucas Yoder and UC Irvine’s Michael Saeta. Lucas is one of six Yoders to have played collegiate volleyball at USC, another impressive lineage in its own right.
If you have a question, a comment or idea feel free to reach out to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tom Feuer has been a close observer of the sport since 1976. He currently works as the Director of Arizona State’s Cronkite Sports Bureau in Santa Monica, CA and is a Professor of Practice. Prior to that, he was the Executive Producer for Fox Sports West and Prime Ticket in Los Angeles and has won three National Emmy Awards for his work in television.