After 25 years, AVP returns to Phoenix


For once this weekend — maybe, hopefully — Betsi Flint and Kelly Cheng will have the crowd on their side.

Flint doesn’t quite understand why the crowd has tended to favor opposing teams for the most part of this 2022 season, though the simple fact that they have had the best season of any on the AVP thus far — their 13,963 points this year are more than 2,000 above Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth who did, it should be noted, skip one AVP — and enter most tournaments as the slight favorites to win is an easy explanation.

Still: It’ll be nice to have the Arizona crowd this weekend for the AVP Phoenix Gold Series Championships, the first time Flint has ever been able to play at home, in front of her family and childhood friends.

“Hopefully it’ll be the first stadium that will actually cheer for us,” said Flint, who moved to Phoenix when she was 10 years old and continues to have the support of local sponsors: Sanderson Ford, TMD Wealth, and hers and Cheng’s season-long sponsor, Vea Newport Beach Resort & Spa. “I feel like no one ever wants us to win. I don’t know. No one likes us. We played [Sara] Hughes and [Kelley] Kolinske, and technically we’re the underdogs, and no one is cheering for us. I don’t know. I’m very excited. I’ve never played in Phoenix.”

Neither has anyone currently on Tour. The last time the AVP stopped in Phoenix was 1997 — the same year that Nuss, Kloth, and Julia Scoles were born. Sarah Sponcil, the only other local competing — she is the No. 2 seed with Terese Cannon and will not play until Saturday — was only a year old.

“I’m excited. I’m excited to see who shows up. I think there’s going to be a lot of people I’ve seen, a lot of people I probably haven’t seen in years showing up. It’s going to be a surprise who stops by,” said Sponcil, who was twice named the Gatorade Arizona Player of the Year in high school. “It’s an awesome idea. It’s more of an incentive for the athletes to look forward to something big at the end of the season. You have to bring everything and be consistent.”

Betsi Flint passes/Rick Atwood photo

So it’s a bit new, this weekend. All of it. From the crowd alas leaning towards Flint and Cheng, to the AVP returning to Phoenix, to playing in the 18,422-capacity Footprint Center, home of the Phoenix Suns, to the format of the event itself, which is sort of single elimination, sort of not.

Six teams per gender qualified for this weekend’s Gold Series Championships, doing so via their top two finishes from the three AVP Gold Series tournaments in 2022: Atlanta, Manhattan Beach, and Chicago. They’ll be splitting a purse of $100,000, in a quasi-single-elimination format, in which, yes, if you lose, you cannot come back to win, but you still play out for every place, making Saturday a 12-hour volleython, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

“We looked at how a lot of other sports handle their postseasons and took some inspiration from them,” AVP CEO Al Lau said. “The Championships are meant to serve as a reward for the teams that performed the best throughout the season. We know that the Gold Series events are going to draw the strongest player fields, so we felt that it made sense to use those three tournaments as the measure by which teams would be evaluated. Six teams felt like the right amount because we wanted the best of the best there. Most of our tournaments are 16-team draws, so we’re looking at 38 percent of a normal draw getting into the championships. In baseball, 12 of the 30 teams (40 percent) make the postseason. In football, it’s 14 of 32 (44 percent).

“The single-elimination format is different than our other events, but it adds a new level of pressure that is appropriate for a championship event. We’re excited to see how players perform and how knowing that every match is ‘do or die’ will affect their approach.”

The first ball won’t be in the air until 6 p.m. on Friday, beginning with a match between Julia Scoles and Geena Urango and Nuss and Kloth, who punched their ticket to Phoenix with a victory in Chicago. That’s followed by Zana Muno and Sarah Pavan and Flint and Cheng. Muno and Pavan, who will be playing together for the first time this weekend, were awarded a wild card based on the grounds that Muno had earned a berth into the event with consecutive third-place finishes in Atlanta and Manhattan Beach with Brandie Wilkerson, who cannot compete in Phoenix, as she’s preparing for the following weekend’s Volleyball World Paris Elite 16 with Canadian partner Sophie Bukovec.

Sarah Sponcil-AVP Chicago
Sarah Sponcil/Stephen Burns photo

The men begin at 8 p.m., with New Orleans champs Phil Dalhausser and Casey Patterson matching up with Atlanta winners Paul Lotman and Miles Partain. The nightcap features Taylor Crabb and Taylor Sander and Troy Field and Chase Budinger, who have combined to make four finals this season but haven’t yet won an event.

Saturday will feature an abundance of volleyball, with the four semifinals taking place from 10 a.m.-1 p.m., followed by the two fifth-place matches, two bronze medal matches, and then the finals. The top two seeds for both the men and women — Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb, Chaim Schalk and Theo Brunner, Hughes and Kolinske, Sponcil and Cannon — received byes directly into the semifinals.

“One of the parts that I think is underrated is that there will be just one court,” Lau said. “So from a fan’s perspective, you’ll never have to miss a single point. Instead of trying to juggle watching two or three matches at a time, all the action will play out directly in front of you. And on Saturday, fans will get nearly 12 hours of beach volleyball. Both days will include prime-time matches going right up until about 10 p.m. local time, which will also be unique and cool.”

Live brackets of the Gold Series Championships can be found at AVP.com

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