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AVP qualifiers record-setting upsets

AVP 2019 By The Numbers: A Year of Record-setting Qualifier Upsets

2019AVP-Hermosa_DJI_0017

Photo: AVP

It seemed like I was saying it, every single qualifier: This qualifier is insane. I said it in Huntington Beach, when the 22, 39, and 15 seeds made it through on the men’s side, and the 16, 24, 22, 26 and 18 did so on the women’s.

I said it in Austin, when the top seed fell in the first round, as did the seven, and only one seed held up on the women’s side — and then those teams that upset the qualifier went and did it in main draw, with one, Kim Hildreth and Sarah Schermerhorn, making it all the way to the finals.

I said it from La Paz, Mexico, as Kyle Friend and I were refreshing BVB and AVP.com over and over and overandoverandover again, watching the carnage in New York from a safe distance and hogging up the bandwidth of the entire hotel. We rejoiced at our decision to stay far, far away from that quali, as the 24 seed stunned the nine, the 25 swept the eight, the 20 toppled the four. Then we checked on the women’s side which, of course, was no different. For the second time in as many tournaments, just one top qualifier — seeds one through four — held seed and made main draw.

I was almost numb to it by the time Hermosa rolled around, last week. So the one seed fell, again? First round? Par for the course by this point. The 28 was playing the 44 in the final round? Why not? Only two of the eight top seeds held for the men, and three for the women?

Seemed normal.

In qualifiers, havoc has simply become the new black.

Note: There is data at the bottom of the story. If you’re a numbers guy or gal, you can venture down there if you’d like, then come back and read the analysis of said numbers.

Or had it always been this way? Had qualifiers always been crazy roads with results as erratic as an Evandro jump serve? I did a rare thing and removed my emotions from the equations – in my mind, every qualifier is the most difficult qualifier in the history of qualifiers, regardless of any empirical data – and dove into qualifier results dating back to 2012, the first year under Donald Sun. I removed all tournaments affiliated with the FIVB, so not included in the below findings are Huntington Beach and Hawai’i of 2018.

What I found was this: 2019 has indeed been a year of chaos. By a long shot. And it’s only trending in that direction.  

It began, really, with Delaney Knudsen and I talking after Kyle Friend and Duncan Budinger lost in the first round of Hermosa.

“Curse of the one seed,” she said, and then she wondered if there was actually a curse of the one seed, or if it was just a curse of all top seeds. So I did what all good volleyball nerds do and looked at how the one seeds were performing this season, as compared to the previous seven, and the answer is both yes and no.

One seeds have made it to main draw a combined four times in 10 tries this season, making it a 40-percent qualifying rate. Only New York City’s qualifier featured both top-seeded qualifiers in the main draw, while neither one seed made it through in Austin and Seattle.

Forty percent seems low, certainly, since the one seeds should, technically, have the easiest road. And compared to previous seasons, it’s the lowest in history for the top dogs.

But 40 percent in 2019? It’s actually higher than the average. This year, only 33 percent of top qualifier seeds have held – “top” meaning seeds one through four in a small draw, and one through eight in a big draw – making it mathematically far more likely for “upsets” to occur than not.

But was it weird? Is 2019 the norm, or an exception?

Were my reactions emotionally driven after qualifiers, watching the top seeds fall, over and over and over again, or were they justified?

Numbers say: Justified.

With the exception of 2016, which was a bit of an outlier on the women’s side – just 13 out of 32 top seeds qualified that year – the top qualifier seeds were fairly reliable. The top seeds qualified somewhere between, at the lowest, 52 percent of the time, all the way up to nearly 80 percent. In the 2012 and 2013 seasons, the favorites made it through in 73 percent of attempts and 79 percent for the women. In seven of the 16 combined qualifiers in those two years, every top seed held, something that’s virtually unthinkable in today’s climate and a result that has occurred just twice in the five and a half seasons since, and never again on the men’s side.

But even as the likelihood of every top seed qualifying shrunk, the success rate, through 2018, was still above 50.

Top seeds were still favored to qualify.

Until this season.

This year, just 11 of 28 top men’s teams have qualified, and only eight of 28 women. Combined, that makes for the lowest combined rate of any season by nearly 16 percentage points. More, it’s not just that there are more upsets happening, but it’s the type of upsets that are happening.

What used to be the five beating the four, or the six beating the three, is now, say, the 84 stunning an entire bracket, as Iya Lindahl and Jessica Gaffney did in Hermosa of 2018, when they set a new record for the lowest seed to make a main draw.

At this rate, it’s only a matter of time before we see our first triple-digit qualifier in the main draw.

In a perfect world, the total sum of seeds to make it through in a small draw would be ten (1+2+3+4=10). In a big draw, that number would be 36 (1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8=36). As the years progress, and AVP Tour continues to thrive and swell in numbers — Hermosa Beach set a new record for total number of qualifier teams — and beach volleyball becomes more popular across the country, with the college game taking claim as the fastest growing sport in NCAA history, the number of quality teams has sharply risen, paving the way for upsets, and complete havoc in the qualifiers.

In Hermosa of 2018, for example, the sum of qualifier seeds on the women’s side to make main draw was 164 – 128 points above the total had all the top seeds qualified. Prior to the 2017 season, the highest total to make it through, on the men’s or the women’s side, was 102, in Manhattan Beach of 2013.

What’s funny is that those enormous numbers are becoming somewhat normal, particularly in Hermosa, site of, for whatever reason, annually the wildest qualifiers. In 2017, seeds 48, 24, 37, 14, 11 and 18 qualified for the women. For the men, seeds 17, 25, 20, 14, 27, 10, and 31 made it.

This year, for the first time in qualifier history, the total of both the men’s and women’s seeds to make it through added up to more than 100 (123 for the men, 115 for the women).

Oh, just another qualifier in 2019, a season that has been absolutely, totally, completely bananas.

And it’s only going to continue in that direction.

On the women’s side, the college game has introduced an entirely new level of difficulty, as athletes are coming off four months of thousands of repetitions, coaching from some of the most brilliant minds in the game, AVP- and even FIVB-level competition – and then jumping into a qualifier with zero points. You could have watched the result of such an occurrence last Sunday, when Zana Muno and Crissy Jones, seeded 47 in the qualifier, were in the semifinals of main draw, along with two more qualifier teams.

As a qualifier athlete myself, this makes entering a qualifier unquestionably terrifying and exhilarating.

As a fan of the game, beach volleyball is better for it.

Let the madness continue.

Top seeds to qualify, by season

2012/2013

  • Men: 24/33
    • Average seed to qualify: 7.6
  • Women: 23/29 (Salt Lake City and Cincinnati had less women’s spots)
    • Average seed to qualify: 5.2

2014

  • Men: 19/32
    • Average seed to qualify: 7.5
  • Women: 18/32
    • Average seed to qualify: 5.9

2015

  • Men: 17/32
    • Average seed to qualify: 6.9
  • Women: 18/32
    • Average seed to qualify: 5.6

2016

  • Men: 19/32
    • Average seed to qualify: 8.5
  • Women: 13/32
    • Average seed to qualify: 10.3

2017

  • Men: 22/44
    • Average seed to qualify: 11.2
  • Women: 24/44
    • Average seed to qualify: 8.4

2018

  • Men: 21/40
    • Average seed to qualify: 10.3
  • Women: 21/40
    • Average seed to qualify: 9.6

2019

  • Men: 11/28
    • Average seed to qualify: 11.5
  • Women: 8/28
    • Average seed to qualify: 11.9

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