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Patterson and Brunner happy to be back

Casey Patterson is playing with Theo Brunner
Long Beach, California, USA, July 24, 2020 - On Sunday afternoon, Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena, and April Ross and Alix Klineman, hoisted the first of three AVP Champions Cup trophies, a series of three tournaments held in Long Beach, California. Neither team lost a match. Only two total sets were dropped.

And yet the team that had the most fun, that made the most noise, that oozed with so much joy and must-watch TV, that it would be a wonder if they ever played off centre court, was neither of those. Heck, they didn’t even play on Sunday, the final day of the three-day tournament.

But Casey Patterson and Theo Brunner, fifth-place finish at the AVP Monster Hydro Cup aside, to paraphrase an oft-cited slogan in America, made beach volleyball fun again. Patterson was mic’d up for the occasion, and his sound bytes quickly became viral fodder for the popular beach volleyball Instagram account, Bounce Beach.

“Never twice!” he yelled across the net to his former partner, Chase Budinger, who, as you may have been able to guess, did not block Patterson twice in a row.

“Free ice cream!” Patterson said, laughing, as he scooped a dig.

“Theo! Theo!” he said to Brunner, celebrating a point. “I still don’t know how to say your last name!”

“Given the fact we’ve only been playing for three weeks, we played pretty good,” said Brunner, who is 35 years old with three AVP wins on his resume. “There’s a whole bunch of stuff we can fix, but it was just so much fun. As a competitor, you never want to think ‘I’m just happy to be here!’ But that’s all I could think. I’m just happy to be here, because who knows when we’ll be back? I’m just trying to enjoy it as much as possible. And [Casey] is freaking hilarious. They have to put us on centre court. Just the stuff he was saying was so out there. Cracking me up.”

Neither expected to play together this season, if a “season” is what you can call it. Brunner had committed to Tim Bomgren, a Minnesotan who has made two AVP finals in his career. 

Patterson, meanwhile, was going to compete with Troy Field, an up-and-coming talent on the AVP Tour who has played in a handful of FIVBs.  

But when Patterson needed a guy to train against Billy Allen and Stafford Slick, and Taylor Crabb and Jake Gibb, and Brunner was free, both had the same thought in the back of their minds: maybe this could work again. And then Brunner, in his own words, “turned on the jets” in that practice, “and was getting lots of blocks. I was like ‘You wanna be my partner?’”

With the AVP’s season changing from eight tournaments over four months to three tournaments in three weeks, with little time to make adjustments and learn to play with one another, both Patterson and Brunner sought something familiar.

“Just confidence wise the baseline was higher,” Patterson said. “Knowing that we can beat anybody.”

That mindset was fostered in 2017, when they played full seasons on the FIVB and AVP tours together. In their second FIVB tournament, in Rio de Janeiro, they beat Oleg Stoyanovskiy, Adrian Gavira and Pablo Herrera, Alex Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen, and lost only to Alison Cerutti and Bruno Schmidt in the semifinals, and Daniele Lupo and Paolo Nicolai in the bronze medal match.

It was just one season together, yes, but it was enough to establish a familiarity with one another, and the knowledge that they could compete with anyone in the world.

“It’s amazing, so much better than I remembered already,” Patterson said of playing with Brunner. “It’s good. What was super helpful was that it was familiar already. The process of tidying things up was so much more advanced from the start. Troy and I were still trying to figure out where to set each other as of five weeks ago: ‘I think I want it here.’

“We still didn’t know. I already knew what Theo wanted from the left, I already knew he was playing left. That was already done. And his style of blocking I was always familiar with and very comfortable with. He’s stuffing everyone. It’s easy to play defense behind that.”

That is almost a unanimous sentiment for anyone who has played behind Brunner. Lucena has said multiple times that Brunner is one of the best blockers in the United States. That’s no small compliment, coming from a guy who has played much of his career with Dalhausser, who is arguably the best American blocker of all time.

It provided Patterson abundant opportunities on the defensive end. Just a little more offensive execution – typically his strong suit – was the few inches of difference between a fifth-place finish and a semifinal appearance.

“We played great, and I just didn’t execute on enough opportunities on side out and in transition,” said Patterson, who competed in the 2016 Olympics with Jake Gibb. “I dug a good amount of balls for us to be able to put them away. It’s funny, because I go home to my wife, and she goes ‘It’s weird, I always remember you digging a ball and so confident that it was for sure going to be a kill.’ I go ‘That helps, I feel so much better now.’

“It’s definitely how I felt too. I just hit the tape one too many times, or I got stuffed when I shouldn’t have. That stuff for me is going to be really big. And then also, [Theo is] getting more comfortable setting me. All those things, when you’re comfortable as a team, will be better going forward.”

They’ll get another chance beginning on Saturday, for the second in the AVP’s series, the Wilson Cup.

“I’m so happy to be playing with Casey,” Brunner said. “I feel like we have a good mix of personalities. He’s super jacked up all the time. I’m naturally not, but he kind of brings me up a bit. He’s such a good setter, so it makes it really fun to side out. It’s just a really fun vibe. We’re trying to get as good as we can in such a small period of time.

“I felt good, Casey felt good. I’m really excited for next week, see if we can get up a little bit higher than a fifth.”

Also read: Veterans dominate 2020 AVP Champions Cup opening event

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