The best time of the month is MLP time. As hard as it can be to keep track of everything throughout the course of a weekend, we can’t wait for another weekend of this. We had thought doing 6 events could take away some of the excitement, but we are not tired of it yet. With the 2 divisions in full swing for Daytona, we’re going to cover 3 of the biggest storylines for each division starting with the Challenger Division. The groups are below:
1. Which Team is Poised to Take a Step Forward?
The low hanging fruit for this storyline would be to pick Columbus. They were fortunate enough to be able to pick up Jillian Braverman in the Shuffle Draft and trade her to Dallas for Megan Fudge. Fudge will be a steadying force for the Columbus squad that was far and away the worst team in Mesa. However, we’ll pick a different squad for the team poised to take a step forward and that’s the Miami Pickleball Club.
Miami didn’t do quite as badly as we would have expected in Mesa considering they drafted one guy who doesn’t play pro tournaments anymore, Jeff Warnick, and another guy who isn’t a pro player, Matt Manasse. They have swapped in Brendon Long for Matt Manasse, and the level of upgrade the move represents for this team cannot be understated. You’re taking a guy who has wins over Hunter Johnson/Parris Todd, Tyler Loong/Callan Dawson and Dekel Bar/AJ Koller in 2023 versus a guy that is not even close to being a legitimate pro player. Although Warnick does not play much pro pickleball anymore, it was not too long ago that he was a higher end pro player. At this Challenger level, Warnick’s weird stuff is going to be tough for players to deal with and most of them are too new to have ever faced his junk. Not to mention his non-stop trash talking.
This Miami team can be intriguing because they have two women who are capable of holding up at the Challenger level in Alix Truong and Regina Franco Goldberg. The only thing holding them back is their difficult group draw. They have the Chicago Slice and Utah Black Diamonds, and it’s going to be tough to knock one of those teams out of the playoffs. The 4th team in their group is D.C., which is a team that would have been more interesting if they had made a higher upside selection with the women’s Shuffle Draft transaction. Still, Amanda Hendry can give them around what Monica Paolicelli gave in doubles, with a definite singles upgrade, so D.C. will not be a free win by any stretch as they were a Dreambreaker away from going to the playoffs last time around.
We need some Jeff Warnick playoff MLP action in our lives so let’s manifest this one for Miami.
2. Which Team is Most Vulnerable to Take a Step Backwards?
The Atlanta Bouncers finished as a top 4 team on the backs of Hunter Johnson and a whole bunch of Dreambreakers. This team played 5 matches and those 5 matches went to 5 Dreambreakers. They won their first 4 Dreambreakers before losing #5 in the semi-finals. You may be asking, what’s wrong with 5 Dreambreakers?
Dreambreakers are unpredictable and even a stacked Dreambreaker roster is subject to volatility. It is not sustainable to only play Dreambreakers and keep winning Dreambreakers. Look what happened to the 5’s in the Premier division. The difference for the Bouncers is that they are not a stacked Dreambreaker team. They have a singles demon in Hunter Johnson, a steadily improving Brooke Buckner and two below average for their gender singles players in Ben Newell and Chrstine Trifunovic. Going to a million Dreambreakers is not a long-term winning recipe.
The Bouncers were in a tough Shuffle Draft spot to make a move because they would could not be certain about what teams in front of them would do. However, a bolder choice to improve their squad was there for the taking and they chose the conservative route. We continue to harp on teams’ unwillingness to shift away from the conservative mindset and it isn’t surprising the Bouncers opted to play it safe after going to the semi-finals.
The saving grace for the Bouncers is their group draw. The Bouncers have 2 non-playoff teams in their group and another team in the Brooklyn Aces that backed into the quarter-finals last event and then lost their 1st-round pick, Cierra Gaytan-Leach, due to pregnancy. The Aces added a player, Hurricane Tyra Black, who was drafted without ever having played a pro tournament. The Ranchers are a question mark with the Scott Doerner addition and their results could go either way, but we’re not bullish.
Columbus is significantly improved with the swap of Becky Ryan for Megan Fudge, but what they are is still unclear. If we were capping this draw, we would have the Bouncers as a playoff team in because they are solid enough across the board. That does not remove the fact that the Bouncers are the most predictable choice to take a step back in Daytona.
3. Is There a Team That Can Knock Off Bay Area or Utah?
The Bay Area Breakers and Utah Black Diamonds faced off in the Challenger finals as two of the favorites heading into the first event. Bay Area came out on top and there’s no reason to think they are not favorites again. It could be scary for other teams as Bay Area is a team where each of their 4 players are on the upward trajectories of their careers.
Since Mesa, Pablo Tellez has reached a Championship Sunday in men’s doubles and secured a bronze in singles, and Christian Alshon has a PPA bronze medal in singles. Ewa Radzikowska and Rachel Summers are both improving quickly as well, particularly Radzikowska who has proved that she was actually undervalued in that 2nd round draft slot. Bay Area’s group has 3 other middling to lower end teams so their playoff position should not be in jeopardy.
If Bay Area is the clear #1 team, Utah is the clear #2 team. No one has made any moves that would push them ahead of the veteran Black Diamonds squad. The concern about the Black Diamonds is their roster mostly consists of a group of players that have more or less plateaued in their careers.
Although there are likely smaller strides being made, Spencer Smith, Rob Cassidy, Michelle Esquivel and even Olivia McMillan have been around the game long enough that we cannot expect major strides to be taken in short periods of time. Their experience is their biggest asset at this level, though. They are 4 solid, veteran players that are going to make every opponent earn their wins against them.
Bonus: On Monday evening, it was announced that Pesa Teoni is in for Andrea’s Siljestrom for the AZ Drive. Teoni is an Arizona resident and we have to think that may have played some part in his pickup by General Manager, Morgan Evans. Similar to the Heather Nobler pickup, it’s hard to see how exactly this moves the needle for AZ. Pesa is a fine player but he’s neither a home run swing nor a steady, safe selection. The lefty thing is an advantage for MLP with no stack but it’s hard to see what this team gets with Wes Burrows, Sarah Ansboury, Heather Nobler and Pesa Teoni. Is this a last place team?
The best part about MLP is that we don’t know anything. It is the closest thing that pickleball gets to the single elimination atmosphere of March Madness. We can’t bet on either of these teams without gambling in pickleball but, if we were to bet, we would take both Bay Area and Utah to get to the finals once again.
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