MLP Season 2 Challenger Division Draft Grades

The Challenger draft is where the true pickleball geeks come out. If you care about Challenger, you might have a problem. One of the themes we are seeing in both drafts is this massive run on women in the late first to early to mid third round. That played out in the Premier and Challenger drafts for season 2 and it is a theme with the scarcity of quality women. The Challenger draft is more of a crap shoot, especially as teams get later in the draft, and we’ll have to see who hits and misses this time around. Upside was the theme of this draft.

📸 @stlshockmlp

St. Louis Shock – Rob Nunnery (#1), Judit Castillo (#24), Genie Erokhina (#25) , Martin Emmrich (#48)

Rob Nunnery provides a solid foundation for a team, but we do have some questions about how motivated he may be in Challenger based on comments he has made on is podcast. Nunnery has said that the Challenger division is not overly financially rewarding and it makes you have to wonder about how motivated he will be. Judit Castillo and Genie Erokinha are solid female picks but I am not sure if either is overly comfortable playing mixed doubles right now. So it will be interesting to see who they pair with Nunnery. Martin Emmrich, despite being a little older, is a very intriguing high upside pick at 48, and it is not surprising the Shock went there as Brandon and Taylor Hubschman, both Florida residents, are their GMs. They know Emmrich and must like him.

Grade: B

Los Angeles Mad Drops – Gabe Tardio (#2), Brooke Buckner (#23), Olivia McMillan (#26) , Jordan Kinney (#47)

Gabe Tardio is a very good pick, at 2 and provides a strong foundation for this team as a guy who looked destined for another season of Premier. After finishing season one strong with ATX, and having gotten some good men’s doubles results lately on the PPA tour, we were lsurprised he dropped to Challenger. We have to think as a young guy, he will be motivated to get himself back to Premier next year.

Brooke Buckner would likely have gone higher than the 23rd pick if she wasn’t missing event #2. She is solid in all three events. We feel like there were better options at the 26th spot than Olivia McMillan and we see little upside in the pick. Jordan Kinney has a super high DUPR and a showed out at the APP Alabama tournament last year, but he hasn’t been playing tournaments this year (literally!) and only plays men’s doubles usually in tournaments so this seems like quite a gamble. Lauren Stratman, a former Knoxville resident, said on Twitter that Kinney was definitely a Challenger player so we’ll see what that means.

Grade: C+

Milwaukee Mashers – DJ Young (#3), Rianna Valdes (#22), Christa Gecheva (#27), Pesa Teoni (#46)

We have come to the conclusion that, on the whole, the idea of DJ Young is greater than what you usually get in terms of results with DJ Young. It seems that the Mashers may have overthought the dominant male thing and decided to take DJ over, Jill Braverman. We would have preferred Braverman, even though there must be a comfort with DJ as we know he is friends with James Blake, one of the owners. Maybe the Mashers felt like after the DJ pick, tanked their Premier season, they needed to get their money’s worth out of him? When is James Blake going to put his name in the pool and go Travis Rettenmaier on this league?

Rianna Valdes feels like a steal at 22. She was much higher on our big board than that. Christa Gecheva has shown she can be the number two woman on a challenger team. Pesa Teoni, a Challenger player probably, like adds more volatility to the team than we’d be comfortable with. Yhere is also a chance that DJ becomes the Ben Johns of Challenger, and the Mashers dominate, but we wouldn’t bet our Premier 2024 lives on the enigmatic DJ Young.

Grade: C+

📸 @dcpickleballteam

New Jersey 5’s – Stefan Auvergne (#4), Shelby Bates (#21), John Cincola (#28), Alli Phillips (#45)

The 5’s decided to run back the Auvergne and Bates mixed doubles team, and it is hard to blame them, given that team had a lot of success for the DC Pickleball Club last season. We probably would have preferred if they had of gone with a little more upside and picked Valdes in the Bates spot. Auvergne has shown he can be pretty dominant at the Challenger level, and should keep this team in contention.

After being overvalued in 2023 and undervalued going into season 1, John Cincola is finally properly valued in our eyes. He is solid in all three events, and pairing him with Auvergne will allow him to play the left which he seems to prefer. How this team does will come down to whether or not Alli Phillips is ready to make the jump to the level of play. She has gotten decent results of late, which could suggest she is ready to make a leap, but that is far from a sure thing. She was in the mix for us but not in our top 24 Challenger women.

Grade: B-

New York Hustlers – Jillian Braverman (#5), Kyle Yates (#20), Sarah Ansboury (#29), Jaume Martinez Vich (#44)

The Hustlers got a huge boost, getting Braverman with the 5th pick. She is essentially the Challenger level version of Anna Leigh Waters. You can’t help but think at some point this year, there will be a Premier owner or two, who regrets listening to all the player concerns about Jillian’s personality and had simply taken a player who can clearly play at that level. The under the radar benefit for Braverman is she brings that Jeff Warnick and Brandon French gets under opponents skins in a major way. Kyle Yates would likely have been a first round challenger pick, if not for the fact that he is missing the first event, which makes his value difficult to determine. When they have both Yates and Braverman, no team in Challenger probably has a better number one male, number female, combination. They will have their selection of replacement men so maybe the drop isn’t too bad for Yates by the time September rolls around.

Sarah Ansboury’s doubles game is better than a lot of the women’s in this draft, but her singles game holds her back. With three very good singles players, NYC should be able to hide Ansboury’s singles liability to some degree at least. With their last pick, New York decided to take a shot on Jaume Martinez Vich’s doubles game. He wasn’t in the mix for us but we aren’t out there seeing Jaume get live reps in doubles. If NYC is right that his singles success can translate to the doubles game, this team could be dangerous.

Grade: B+

Frisco Pandas – Bobbi Oshiro (#6), Ryler DeHeart (#19), Martina Frantova (#30), Andre Mick (#43)

Everyone thought Frisco couldn’t do a worse job drafting this time around and then they said hold our beer! In all seriousness, we don’t think this draft will be quite as bad as season but this roster could keep the dream of a perfect 0-18 season alive. We like Bobbi Oshiro a lot here at NML, but she keeps going in the wrong spots in these drafts. She is much better suited for the number two female role, and probably would have performed better at the end of the Premier draft than she will here. DeHeart is much improved, but we still have a lot of questions about his mixed game, in particular. Frantova at the number 30 spot is just a head scratcher to say the least as nothing has been shown that she should clearly be a Challenger player. Mick is this team’s only real hope to save them. He plays an ultra aggressive style, and is coming off of his first APP Championship Sunday appearance. Can Andre Mick, get hot for a couple events, and carry Frisco to the promise land, a win, as a fourth round steal?

Grade: C

📸 @chicagoslicemlp

Las Vegas Night Owls – Susannah Barr (#7), Emily Ackerman (#18), Spencer Smith (#31), Yates Johnson (#42)

It is so fascinating how consensus optimal strategy shifts quickly. Before season 1, it was two strong females. Now, teams are looking for the Ben Johns strategy, getting a strong guy and following it up with two women. This shift in philosophy meant that teams like Las Vegas had a strong woman fall.

This is a very solid team. Susannah Barr keeps getting doubted. Barr’s singles game has seen big improvements to the point it is no longer a liability. With three solid plus singles players around her, she will not be an issue in dreambreakers. You can argue that the Owls could have gone elsewhere in the Ackerman spot, but it is hard to blame them for wanting to keep the Barr/Ackerman team together. We had questions if Ackerman had to be the #1 female on a team but this is perfect for her. Spencer Smith does not really seem to be improving or adding much to his game, but with the 31st pick, and the women on this team around him, he is great value. This team should be a playoff team and whether they win titles will probably come down to whether Yates Johnson, can actually play doubles pickleball at a high level.

Grade: A-

ATX Pickleballers – Daniel De La Rosa (#8), Milan Rane (#17), Tammy Emmrich (#32), Ben Newell (#41)

On the right day, if both Daniel De La Rosa and Ben Newell are on, nobody, and I mean nobody is going to want to play this team. Every other day, this team could be in trouble, as Newell has just can’t bring a consistent high level, and at this point that seems unlikely to change. It will be interesting to see how De La Rosa does as a number one pick. The athleticism, hand speed and power are all there, and it scares other players, but he also makes more errors than I would like my number one pick to make. Also, is De La Rosa putting in the time to improve? He has gone from overvalued in 2022 to undervalued before season 1. Is he overvalued again?

Milan Rane is probably better suited to be a number two female and we think it was a mistake for all these teams to pass on Valdes at these spots in the draft. This team will need Emmrich, to continue to improve rapidly if they want any hope of a successful season as we have not been overly impressed but we realize our assessment could be skewed because of how good the players around Tammy look, namely Tina Pisnik and her husband, Martin.

Grade: C

📸 @hard8s.mlp

SoCal Hard Eights – Ewa Radzikowska (#9), Yana Newell (#16), CJ Klinger (#34), Todd Fought (#39)

Radzikowska won two challenger MVP awards last season, and is solid in all three events, so she was good value with the 9th pick. We had her as our #2 female in this draft. The big value here was Yana Newell. Did Yana need to make sure she had fully completed the transition of her last name to Newell, and go through a carwash a couple times, to get the Frisco Clean stench off of her? It seems crazy that a female who can play all three events, and has made Championship Sundays on the PPA tour, fell to the 16th pick in the Challenger draft. Remember, SoCal swapped their first two picks with Florida, moving up to get Radzikowska and then taking Newell at 16.

It gives the Eights two alpha females, which is a rarity at the Challenger level where many teams don’t have one. The two alpha strategy that Eights tried last season, really didn’t work and they are in on the alpha females this year. We doubted CJ Klinger as a challenger player last season, but he proved us wrong and should pair well with Ewa, allowing her to stay on the left. Fought was fine with Squeeze last season but we aren’t sure he moves the needle enough with a last pick. Fought and Wyatt Stone beat Arnold/Wilson in Denver on Saturday in three games. Without a true number 1 male, a the end of the day, how this team does will come down to how their men perform.

Grade: B+

Florida Smash – Brendon Long (#10), Collin Shick (#15), Michelle Esquivel (#33), Dominique Schaefer (#40)

Brendon Long was probably the last guy around, who profiled as a true number one guy, so picking him up at 10 was solid value. We thought we were very high on Shick heading into the draft, Slim saw him as somewhere between a third round and fourth pick, but apparently we weren’t nearly as high on him as the Smash. If the Shick pick hits, they make look like geniuses, but using your second round pick on a guy that was likely to be there later, when you have already used your first pick on a guy is an interesting move. While we believe you have to trust your big board in these drafts, this was very high to have Shick.

Michelle Esquivel does not seem to be playing tournaments so you have to wonder where here game is heading. Teams were very aware of avoiding legacy players in this draft, which is why Esquivel dropped so much between season 1 and now. Dominique Schaefer is a high upside pick, that we like. Although we like the upside of both Shick and Schaefer, by taking Shick in the second round and Esquivel as their first female in the third round, Florida is going to need a lot to work out in their favor.

Grade: C

Seattle Pioneers – Lina Padegimaite (#11), Megan Fudge (#14), Wes Burrows (#35), Brandon French (#38)

The Lina and Megan choices as first and second round picks in a vacuum might not seem too bad, but I am not sure how well they will pair together. Both players heavily prefer to play on the left. Clearly, Seattle did not want to run back the Frisco team, but we would have been pretty tempted to run back Frisco at the Challenger level here. We think a Lina / Yana team looks quite different at this level, and both players had their stock drop too far due to their terrible Premier situation.

Wes Burrows is a very nice guy, and he always looks the part out there of a solid player, but at some point we’d like to see him win something. We didn’t think French was a Challenger player heading into last season and he proved us wrong, as his weird playing style, and ability to get under other players skin, proved very effective. However, given his health issues with his wrist, it only makes no sense to take him as a nepotism pick. It continues to pay to have friends in high places.

Grade: C

📸 @blqkbears

California BLQK Bears – Tina Pisnik (#12), Alix Truong (#13), Marshall Brown (#36), Anderson Scarpa (#37)

Tina Pisnik seems to be a player on the rise, and we had her as a top 10 overall player in this Challenger draft so we like the Pisnik selection, However, choosing to pair her with Truong with the 13th pick, is an odd move in our view. Maybe they wanted experience but there were quite a few better female options on our board, both if you wanted upside or a proven track record. Marshall Brown, is an interesting choice, as he hasn’t been playing many tournaments lately. You have to think draft consultant Rafa Hewett, was pushing hard for this pick, as they play together locally in Alabama. Brown had a nice little mixed run at the PPA Denver this weekend. Anderson Scarpa is fine as a fourth round pick, and is solid in a three events, but is not a dominant force in any. Although the men will make the difference on way or the other for this team, we’ll also have to see if Truong has any upside in her this early in the draft.

Grade: C+

Notable Undrafted Men

Callan Dawson – Dawson has been dubbed the snub of the draft. Teams clearly are prioritizing upside where these legacy players like Dawson, Cassidy and Pat Smith are best as men’s doubles players. They also aren’t getting much better. We disagree on Callan a bit and he will have a very good chance to go in the first Shuffle Draft. No one disputes Dawson is a Premier level men’s doubles player. It’s the whole MLP package.

Patrick Smith – One of us had Smith as an undrafted guy and the other had him ahead of Dawson in the top 48. He seems to be playing out the string of his pro career but he could have been drafted.

Sam Querrey – From 1st overall to undrafted, Querrey needs the right situation to be draftable. He still sits so heavy forehand that Auvergne playing mixed doubles with Sam was perfect for him. He’s an above average Dreambreaker player and below average mixed player who looks awkward on a pickleball court.

Every Male in the Player Pool – It is kind of wild to us how many people legitimately believe they are Challenger players. We believe were over 500 men who submitted their name for this draft. There are a lot of men who wouldn’t look totally out of place in Challenger but we didn’t realize how so many people look themselves in the mirror every day and not jokingly think they should be in this division.

Notable Undrafted Women

Lee Whitwell – Again, the theme is avoiding legacy players. A 49 year old who can’t play a Dreambreaker. We had her in our top 48 ahead of players like Frantova and Tammy Emmrich, but we understand why teams avoided her.

Regina Goldberg – Right on the border of our top 48, Goldberg is pregnant and due in December, which must have kept her off the board for these teams.

Rachel Rettger – She played all 3 Challenger events in season 1 and looked okay. She is pretty meh and likely why teams avoided her.

Christine Trifunovic – Trifunovic was in the mix to be drafted. One of us had Amanda Hendry as a better low upside option right on the border of our top 48 because of her singles prowess.

Agree or disagree? Let us know in the comments below or email us at Follow us on Twitter, Threads, Instagram and Facebook.

7 thoughts on “MLP Season 2 Challenger Division Draft Grades

  • July 15, 2023 at 6:21 pm

    Lotta good teams. 5s, 8s, Vegas. I’m a little higher on ATX than NML, which means I’m probably wrong, but I think they have a shot. Probably I’m over-valuing the DeLaRosa/Newell pairing, that’s just one win, albeit a certain one….

    I don’t understand St Louis drafting Emmerich over Dawson. In fact, there are a lot of teams that I don’t understand. Why do the Pandas exist? Are they some kind of parody of a real team?

    • July 16, 2023 at 5:53 am

      We’ll see how it goes. Newell and De La Rosa we’re not certain in their time together in Dallas. Solid not certain. The Dawson one definitely could have and maybe should have been a draft. He was in our top 48

  • July 15, 2023 at 8:46 pm

    Callan won a bronze at PPA Denver today (and gave the Johns bros a fight) after not getting picked as a top 48 man for MLP. Idiotic. Is there any chance he made it known he was only interested in playing Premiere or nothing?

  • July 16, 2023 at 1:38 am

    I’m not cheap, but I’m available to proofread your next post. geeeeeez louizzzzzze

    • July 16, 2023 at 5:52 am

      Hahaaha. This one was likely on the lower end but until you’re in the passenger seat driving to a tournament on your phone writing but want to get content up, we don’t have a much better answer than time is the enemy a lot of the time

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