Not nearly as many people care about the Challenger stuff. We understand that. These are the lesser players competing for less money. There’s something particularly intriguing to us about seeing high stakes action for players who don’t often get into those high stakes situations nearly as much. This will be the biggest stage that most of these Challenger players see for 2023. Guaranteed contracts do not mean the pressure is off by any means.
The other big thing to keep an eye on is that it sounds like more Premier players are going to be missing MLP than we had anticipated. Mary Brascia is missing due to illness, but it looks like Jiulian Arnold and Lauren Stratman won’t be playing for reasons that are not entirely clear, other than they don’t need to because of how much they stand to earn over the next 3 years. AJ Koller may be out for the entire event too, not just Friday as initially anticipated. That means that the Challenger players who do not make the playoffs will be available for pickup.
Group A – Frisco Pandas, Milwaukee Mashers, New Jersey 5’s, NYC Hustlers
One story that has gotten lost in all of the madness is that Kyle Yates is playing in this first MLP event for NYC. Jimmy Miller actually alluded to this on a podcast a while back without saying Kyle’s name. This is interesting because Kyle provided in his draft notes that he would be unable to play the first event due to a prior commitment. As a result of his expected absence from Atlanta, Yates fell to the 2nd round of the Challenger draft. However, MLP has oddly allowed him to play after his team offered to reimburse him for the money lost if he skipped his commitment.
This gives NYC a big advantage in this first event as Yates surely would have been drafted higher (possibly even Premier) if teams did not operate with the understanding he would miss the first event. They have a strong team around him with Jillian Braverman, Sarah Ansboury and the rising Jaume Martinez Vich. It is less important that MLP has somehow allowed Yates to play with the Premier/Challenger stakes being removed from the equation, but this could have been a serious debacle for MLP had 2024 Premier spots remained on the line. NYC is the best team in this group with Kyle Yates in the mix.
The 5’s are intriguing. They are running back the successful Shelby Bates/Stefan Auvergne DC duo from season 1, and they have the recent APP gold medal men’s team with John Cincola/Auvergne. Their question mark is with Alli Phillips. Shelby Bates is not a true alpha at the Challenger level and if they can’t win women’s matches, it will be a lot of pressure on Alli to be able to find a mixed win somewhere with Cincola.
We don’t like the Milwaukee or Frisco team, and expect them to be at the bottom of this group. The DJ Young experience for Milwaukee is a never know what you’re going to get situation and, even though they got value with Rianna Valdes in round 2, we didn’t think their Christa Gecheva and Pesa Teoni selections were the right choices. Frisco took Bobbi Oshiro in round 1, who is kind of like the Vivienne David of Challenger in that she’s not built to be an alpha female for a team. Ryler DeHeart isn’t an alpha male at Challenger. Martina Frantova was a bad pick in the third round. Can the Andre Mick selection salvage the poor drafting for the Frisco Pandas? Give us NYC and the 5’s out of this group.
Group B – ATX Pickleballers, California BLQK Bears, Florida Smash, Las Vegas Night Owls
This looks like another group with two top teams and two bottom feeders. Las Vegas and California are at the top with ATX and Florida at the bottom. Las Vegas has such a solid team led by Susannah Barr. They are running back the Slice women from last season with Emily Ackerman and were able to round out their men with Spencer Smith and Yates Johnson. Yates has shown nothing in the past couple of months that would indicate he deserved to be higher than a 4th round pick in Challenger, but his shot-making is still scary at that Challenger level. Spencer Smith is a good, steady foil for Yates.
With California, they are led by Tina Pisnik, who would have an argument to be a Premier draft pick if we were re-drafting today. Pisnik will play with Truong, who is playing her best pickleball as of late. California’s men are less proven with Marshall Brown and Anderson Scarpa, but they should be in the mix in every match they play.
On the other hand, ATX is much less confidence inspiring. They are running back the Challenger champion Newell/De La Rosa pairing, but without a top female it’s going to be a lot harder for those two to win. Milan Rane and Tammy Emmrich are a sort of whatever duo, and we’re not expecting much from them together. This Florida Smash team has major volatility written all over it. Brendon Long as their lead dog is an unknown and then the surrounding pieces are either unproven (Collin Shick and Dominique Schaefer) or close to washed (Michelle Esquivel). Collin Shick hasn’t had the doubles game leap that Florida must have hoped for when they drafted him in round 2. They are going to need Shick and Schaefer to come up big for this team to have a shot.
Group C – LA Mad Drops, Seattle Pioneers, SoCal Hard Eights, St. Louis Shock
This is a more balanced group than Groups A and B. Assuming Pat Smith is fully recovered from his concussion, Seattle gets a big upgrade slotting him in for Brandon French. Suddenly, their team with Lina Padegimaite, Megan Fudge and Wes Burrows, looks rather formidable. Burrows is the one who will need to show he still belongs at the Challenger level.
St. Louis is also in that formidable category. Rob Nunnery’s mixed results continue to disappoint, but the sudden rise of Martin Emmrich gives this team a lot more upside. Genie Erokhina and Judit Castillo continue to get better, and it’s likely going to come down to the mixed play for this St. Louis team.
SoCal is somewhat difficult to peg. We really liked their draft at the time, especially getting Ewa Radzikowska and Yana Newell with their first two picks. However, Radzikowska would likely be a little farther down on our draft boards today than where she was picked and we’re not sure what the men of this team gets you. CJ Klinger has performed very well since he was drafted, but Todd Fought is still an unproven commodity. This team should have a high floor with their two women, but we’ll have to see what their ceiling is. The Newell/Radzikowska pairing make them the favorites for us in this group, but it is not by very much.
The Mad Drops will go the way of Gabe Tardio and Jordan Kinney. Kinney still has not played a recorded tournament since October 2022. Like, how is that even possible? Unless Gabe Tardio can find a way to carry Jordan Kinney, a pregnant Brooke Buckner, and Olivia McMillan, things could be dark for this team.
We’ll take Seattle and SoCal to come out of this group.
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