MLP is back. Yes, it is in a different location than what was originally scheduled and there are still things up in the air about the merger, but there is pickleball to be played. We provided a group stage preview on our podcast but we figured we should still do a fairly comprehensive one here. With Challenger starting on Thursday, we’ll start there and post a Premier one tomorrow.
Group A – Florida Smash, Frisco Pandas, New Jersey 5’s, St. Louis Shock
Frisco is getting a win in Dallas. It is happening. Lock of the year based on the never been wrong law of being due. It’s all coming together for them to finally win one damn match in 2023! Seriously. Frisco went 0-3 in Atlanta, but they should have won one of their matches. This is not a completely destitute team like it was in season 1. Martina Frantova is going to have to bring a more consistent level for Frisco but this is the softest Challenger group in Dallas. It’ll be borderline shocking if Frisco doesn’t come away with its first win somewhere along the way.
That being said, we don’t have Frisco coming out of this group. There are two clear top teams in the group – the 5’s and the Shock. The 5’s barely made it to the playoffs on point differential last event, but they went 2-1 as a team. Most importantly, Alli Phillips looked worthy of her 4th round selection and allows the 5’s to put together a capable women’s team and strong #2 mixed partnership with John Cincola.
The Shock could easily have found their way out of group play last time out. They lost 3-1 to the champion Hard Eights, but their men had one stolen from Klinger/Fought. They also played below their expected level in their Dreambreaker against Seattle. Genie Erokhina went undefeated in women’s and Martin Emmrich keeps getting better. Castillo’s doubles game remains a question, but she and Erokhina were the shining beacon for St. Louis.
Florida is not good, but even they had some close games within their matches in Atlanta. They dropped Dominique Schaefer for Mari Humberg, and it should make them a more competitive team overall.
New Jersey and St. Louis are the picks to get out of this group.
Group B – Las Vegas Night Owls, Milwaukee Mashers, Los Angeles Mad Drops, NYC Hustlers
We’re dubbing this the Challenger group of death. There are two teams that didn’t make the playoffs in this group but they have completely revamped their rosters. The Milwaukee Mashers went 2-1 and have definitely upgraded their #2 men with Callan Dawson in for Pesa Teoni. Riley Bohnert for Christa Gecheva may or may not be an upgrade, but it is likely more of a push than anything. For the Mad Drops, Alison Harris, Andreas Siljestrom and Cierra-Gaytan Leach will now surround Gabe Tardio, who is the best male in the Challenger field. Gaytan-Leach is the biggest unknown coming off a pregnancy, but the pieces around this team are suddenly all somewhat proven commodities.
Las Vegas was a Dreambreaker away from winning the Challenger title. The Night Owls X-Factor is Yates Johnson with his up and down level, but he’s got serious shot making capabilities when he is on. Sarah Ansboury looked bad for NYC at the last event, particularly her movement. As a result, Ansboury is out and Kelsey Grambeau is in. As long as Grambeau can provide a certain level of steadiness, NYC is dangerous. Jaume Vich Martinez’s men’s doubles game keeps progressing and he is a dangerous mixed player at this level. Give Kyle Yates a competent mixed partner and this team should be better equipped to challenge for a title.
Las Vegas and NYC are the teams we are taking to come out of this very tough group.
Group C – Austin Pickleballers, California BLQK Bears, Seattle Pioneers, SoCal Hard Eights
This could also be considered the group of death with 3 playoff teams from Atlanta. The SoCal Hard Eights looked like the best team in Challenger, but they almost didn’t make it to the finals after taking a tight Dreambreaker over Seattle in the semi-finals. On the other hand, there’s reason to believe the Hard Eights have another level to them. CJ Klinger and Todd Fought should be more comfortable in the pressure filled MLP environment while Yana Newell did not have her A game at the last event. There’s no reason for us to stray from the Hard Eights as favorites to win it all in Dallas, but their scare against Seattle followed by a Dreambreaker win in the final over Las Vegas shows that it won’t be a cakewalk to take the crown again.
If SoCal is the favorite to come out of this group, who is the other team? Austin is probably not it. They did not make a move in the Shuffle Draft and the only player that really provides any fear to opposing teams is Daniel De La Rosa. Tammy Emmrich is getting better by the day as well but it doesn’t feel like enough to get out of group play.
BLQK swapped Erik Pailet for Marshall Brown hoping it provides them with more mixed juice in their #2 team. Pailet plays a strong, albeit somewhat chaotic, mixed and it may be enough to put BLQK into another playoff position. The Dreambreaker situation for BLQK is a little bit dicey. Pailet is an unknown in singles and, unless something changes from Atlanta, Tina Pisnik is just going to slice her bakchand from the baseline. Still, this BLQK team gives you nothing free in any matchup.
The difficulty in pegging 2 playoff teams is that Seattle does not have any clear weak spots. Megan Fudge’ is getting the best results of her career in all 3 events lately and Lina Padegimaite as a #2 Challenger female is as strong as anyone outside of SoCal and Las Vegas. Wes Burrows and Pat Smith played well in Atlanta as a pair.
We are taking SoCal and (after a little bit of internal disagreement) Seattle to make it out of group play. Don’t sleep on BLQK.
Update (Wednesday, 12:00 pm EST): Sam Querrey is in for Pat Smith. Some people may laugh but this makes sense for a number of reasons. Querrey is improving and is a borderline Challenger player. He may not be the best player available in our view but he and Wes Burrows are regular partners as well as friends. Querrey and the PPA also have a good relationship so why not go this route with the Tom Dundon owned Seattle Pioneers. BLQK should now be favored to come out of the group over Seattle, but we’ll be very curious to watch Seattle play on Thursday.
A finals prediction is boring when you pick the two teams to go to the finals at the last event, but that’s what we are doing this time around. Both the Hard Eights and Las Vegas Night Owls were undefeated until the finals, and it feels like that could happen again in Dallas despite their difficult group draws.
Agree or disagree? Let us know in the comments below or email us at email@example.com. Follow us on Twitter, Instagram, Threads and Facebook. Also, listen and subscribe to our podcast on Apple, Spotify and YouTube!