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AVP Champions Cup marks beach volleyball’s socially distanced return

AVP Chicago Gold Series Championships

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - SEPTEMBER 01: Jeremy Casebeer hits the ball while Phil Dalhausser goes up for a block during the semifinals at AVP Gold Series Championships at Oak Street Beach on September 01, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

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A condensed AVP beach volleyball season begins this weekend. Familiarity will be evident, from the U.S.’ top teams to a DJ. So will health measures amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“When you come on site, you’ll definitely be aware that safety and making sure that everyone’s following the protocol is front and center,” AVP Chief Operating Officer Al Lau said this week.

The AVP Champions Cup is a three-legged event. Tournaments are played over the next three weekends on sand imported to the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center parking lot. It was easier than securing beach space. It replaces the normal AVP season that would have run from June to October across the country.

The tour is limiting the number of people on site due to area regulations. No fans. Safety officers will ensure everyone -- from players to officials to crew -- have appropriate wristbands to move from one zone to another, keeping each group separated.

During play, balls will be regularly sanitized by staff members and placed on a stand for players to take. Players have been told to modify on-court celebrations, such as high-fiving or hugs. Social distancing will extend to player boxes during timeouts, keeping athletes six feet apart. When they’re not playing or in a holding area, they must wear masks.

“The AVP has created a ‘contact-less’ competition that will allow athletes to compete without having contact with anyone other than those they are matched against,” according to a press release.

All players underwent at least one coronavirus test each of the last two weeks among hundreds of weekly tests overall for those on site, according to the AVP. There have been no positives among players so far.

Players will continue to be tested the next two Mondays. If a player tests positive with symptoms, they can’t play and can be replaced by an alternate from a reserve list who has also been tested. If a player tests positive without symptoms, they can take another test in case of a potential false positive.

Every time a player arrives on site, he or she undergoes a temperature check. If the temperature is 100.4 degrees or higher in two checks over 20 minutes, the player gets evaluated by a doctor and takes a coronavirus test. He or she can’t play until having a negative test and a doctor’s note.

Lau said Tuesday that the three-weekend event with Friday qualifying and eight main-draw teams per gender was “good to go” after conversations with city officials amid the recent surge in cases in California.

“Since we’re open air, I think that’s to our advantage,” Lau said. “I think everyone’s been appreciative, and they can tell how serious we’ve taken the procedure and protocols.”

NBC, and the NBC Sports app air coverage Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET with a men’s match and Sunday at 4:30 p.m. with the women’s final. Nearly all of the teams vying for U.S. Olympic spots next year are in the field, led by world silver medalists April Ross and Alix Klineman.

“It would suck to go this whole year without playing in anything that we love,” Tri Bourne, who with Trevor Crabb makes up the U.S.’ second-ranked men’s team, said on Sandcast, a podcast that he co-hosts with Travis Mewhirter. “This will fill that void for us.

“It had to have been really difficult to pull something off during this time. ... I’m just grateful they’re putting something on.”

The sentiment was shared by Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil, who are third in U.S. Olympic women’s qualifying for two spots. In March, Claes and Sponcil were packed and ready to leave for an LAX flight to Australia to start their season when they learned that international volleyball was shut down.

Claes and Sponcil recently found California beaches to practice with other teams, sometimes having to bring their own net. They worked on avoiding the customary post-match handshakes with opponents.

Without fans, “It’s kind of going to feel like practice” at the AVP Champions Cup, Sponcil said.

There will still be announcers, and even longtime AVP DJ Jeremy Roueche.

“I don’t think it’s going to be like anything I’ve experienced before,” said Roueche, who has been with the AVP since 2003. “As a DJ, my job is to read the crowd and make sure I’m kind of keeping them engaged. Now, with no crowd, that’s going to be a little different for me.”

Roueche, who works for the Los Angeles Lakers in the AVP offseason, noted that his peers in the NBA bubble in Florida have it quite a bit different. The NBA brought in four music directors to handle all of their games.

“They could potentially have to play music as the home team DJ for all 22 teams,” Roueche said.

Roueche will do his best to read the highs and lows of the fan-less matches the next three weekends, knowing his work will still impact players and commentators.

“After doing it for so long, I feel that there aren’t really situations I’m not prepared for, but this is something different,” he said. “What’s the energy going to be like? Sometimes, silence can be deafening. Sometimes, music can also be too much.”

Unlike the NBA, the players are not in a bubble. It’s up to them to adhere to strict safety measures, or else their entire season may be lost.

“Everything [risky] you’re going to do, you’re making sure there’s a chance that your partner or your coach are going to get it as well,” Bourne said. “If you do put yourself out there to get it, then you’re going to throw the tournament away, your three chances to play.”

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