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Canadians Humana-Paredes, Wilkerson win Olympic preview at Huntington Beach Open

Brandie Wilkerson, left, and Melissa Humana-Paredes raise hands for a double high-five as spectators look on from the stands
Brandie Wilkerson, left, and Melissa Humana-Paredes celebrate after winning the AVP championship in Huntington Beach on Sunday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
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At first, Melissa Humana-Paredes couldn’t get the cork off the celebratory Champagne bottle. Now she’s learning to aim her shot.

In the aftermath of a thrilling three-set victory in the final of the AVP Huntington Beach Open on Sunday, the Canadian defender sprayed Champagne straight into partner Brandie Wilkerson’s eyes, momentarily pausing the euphoric celebration as Wilkerson called for a water bottle to flush her eyes and dabbed her face with a towel. Blinking away the sting, Wilkerson had no problem smiling with a Huntington Beach Open trophy surfboard in hand.

“Me and Champagne, we just don’t get along,” said Humana-Paredes, who previously needed help to wrestle the cork off a bottle in a viral video from 2023. “We’re getting better. I need to practice more.”

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The weekend’s Huntington Beach Open was a warmup in more ways than one as it provided a crucial tuneup for Olympic hopefuls and set the tone for a new AVP competition format.

In Sunday’s final, Wilkerson and Humana-Paredes upset top-ranked Americans Taryn Kloth and Kristen Nuss 23-21, 18-21, 15-13 in a potential Olympic preview.

The stacked women’s field included three of the world’s top five pairs who have all clinched their spot in the Paris Games. On the men’s side, Taylor Sander and Taylor Crabb dominated without any of the top Olympic contenders. As U.S. Olympic hopefuls Miles Partain and Andy Benesh, Chase Budinger and Miles Evans, and Trevor Crabb and Theo Brunner prepare for an Olympic qualification event in Portugal, Sander and Crabb raced through bracket. The longtime partners didn’t drop a single set in Huntington Beach and won 21-15, 21-15 in the final over fifth-seeded Seain Cook and Cody Caldwell.

“It doesn’t matter if those teams aren’t here,” Sander said. “Any tournament we show up to, we want to win and we want to get better. We did that and I’m proud of that.”

The winning pairs at Huntington Beach cemented their spots in the inaugural AVP League, a new competition format that will feature 16 pairs — eight women’s and eight men’s teams — in a regular season beginning in September, followed by a playoff tournament and championship match in November. The Huntington Beach Open was the first event in a truncated AVP season sandwiched around the Olympics. With the two events, beach volleyball is looking for a major spotlight in a crowded sports landscape.

“I think it’s perfect that the League’s right after the Olympics,” said Crabb, who has stopped playing international tournaments with Sander. “It’s do or die for us out here right now.”

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Wilkerson and Humana-Paredes also defeated the other U.S. Olympic team of Sara Hughes and Kelly Cheng in straight sets in Sunday’s semifinal. The pairs are tied in the FIVB rankings at fourth and have cemented their spots in Paris along with Kloth and Nuss, who are ranked second in the world.

Brandi Wilkerson, left, blocks a spike by Taryn Kloth
Brandi Wilkerson, left, blocks a spike by Taryn Kloth during the AVP championship match in Huntington Beach on Sunday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

After giving up an early 6-2 lead in the third set in the final, Wilkerson and Humana-Paredes ended the match with four consecutive points, including an ace from Humana-Paredes that set up championship point, to give the team momentum and confidence heading into its first Olympic Games.

“Everything we do is going to be a prep for the Olympics, but especially with these girls here,” Wilkerson said. “We’re expecting to play them at the Olympic Games, so I think we’re all just fighting for it.”

The Canadians scrapped through the contenders bracket after losing to Kloth and Nuss in three sets in the quarterfinals Saturday. They played three matches Sunday compared to the top-ranked Americans, who entered the final with extra rest after their semifinal match ended early because Julia Scoles and Betsi Flint retired trailing 9-2 in the first set.

Scoles, six months removed from two knee surgeries to correct a patella tendon that was peeling off her bone, was forced to withdraw from competition. The Huntington Beach Open was her first tournament back since getting cleared for activity 2½ weeks ago. While pushing through five matches in the first two days with Flint, Scoles strained an abdominal muscle. With injuries piling up on the two-time USC national champion, she was forced to withdraw. But she still had a busy schedule for the day.

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Her wedding was scheduled for 5 p.m. Sunday.

“The plan today was called ‘Operation Be Late To My Own Wedding,’” joked Scoles, who raced to a small ceremony with immediate family Sunday evening and is planning a larger celebration later.

Despite the early forfeit, Scoles and Flint still secured a valuable semifinal finish that could help them qualify for the AVP League, which considers each pair’s top two finishes in three Heritage events — Huntington Beach, Manhattan Beach and Chicago — during the qualification process.

The 32-year-old Taylors have decided to forgo international tournaments in favor of the premier domestic events. Glancing around at the packed grandstand, the full VIP section and a Huntington Beach Pier that was lined three rows deep with fans, Sander couldn’t think of a reason to ever leave.

“Not with the AVP League, baby,” Crabb said with a wide grin. “It’s all about the AVP League.”

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