Written by: Erik Tice
It feels like during the month leading up to MLP Atlanta, all of the news and buzz was surrounding the MLP and PPA standoff that led to another merger, and the fallout from everything: which players signed where, who got overpaid, who got underpaid, and more and more drama.
This past weekend was really nice to just watch actual pickleball. MLP Atlanta was really fun and I am glad that almost every player attended and there was no massive sitout.
First, MLP Atlanta took place at Life Time Peachtree Corners, which is a northeast suburb of Atlanta. The venue looked awesome during the entire event and I didn’t hear many issues at all related to parking, bathrooms, etc.
The only problem I saw with the event was the sunset on Championship Court. In a few of the later matches during the first three days, there were some really bad shadows. They got so bad that someone’s face could be in the sunlight, but the rest of the court was in the shade. If this venue is used again, I would recommend changing up the late match start times so the shadows are not so impactful.
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Let’s get started with a quick Challenger Level Recap!
The Las Vegas Night Owls and So Cal Hard Eights each received a bye into the semi finals, by going 3-0 in group play. The New York Hustlers played the Seattle Pioneers in one quarter final and the California BLQK Bears played the New Jersey 5s in the other quarter final.
All quarterfinalists went 2-1 in group play to get them to the playoffs. The Night Owls prevailed over the 5s in the semi-finals, and the Hard Eights beat the Pioneers to make their way to the finals.
The So Cal Hard Eights won the first Challenger Level event in Season 2 in dramatic fashion in a dreambreaker! The team of Ewa Radzikowska, Yana Newell, CJ Klinger, and Todd Fought were very strong throughout the event and got a well-deserved win.
Pleasant Surprises from the Challenger Level:
- I have to start with CJ Klinger, who was the MVP of the event in the Challenger Division. CJ was big from the right side the entire event and really showed his reach and skill at the net throughout. He has been playing well on the APP Tour recently, but really solidified himself as an established right sided lefty player for the future.
- The New York Hustlers played very well and nearly made it to the semis. I didn’t have high hopes for this team going into the event, but they exceeded expectations. Martinez Vich is getting MUCH better at doubles, Yates still has it, Braverman is a force, and Ansboury is a super solid right sided player. Look for them to continue to have success in the next two events.
- The FFMM draft strategy really paid off for the Night Owls and Hard Eights. The Night Owls got Susannah Barr and Emily Ackerman with their first two picks, while So Cal picked up Ewa Radzikowska and Yana Newell. Having those strong women helped the teams reach the finals. It also helped the Hard Eights that CJ Klinger and Todd Fought both played like first round Challenger Level draftees.
Disappointments from the Challenger Level:
- The Florida Smash, Frisco Pandas, and LA Mad Drops. All three teams went 0-3 in group play. For Florida, I think they thought Shick had come further along in doubles than he showed this weekend. For Frisco, they just never found their groove and couldn’t get any momentum. For the Mad Drops, they looked good on paper, but Jordan Kinney looked a little out of his depth during some runs of play. All three teams may look to free agency to see if they can turn this second season around.
- The Milwaukee Mashers have arguably two Premier Level talents on the team and didn’t make the playoffs. DJ Young and Rianna Valdez are good enough talents when they are hot to carry a Challenger Level team. Hopefully they are able to gel a little more with their teammates before the next MLP event. I am looking for them to take a large step forward in MLP Los Angeles.
The Challenger Level was more competitive than Season 1 and for the most part, some high level pickleball was played. The gap between Challenger and Premier is closing, which is good for 2024, considering all teams will be in the Premier Level.
Quick Premier Level Summary
Championship Sunday was super exciting to watch. There was drama everywhere and who doesn’t love a finals going into a Dreambreaker? The Orlando Squeeze edged out the DC Pickleball Team in the Dreambreaker.
Prior to that, the Squeeze beat the AZ Drive in the semis in a Dreambreaker, 21-10. The DC Pickleball Team beat the Miami Pickleball Club quickly and decisively, 3-0.
The MVP of the Premier Level at MLP Atlanta was Anna Bright. She played great the entire tournament and was solid in Dreambreakers to help the Squeeze get the first title of MLP Season 2.
Pleasant Surprises from the Premier Level:
Who, you ask? Why doesn’t that name ring a bell? Because Harris wasn’t drafted in MLP Season 2. Not drafted AT ALL. The Miami Pickleball Club had two options when they found out about a week prior to the event that Mary Brascia couldn’t make it due to illness.
They could either sign a completely undrafted female to replace Mary and practice with her that week, or wait until Thursday night, when they would get access to about half of the Challenger Level females who weren’t going to make the playoffs, and pick one of them to play the next day.
For team chemistry sake, Miami chose to pick up Harris and practice with her for the week. Harris and Hurricane Tyra Black beat Jessie Irvine and Lacy Schneemann 23-21 in the quarter finals and Harris barely lost to Ben Johns and Jessie Irvine 21-23, with Tyson.
During that match Harris beat Johns down the line multiple times and it didn’t seem to phase her that she was playing the number one player in the world. Harris for sure played well enough to get picked up by a Challenger Level team for the next event. Her stats may not have shown that, but if you watch any of her play over the weekend, you know that Harris belongs in MLP.
Rachel Rohrabacher played lights out the entire weekend. She was the X Factor for the Squeeze. In my preview article, I said the Squeeze goes as Rohrabacher goes. And boy was I right.
Rohrabacher has VERY limited pro pickleball experience and has never played MLP before. Bright insisted on drafting her in the fourth round even though Susannah Barr and some other big names were available. People (including me) questioned the pick, but most took a wait and see approach here.
Well, Bright was proven a genius, as Rohrabacher finished the overall player standings as the second best player at the entire event. Sure she was inconsistent at times at the kitchen line and missed some easy dinks. This was bound to happen - she doesn’t have hundreds of thousands of reps at the kitchen line like most Premier players.
But the firepower and fearlessness that Rohrabacher played with easily made up for those few errors. Her and Zane played really well together and I think this partnership can only get better.
Watching her throw down her paddle after winning the last point of the finals Dreambreaker and screaming and celebrating with her teammates at the end is one of the coolest memories I have from MLP Atlanta. It is between that moment and the time that Zane screamed after he and Rachel scored a crucial point against Riley and Jade Kawamoto at 19-18 for best moment of the weekend.
Andrei Daescu and Julian Arnold played the best singles hands battle in the history of the sport. Hands down. There is zero argument. I think I have watched the replay at least ten times. Daescu’s ability to get low for a big man is incredible. This point was one for the ages and I had to highlight it.
Disappointments from the Premier Level
The Texas Ranchers were my biggest disappointment from the Premier Level this weekend. Yes, the Atlanta Bouncers went 0-3, but I expected that and predicted it. I was very high on the Ranchers and for them to not make the playoffs in the bracket they were in was somewhat shocking. Lauren Stratman finished 47th out of 51 players ranked. Travis finished in 12th position of all the players. No offense to Travis, but when he is the highest ranked player on your team for the weekend, that is not a recipe for success. Lolo and especially Dylan Frazier really need to step up during the next event for them to play to their potential.
Hayden Patriquin getting sick after the first match was a huge disappointment. Rumor has it he got a terrible migraine and couldn’t go on. Gabe Tardio filled in admirably for him after a disappointing finish in Challenger Level. I am interested to see how well the Aces can do in the next event with a (hopefully) fully healthy Patriquin.
The Columbus Pickleball Club was my last disappointment for the Premier Level. I had them coming out of the group into the playoffs. They finished in 7th place and just missed the playoffs.
I watched a couple of matches and the team didn’t show much emotion at all, which was a concern going into MLP Atlanta. Hopefully they can bring some more energy and team camaraderie into the next event and get to the playoffs.
How Did My Predictions Hold Up?
In my MLP Atlanta Preview Article, I made predictions who would make it out of the group and then made a playoff bracket prediction.
- Group Play: I got 4 out of the 6 playoff contenders correct. I correctly predicted that Breakers, Slice, DC, and Miami would make the playoffs. I missed on the Squeeze and the AZ Drive.
- Semis: I got 2 out of the 4 semi finalists correct. DC and Miami were my guesses. I was wrong in guessing Miami would beat DC.
So overall, 4 out of 6 playoff contenders and 2 of the four semifinalists? I would consider that a win in my book. I was way off on the Texas Ranchers, who I had going all the way to the finals. I was also WAY off on the Squeeze because I didn’t have them getting out of group play. And *Spoiler Alert* they won the whole thing.
I can’t wait for MLP Los Angeles, which takes place November 2nd - 5th at the Sherwood Country Club. Be on the lookout for articles related to Challenger Level pickups, Premier trades, and an MLP LA event preview with predictions!
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