The third and final event of Major League Pickleball (MLP) Season One is finally upon us. The league’s 24 Challenger and Premier Level teams make their way to Lifetime Rancho in San Clemente, CA, for an exciting conclusion to the league’s inaugural season for the new 2023 format.
Last month, we looked at what MLP San Clemente means for the Season One Championships, dubbed Super Finals, to underline which teams have the best chance at taking home the gold. While it might be difficult for some of the lower-ranked teams to make it to the championship event, there’s still a lot at stake for each team regarding placement in the 2024 season.
In the video above, MLP Founder Steve Kuhn explains that every match counts towards a team’s level status for 2024, where they will be set into either Premier Level or Challenger Level based on their 2023 season rankings.
Season One’s Premier Level teams will switch to Challenger Level, and vice versa, before the Season Two Draft. This will allow each team equal opportunity with the player pool, motivating ownership and management groups to invest their resources accordingly to build a successful organization.
Next year, the MLP will be considered a true promotion-relegation league, meaning the best teams this year will be seeded accordingly into each of the two levels. The bottom line: Teams want to be in the Premier Level in 2024 to have access to the league’s top athletes and earn top dollar.
2023 has been big for the MLP. 2024 will be even bigger.
I digress, but knowing that the stakes are still high for teams with lower standings will be important to the narrative of MLP San Clemente. For example, the Frisco Pandas are at the bottom of the barrel in the Premier Level, but their recent name change and investment from big names like Dude Perfect and Dak Prescot have shown that there are big plans in the works for the Pandas – they’re going to want to win it all for the rest of 2023.
So, with every team gunning for the gold in the final event of Season One, who has the best shot? Let’s look at our favorites in each group for the Premier and Challenger Levels!
Group A – Milwaukee Mashers, Florida Smash, SoCal Hard Eights, New York Hustlers
Based on the current Premier Level rankings, this group feels the most balanced, if not leaning more toward the low end. The New York Hustlers lead the pack in 3rd place, while the Hard Eights sit at the bottom in 10th.
The key thing to note in this group is that three out of the four teams have made big changes to their rosters since MLP Daytona. Matt Wright went to the Mashers, Lauren Stratman to the Hard Eights, and the Smash picked up both Vivienne David and Kyle Yates. But how will these trades impact their game plan?
We think that the Milwaukee Mashers’ replacement of DJ Young with Matt Wright is going to be huge for their success in this event. Wright is considered one of the best men’s doubles players in pro pickleball, and he will now be paired up with Andrei Daescu, who has had the best year of his pickleball career on the APP Tour. Wright is also familiar with playing alongside Lucy Kovalova, and the two even won the Pickleball Nationals together back in 2018.
The Hustlers had a huge star to their year, taking second place at MLP Mesa; however, they got knocked out by the Mad Drops in the quarterfinals of MLP Daytona. Tyson McGuffin and Anna Bright have been playing incredibly well in the PPA lately, so we can expect their leadership to take the Hustlers far into the playoffs.
Group B – New Jersey 5’s, California BLQK Bears, St. Louis Shock, ATX Pickleballers
Group B represents the middle of the pack for the Premier Level right now, with the New Jersey 5’s up in front in fourth place and ATX at the back in ninth. What makes this field interesting is the fact that most of them have a fighting chance at making it to the Super Finals, the most likely of the two being the 5’s and the BLQK Bears.
While the 5’s are sitting in fourth, they’ve had a slow start to the season. They finished in fifth at MLP Mesa, but managed to fight their way to third in Daytona. I can see them continuing their upward trajectory at San Clemente, and they’ve got the star power to make it happen.
Lea Jansen and Anna Leigh Waters are the top two women’s players in the PPA right now, and it has been wild to see what they can do on the same side of the court together in the MLP. The 5’s also have James Ignatowich, who has been killing it in doubles in the PPA, and the young gun Hayden Patriquin who’s been fun watching grow his singles and doubles games in the PPA as well.
BLQK Bears made it to the finals at Daytona, coming away with a silver medal after facing the number one ranked team, the Seattle Pioneers. Of the Group B teams, we think that the BLQK Bears have possibly the strongest lineup: Andrea Koop, Dylan Frazier, Federico Staksrud, and Maggie Brascia.
Frazier has been a top-ranked player in men’s doubles alongside JW Johnson in the PPA right now, and Staksrud has been constantly at the top in singles. Andrea Koop was clearly the Bears’ MVP at Daytona and continues to be a threat in doubles in the PPA, and Maggie has been tearing it up in women’s doubles alongside her sister Mary Brascia lately.
We’re excited to see how they fare in San Clemente, and there’s a solid chance we could see them in the Super Finals.
Group C – Las Vegas Night Owls, Seattle Pioneers, Frisco Pandas, Los Angeles Mad Drops
We’ve got the top and bottom two teams in the Premier Level Group C, but much has changed since MLP Daytona. The Mad Drops and Pioneers are likely to see the Super Finals, the Pandas are fresh off of a rebrand, and the Night Owls basically flipped their whole roster.
The Mad Drops will likely be without Thomas Wilson, who recently underwent surgery for a heart condition. We’re hoping him a speedy recovery! We saw Hunter Johnson fill in for him at Daytona, who has also had an excellent year in the APP. The rest of their team is stacked, featuring the likes of Julian Arnold, Catherine Parenteau, and Irina Tereschenko.
The Pioneers are led by superstar Ben Johns, but we recently saw the rise of Wright and Tereschenko at the PPA Orange County Cup where they took home a silver medal. Meghan Dizon has also been instrumental to the Pioneers’ success the last two MLP tournaments.
Group A – Miami Pickleball Club, AZ Drive, Utah Black Diamonds, Columbus Pickleball Club
In the Challenger Level, Group A features a spread of teams for all different rankings. The Utah Black Diamonds lead the pack at number 3, and the AZ Drive is at the bottom-ranked at number 12.
Our favorites? The AZ Drive and Miami Pickleball Club (MPC). After the Challenger Level Shuffle Draft, we looked at all of the changes, and both MPC and the AZ Drive made some great pickups.
Since they’re currently in last place, the AZ Drive had the first pick in the draft, picking up John Cincola after placing Wes Burrows on waivers. Cincola has been playing well in both the APP and PPA this year, and his strength in men’s doubles could make him a great partner with Andreas Siljestrom.
Miami saw that AZ had dropped Wes Burrows and decided to pick him up in the sixth round of the draft. Burrows is a more well-rounded player, making MPC a bigger threat in Dreambreakers. They also have Alix Truong, who has been making waves in the APP with a recent gold medal finish at the APP Vlasic Classic in mixed doubles.
Group B – Chicago Slice, Atlanta Bouncers, Texas Ranchers, Bay Area Breakers
Group B is a top-heavy bracket, filled with some of the biggest contenders in the Challenger Level. The Bay Area Breakers and Chicago Slice are ranked number one and two, respectively, followed by Atlanta at five and Texas at six.
The Breakers now have two gold medals under their belt for Season One, and look stronger than ever. They picked up Vivian Glozman in the final round of the draft, who recently made her debut in the PPA alongside Anna Bright. It’ll be interesting to see how she fills in for Rachel Summers, who was integral to the Breakers’ women’s doubles success.
The Slice is right at the top of the pack as well, having taken third at MLP Mesa and fourth in Daytona. They made no changes to their roster but are led by APP star Susannah Barr and Connor Garnett who recently earned silver in men’s singles at the PPA Orange County Cup against Tyson McGuffin.
Atlanta fell from a huge fourth-place finish in Mesa down to tenth place at Daytona. They dropped Ben Newell to pick up his doubles teammate Phillip Locklear. Hopefully, he and Hunter Johnson can build chemistry quickly for them to bounce back in San Clemente.
Group C – Orlando Squeeze, Dallas Pickleball Club, D.C. Pickleball Team, Brooklyn Aces
Finally, let’s talk about Challenger Level Group C – a mixed bag of teams fighting for a chance at the Super Finals. If we’re going to see a Group C team make it to the MLP San Clemente championship match, our bets are on Dallas Pickleball Club and the D.C. Pickleball Team.
Dallas Pickleball Club (DPC) went from a tenth-place finish at Mesa to a silver medal at Daytona. DPC picked up Ben Newell from waivers, and he will now be playing alongside his recent doubles partner Daniel De La Rosa, whose recent behind-the-back point against the Johns brothers hit the Sportscenter Top 10.
They also have a powerhouse pairing in women’s doubles with Christa Gecheva and Jill Braverman. We expect to see Dallas contending for that top spot in San Clemente, putting them in the running for the Super Finals.
D.C. Pickleball Team (DCPT) is currently ranked 11th and had a rough go at the most recent event in Daytona. However, they also managed to draft Judit Castillo, a rising star on the pro pickleball scene.
Castillo earned her first gold medal at the APP Sacramento Open, and most recently earned a bronze in women’s singles at the PPA Orange County Cup. She took down the likes of Hurricane Tyra Black and Irina Tereschenko and even won her first game against Anna Leigh Waters. We expect her to be a star alongside Shelby Bates in women’s doubles, and Sam Querrey or Stefan Auvergne in mixed.
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