Major League Pickleball (MLP) wrapped up Season One last weekend with MLP San Clemente, and it did not disappoint. We saw the rise of the underdogs and the fall of previous champions, leading to one of the wildest MLP events to date!
As mentioned in our tournament preview, every single team in the MLP had something to fight for, even if they didn’t have a shot at getting into tonight’s Super Finals. By the end of the year, the 12 top-performing teams, out of all 24 teams at both the Premier and Challenger Levels, will be locked into the Premier Level for all of 2024.
The split-season approach to this year’s inaugural format change was brilliant, as it incentivizes top-level play no matter where you stand in the rankings. MLP San Clemente was no exception, as we saw so many underrated teams come in and topple some of the bracket leaders.
Let’s take a look at the championship matches for each level and highlight some of the more exciting moments in the playoffs leading into the finals.
Premier Level Finals – New Jersey 5s vs. Seattle Pioneers
To no one’s surprise, we saw Anna Leigh Waters and Ben Johns in the finals for the Premier Level. Johns led the 2-seed Seattle Pioneers swiftly through their side of the playoff bracket, while Waters and the New Jersey 5s battled through theirs as the 4-seed.
By earning their spot as the 2-seed in Group C with three consecutive match wins, the Seattle Pioneers also locked in their spot for the Super Finals. The Pioneers went 3-1 in all three of their matches at the group stage against the Las Vegas Night Owls, Frisco Pandas, and the LA Mad Drops.
Ben Johns also earned himself the title of MVP of the Premier Level. He didn’t drop a single game during the tournament alongside his doubles partners Tyler Loong and Etta Wright.
The 5s also had an incredible run during the group stage, only losing in a close match to the ATX Pickleballers, who had the biggest redemption arc by far in the Premier Level. ATX was sitting at 9th place heading into San Clemente after two below-average performances at Mesa and Daytona; for this tournament, however, JW Johnson led the charge and led the Pickleballers to a third-place finish in the semi-finals.
In the playoffs, the 5s took down the 2-seed Mad Drops, which was huge as it set them up for a chance at also knocking them out of the Super Finals if the 5s could win in the finals against the Pioneers. The Super Finals lineup came down to a 1-point, make-or-break finals win, and unfortunately for the 5s, the Pioneers came out on top.
The Premier Level finals match was about as close as it gets. Right out of the gates, men’s doubles saw Loong and Johns face off against James Ignatowich and Hayden Patriquin in an incredibly close game one.
Ignatowich and Patriquin led the way for the front half of the match, but Loong and Johns were able to turn the tides their way, gaining the lead at 14-13 and maintaining that all the way to a 21-19 win. Women’s doubles saw similar results, with both teams going point for point until Lea Jansen and ALW got the win, 21-17.
In the first match of mixed doubles, the Pioneers led with Meghan Dizon and Tyler Loong, and the 5s started the young guns, Patriquin and Waters. Dizon and Loong were the weak points for the Pioneers all weekend, having dropped three games total going into the finals, and that pattern persisted, allowing the 5s a 21-19 win.
The second round of mixed saw Ben Johns and Etta Wright take on Jansen and Ignatowich. The Wright/Johns duo commanded the whole match despite the 5s’ attempts at gaining momentum. Jansen and Ignatowich are both strong at the line, and it was fun watching them up for San Clemente, but Wright and Johns managed to take the win, 21-15.
Tied 2-2, this pushed the Premier Level to a Dreambreaker, where each team’s players rotate in and out for singles play. The Pioneers maintained a steady lead for the entirety of the match, with Ben Johns scoring the match-winning point at 21-14.
“The whole team was performing off the charts in the Dreambreaker. They all played really clutch, they hit a lot of great shots, and of course we knew that the 5s are probably the best singles team out there, so we really had to play well.”Ben Johns
Challenger Level Finals – Chicago Slice vs. Dallas Pickleball Team
In the Challenger Level, we got to see the Chicago Slice make their first finals appearance after making two close playoff runs in Mesa and Daytona. In San Clemente, they took on the Dallas Pickleball Club (DPC), who earned themselves a silver at Daytona, bouncing back from a rough start at MLP Mesa.
The Challenger Levels mirrored the Premier in the sense that we saw a lower-seeded playoff team, the 5-seed Slice, go up against a 2-seed team with a bye, DPC. The Slice took down Miami Pickleball Club in the quarterfinals; then in the semis, they went on to upset the 1-seed Bay Area Breakers, who won the season’s first two events.
On the other side of the bracket, we saw two teams make their first MLP playoff appearance: The AZ Drive and the D.C. Pickleball Team. D.C. ended up taking down the Drive 3-1 in the quarterfinals, allowing them to advance to the semi-finals, where they faced off against DPC.
The finals match kicked off with women’s doubles, where the Slice started with Susannah Barr and Emily Ackerman, who faced off against DPC’s Jill Braverman and Christa Gecheva. Braverman and Gecheva controlled the entire match, maintaining the lead despite the Barr/Ackerman offensive, and winning 21-16.
Next up was men’s doubles, which saw DPC’s Ben Newell and Daniel De La Rosa take on Connor Garnett and Ryler DeHeart from the Slice. This game was very back-and-forth, with both teams juggling the lead throughout. DPC were able to put it away with Newell serving; De La Rosa drove a third shot down the middle to secure the win, 21-19.
DPC sent out Gecheva and De La Rosa for the first round of mixed doubles, where they faced off against the duo of Barr and Garnett. Following the trend from the first two games, this game was neck and neck all the way to the end! Barr led the Slice to their first win, 21-19 pushing the match to another round of mixed.
In the fourth match, Newell and Braverman were on a mission to close it out for DPC against Ackerman and DeHeart, and they managed to do so in style.
In the front half of the game, it looked like it might be another close one, as both teams looked evenly matched at the line, with Newell and Braverman taking the lead at the first end change, 11-7. However, DPC ran away with it in the second half, doubling their lead almost immediately and maintaining that lead to victory, 21-12.
“I’m so proud. We’ve come a long way; Daytona was kind of like the beginning of us. To see us come through all the way is such a pleasure to do with these guys and I’ve had a blast. I can’t wait to go again.”Christa Gecheva
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