Drafting in the challenger league is much tougher than the premier league as a GM is essentially in charge of drafting from a player pool of the top #49-96 players in pro pickleball and no one did a better job in season 1 than Geoffrey Nguyen. By the time we turned the page on the second event in Daytona it was obvious what the Breakers had in Pablo Tellez and although the Breakers didn’t win in San Clemente, 2 championships and a semifinal appearance pretty much locks them up for a spot in the premier league next year. Tellez only dropped one match in San Clemente, (not including the Super Finals) which happened to be the difference, but he is clearly ready for the call up to the major leagues. As I watched him throughout Thursday and Friday’s action the game looked much slower to him than it did others to the point where he looked like he was two moves ahead half the time (very Ben Johns like). Pablo will only continue to get better and should be a major asset for a premier team next season.


The AZ Drive went from last place to a semifinal appearance and that was without Andreas Siljestrom & Heather Nobler (injuries) and Wes Burrows (dropped). The veteran left sider Anderson Scarpa filled in admirably in Siljestrom’s absence but it was the play of Genie Erokhina that propelled them to the playoffs as she finished top 5 in player point differential out of 48 players. Erokhina was another late pickup after Heather Nobler was a late scratch and she was clearly motivated to perform well after being dropped by the Ranchers. All in all making a semifinal with three brand new players that other teams did not want has to be the biggest shocker of the weekend.


The most impactful trade/pickup of season 1 was Jill Braverman who basically came out of retirement to play pro pickleball again. She was a hot commodity in the first shuffle draft as GM Dave Fleming made the move to trade for in favor of Megan Fudge. Braverman helped Dallas to a finals spot in Daytona and a championship in San Clemente while Fudge wasn’t able to match those same results for the Columbus PB Club. Despite all the antics that rub some players the wrong way Jill’s play clearly showed she belongs in the premier league. She’s rangy, excellent on defense/in transition and brings versatility up at the kitchen line that no other player in challenger possesses at the moment. She has earned her spot as a top 24 female.


Ben Newell was dropped in the last shuffle draft for his Newport doubles partner Phillip Locklear and I have to assume the reason why was because they beat the Johns brothers as that match dominated the conversation for weeks. With Brandon French out with an injury Dallas pulled the trigger on Newell and it paid off big time. Ben has all the tools to be a high level player but suffers from stretches of inconsistency and poor decision making which is why he was dropped in the first place. However he looked extremely comfortable all weekend playing alongside Braverman and regular doubles partner on the PPA Tour Daniel de La Rosa. As a fringe player heading into the event Newell has clearly cemented his spot in the season 2 draft come July.


This was a big tournament for the DC PB Club after some subpar performances in the first few events. The Querrey pick at #1 was a miss but he did prove this past weekend that he belongs as a middle of the pack challenger league player as he showed better decision making and soft game skills. However the difference in my mind for a team that wasn’t that far off from a playoff spot in Daytona was the infectious energy of Judit Castillo. Castillo may have not played better than Amanda Hendry on the court but her enthusiasm seemed to give DC the belief they needed to win in higher pressure situations. Their semi final appearance puts them right back near the middle of the pack which is exactly what they needed heading into the draft.


If there’s one thing we have learned from the challenger league it’s that it’s probably a good idea to swing on some upside talent at one or two points in the draft as those returns can pay off in a major way down the road. We saw it with both Bay Area and Chicago as Connor Garnett is now clearly in the conversation for a premier league spot in July after being somewhat of a risky pick in December. Adding solid veteran support around him by drafting Susannah Barr and Ryler DeHeart was also a shrewd move by Chicago as it allowed Garnett to play with complete freedom, which is when he is at his best. Chicago now enters season 2 with a nice cushion in the overall standings.


  1. Christa Gecheva: Braverman dominated the conversation this past weekend but Christa Gecheva was outstanding in her own right. She has a ton of firepower and as she gets more comfortable at the kitchen line and in transition she should cotninue to grow as player.
  2. John Cincola: I wasn’t a huge fan of the Cincola pickup but he’a s steady right sider with a lot of experience who played like it all weekend. High floor players can be valuable in challenger as we see more inconsistent play at this level compared to premier.
  3. Ryler DeHeart: The key to Deheart’s game as I have watched him this year has been aggression. When he’s moving, initiating offense, and looking to poach he’s a better player in all facets of his game. He did that in San Clemente and it helped Chicago win the Super Finals on Monday.
  4. Brooke Buckner: I don’t think Brooke ever gets mentioned outside of singles but she has become a much better doubles player as she and Milan Rane turned out to be a formidable team for Atlanta. She has found a nice home over on the right side of the court in both women’s and mixed.
  5. Alix Truong: Long and Burrows get the headlines but Truong was the steadiest player this past weekend for Miami, Truong isn’t blowing people away but she is steadily improving which may be better for her long term growth.


The way that pro pickleball is covered it is tough to determine who belongs in the back end of the challenger league draft. Both John Cincola and Genie Erokhina probably did enough this weekend to show they deserve a shot in season 2. As we saw with Connor Garnett and Christian Alshon upside can help a team win in a big way as well so there may be a bigger risk appetite this go around which could spell danger for veterans like Pat Smith, Lee Whitwell, Rob Cassidy and others who have been around the game awhile. We’ll see how the current premier league GMs approach the draft. Teams like Frisco and Las Vegas need wins so expect them to take more swings than say Seattle and the Mad Drops who sit comfortably atop the standings. The ideal draft strategy doesn’t exist yet and may never exist but the top teams laid out a blueprint that I assume most will follow in season 2.

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