It was a heartbreaking few days for North American beach volleyball fans. Our USA and Canadian athletes put it all on the line, but only one AVP team remains. And I’m putting all my money on them.
On Saturday night (USA time), just 24 hours after they won Pool D, Team Slaes battled against Brandie Wilkerson and Heather Bansley in their first elimination match. After winning their pool, there was a lot of anticipation for this young duo. Even when they fell behind in the first set, they rallied and won the set 24-22. Team Slaes then took a commanding 10-4 lead in the second set, getting all our hopes up. USA quickly lost momentum and that lead, switching sides at 11-10. Bansley was playing lights out – siding out like crazy and touching every ball on defense. Canada took the second set.
Sponcil and Claes, though admittedly not playing the nearly flawless game they have been of-late, kept the third set close. At 11-12, Sponcil served a ball down the middle that was called out. After the closest and most controversial challenge/reverse/TV truck error I’ve ever witnessed, the ball was officially ruled out, and Canada took back their 2-point lead. An incredulous Sponcil argued with the ref, receiving a yellow card for her efforts. She then overpassed the subsequent serve in frustration, resulting in a 14-11 side switch. USA sided out and served an ace, but Canada won the match on the next point, 15-13. Brutal way to end such a phenomenal run. The only solace was AVP athlete Brandie Wilkerson advancing to the Quarterfinals.
A few hours later, Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena played their last ever international match. They battled hard against Cherif/Ahmed from Qatar, winning the first set 14-21. Phil and Nick looked fantastic. Phil was blocking and serving like a maniac, and Nick executed his typical siding out at a high percentage. The Qataris rallied in the second, coming out stronger, though Phil and Nick kept it close. USA was up 15-13 and hopeful for a two-set victory. Unfortunately, the young Qataris and medal favorites powered through and won the following two sets, 21-19 and 15-11.
On Sunday evening, April and Alix won their first against Cuba’s Leila and Lidy. They maintained a lead all match, winning relatively easily in two sets, 21-17, 21-15. The A-Team advanced to the Quarterfinals and were matched up against defending Gold Medalist Laura Ludwig and partner Maggie Kozuch of Germany. The Germans secured their Quarterfinal spot by upsetting the #3-seeded Agatha/Duda in the Round of 16.
Monday morning saw our last USA team’s Olympic run ended. Jake Gibb and Tri Bourne also won their first set against the young, promising German team of Thole and Wickler. They looked so solid and in sync, and fans were hoping they’d stay that way. The Germans, however, started serving really tough and playing better, taking the second 21-15. Germany continued with the momentum, getting an early third-set lead and not letting up. After the last ball fell at 11-15, Jake Gibb grabbed the net and closed his eyes. It was an emotional moment for all watching this legendary athlete taking in the last dregs of his international playing days. Surreal and sad and moving and bittersweet.
In the days after both Men’s losses, Phil and Jake announced their retirement from international volleyball. We were all expecting it, but to see it so plainly felt odd. Lucky for American beach volleyball fans, they’re all still competing on the AVP. It’s awesome to see how much these men love the US Tour. How the laid-back environment, enthusiastic fans, and alluring American destinations have them pushing official retirement back. I’m thrilled to watch these Olympians on our beach over the next month. Don’t miss out on seeing some of the last matches played by some of the greatest to ever play beach volleyball.
But before that – we still have the A-Team! In a tight match against Ludwig/Kozuch (21-19, 21-19), the A-Team booked their ticket to the Semifinals and guaranteed they’ll play for a medal. They looked outstanding against the talented Germans. Their ice-water-for-blood calmness still baffles me. Do they ever get flustered? The answer is no. Which is why I’m betting on them.
Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes lost a heartbreaker to Australia on Tuesday morning (21-15, 19-21, 15-12). The Canadians played awesome, staying relaxed throughout the match even when down in the first and third sets. The Australians just played nearly flawlessly, never letting up or letting our Canadians back into it.
The good news about that is – the path to Gold just got that much clearer for Team USA. With the World Champs out, April and Alix are the clear favorites. But of course, they have two matches left to secure it. Up first: Heidrich and Verge-Depre of Switzerland. The A-Team has only played this team once, and they beat them in straight sets. April and Alix’s Semifinal match is set for 5PM PACIFIC ON WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 4 ON NBC.
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