Of all the battles that Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes had last weekend at a small, invitational tournament in Hermosa Beach, California, the biggest one may have been waged in their own heads.
Every one of their four matches went to three sets. Their first was against Sara Hughes and Emily Day, the team they will more than likely see in the country quota in Cancun every week over the next month. They won in three, 22-20, 17-21, 15-12. Then they met world champions Melissa Humana-Paredes and Sarah Pavan, who only recently lost their place as the No. 1 ranked team on the planet, the Canadians whom Sponcil and Claes lost to in pool in Doha, 14-16 in the third. For the second straight match, they lost 14-16 in the third.
Out of pool play – the women's tournament featured two pools of four, with the top two in each pool advancing to the gold bracket, and the bottom to the silver – Sponcil and Claes would see the team attempting to chase them down in the race for the Tokyo Olympics: Kelley Kolinske and Emily Stockman. Again, they’d go three, winning 27-29, 21-19, 15-12. In the finals was, surprise surprise, another bout with Pavan and Humana-Paredes. Again, it was decided 16-14 in the third set, only on this occasion it was Sponcil and Claes who claimed the 16 and Pavan and Humana-Paredes the 14.
And yet, despite playing two matches against the world champs, one against the team who would love to bounce them from the country quota, and another who would love to supplant them in the Olympic race, the most difficult match was mental, the inner battle of how exactly to use this pre-Cancun tune-up tournament, where there were no points or prize money on the line -- but it's competition all the same.
“We’re not trying to win this tournament, we’re trying to get better and get some reps for Cancun and I think that’s the biggest thing,” Sponcil said, after, of course, winning the tournament. “It’s so hard to separate the competition and being competitive and wanting to win the point but also, what are we trying to work on? What is actually going to help us? That was our mindset going in, which is hard, but I think we did a pretty good job holding ourselves accountable.”
Such were the mental gymnastics of every team in the field: do we show our cards, what we’ve been working on? Do we attempt to win a tournament with no points or prize money on the line, or do we sacrifice a few plays in the name of trying something new? Adding wrinkles to the offence, shifts to the defence?
Traci Callahan and Delaney Mewhirter, another team in the women’s field who were competing together for the first time, recently switched sides, with Mewhirter on the right, Callahan on the left. They’re running a new offence, with faster sets and a more spread offence. It was awfully tempting to revert to what they knew – up and down, high, simple – yet they stuck with it, even after losing their first two matches, to Kolinske and Stockman and Kelly Reeves and Terese Cannon.
“That opportunity is the best way to expedite our learning process to compete, because the pressure to execute is lower,” Mewhirter said. “It’s the perfect middle ground of competing and working on stuff.”
This past weekend’s tournament was not the first such occasion. Prior to the Doha four-star in early March, there was another, which worked out quite well. In Doha, April Ross and Alix Klineman won gold, Pavan and Humana-Paredes silver, Stockman and Kolinske claimed fourth, Sponcil and Claes took fifth. On the men’s side, Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb won bronze, beating fellow Americans Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena for the medal.
That’s not to say these mini tournaments are the cause of that success; it is merely a correlation. The competition reps, against some of the best teams in the world – though there is no prize money on the line, teams paid for referees – in a strange few years where competition has been mostly on hold, are invaluable.
For Trevor Crabb and Tri Bourne, they were absolutely precious. Bourne and Crabb couldn’t even compete in Doha after losing an on-site country quota to Chaim Schalk and Theo Brunner. This miniature tournament in Hermosa Beach was the highest level they could play before another likely country quota awaits in Cancun.
When they won, winning five straight matches in 10 consecutive sets, over several elite teams that concluded with a final 21-16, 21-14 sweep over Casey Patterson and Chase Budinger, it was as much of a morale boost as it was a testament to their ability to compete.
“Things are starting to click just in time,” Bourne said.
Indeed, Bourne and Crabb have less than a week of training in Southern California before departing for Cancun where, over the next three weeks, their Olympic fate will more or less be decided. Same goes for Sponcil and Claes, Kolinske and Stockman, and Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat, all of whom are competing for the second American berth into Tokyo.
“It’s so easy to say ‘This is what I’m comfortable doing,’” Sponcil said. “Really just trying to fight that... and I think it was great. If it doesn’t work, just frickin’ keep doing it. It doesn’t matter if we win or lose but these reps are important. We have to feel like we’re successful at the things we’re working on because if we’re not going to do it here, we’re not going to do it in the big tournaments.”
FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour
Olympic Games Tokyo 2020