It was in Long Beach this same past weekend seven years ago when maybe it was time to write Nick Lucena off.
He was almost 34 years old, and he was coming off a dismal stretch of tournaments in that 2013 season. Consecutive finishes of 17th, 17th, 33rd, 41st, 33rd, 41st, and 17th in events spanning the globe, suffering at the hands and feet of such journeymen as Gianluca Casadei and Paolo Ficosecco, Geir Eithun and Ivor Horrem. It was the latter two who provided an ignominious exit to the FIVB World Series in the LBC for Lucena and his then-partner John Hyden.
It could have been the nadir of Lucena’s career.
The question begged: Could it get any worse?
You certainly could have forgiven Lucena if he decided to step away, like his former partner Matt Fuerbringer did, after the two of them fell just short in qualifying for the USA Olympic team in London in 2012. Rio de Janeiro was three long years away and the player he had his most success with and wanted to team back up with, Phil Dalhausser, had just won that 2013 Long Beach event with his new partner, Sean Rosenthal.
Most of the sport’s aficionados thought the Dalhausser/Rosenthal pairing was a sure-fire blockbuster, harkening back to the days in 1979-1981 when Karch Kiraly and Sinjin Smith — who would ultimately become the two winningest players in history — teamed to wreak havoc on all comers.
By most accounts it appeared as if Dalhausser was in the penthouse, Lucena in the outhouse.
Well, the bottom line in volleyball, like life, is very unpredictable. Dalhausser/Rosenthal imploded, Lucena hung in there, and resurrected his career playing with Theo Brunner and Ryan Doherty. It was in Den Hague in 2015 at the World Championships, when the 15th-seeded Brunner and Lucena took an unlikely fourth place.
And then Lucena, in a bold and daring move, reached out to Dalhausser. Their first event, was — where else? — but in Long Beach at the FIVB World Series, where they lost in the final to the eventual Rio Olympic champions Alison and Bruno.
Why bring all of this up?
Because in Long Beach these past two weekends at age 40, Nick Lucena has played close to the best volleyball of his life. He and Dalhausser have now won the first two legs of the AVP Champions Cup. And while Dalhausser gets much of the credit it is time to throw some light on his partner.
The Long Beach final against Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb was not all that interesting. In fact, at 35 minutes it was the shortest men’s completed match in the whole tourney. But the semifinal was riveting, because Lucena woke up the echos of his younger self with a lot of good-natured bantering back and forth with both Brunner and Casey Patterson.
For that matter, the quote of the weekend may have been provided by Misty May-Treanor in the Amazon booth, who, after a couple of audible “F-Bombs” by Lucena, blurted out “Is there a censor?”
The answer is Thank God, no!
The best part about watching these matches on Amazon Prime and NBC is the players’ (and coaches’) audio — despite their noblest intentions — sometimes the nasty does come out and it is quite fun. The Lucena/Patterson repartee was just one of those examples. Sarah Pavan also could be seen jawing with Traci Callahan after a stuff block and of course there is Trevor Crabb, who has never been known to back down from a little dialogue here and there.
It is hard to believe that Taylor and Trevor live together, especially after Taylor said on Amazon that when he plays his brother it’s not a rivalry because “we beat them all the time.” Once he said that you could see Jake Gibb recoil in horror. Who would not want to be a fly on the wall in the Crabb’s living room?
While neither of the finals were memorable in the Wilson Cup this past weekend, there were quite a few matches that were, and a couple occurred in the men’s qualifier, courtesy of Miles Evans and Ricardo Santos. In the second round, the three-time Olympic medalist Brazilian and his Santa Barbara-raised partner squeaked out an 18-16 win in the third over Eric Beranek and Andy Benesh that lasted an hour, 12 minutes. Next they faced Billy Allen and Stafford Slick for a spot in the main draw and in an epic comeback won 17-15 in the third in another match that took more than an hour.
Another real nail biter in the qualifier took place when “The Kid,” 18-year-old Miles Partain, and his 41-year-old partner Ty Loomis took on Skylar del Sol and Ed Ratledge. After 1:19 (no freeze) of compelling volleyball, the kid and the vet won 16-14 in the third (By the way does anyone know if a 23-year age gap has ever been surpassed in an FIVB or AVP event? The only close one I can think of is when Eric Fonoimoana came out of retirement a couple of years ago and played with Jeremy Casebeer in Hermosa Beach. The age difference was 20 years).
As good as the qualifiers have been on the men’s side, the inherent problem with the format for the Champions Cup is that they are so brutal and take so much out of the teams that have to play them, that no pair has won a main-draw match in either weekend.
On the men’s side this past week, all winners-bracket matches, including the final, were won in two sets and none of them were particularly close and all won by the higher seeded team.
If you will allow me one other (small) complaint through eight hours of matches on Saturday, only two teams in each gender get eliminated. I love volleyball like the rest of you, but wish the stakes on Saturday were a bit higher. Fortunately, after next week, we may never have to deal with this issue again as perhaps we can get back to normal, whatever that turns out to be.
One of the most perplexing items of the past two weeks has been the play of “Team Slaes.”
Who are they really?
To say that Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil have been erratic would be an understatement. One set/match they look like world beaters and then it can be a completely different story minutes later. Last week after beating the Canadian world champions Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana Paredes for a truly signature win, they lost to Sara Hughes and Brandie Wilkerson in a match that was not as close as the 21-18, 21-15 score indicates.
Fast forward to this past weekend. They absolutely thumped April Ross and Alix Klineman 21-12 in the first game of the winners semifinals, then had them on the ropes before losing the second 21-19, before succumbing to the veterans 15-11 in the third. Claes and Sponcil were completely out of sync in the third, with some bad setting and serving. April and Alix both went after Claes, and therein lies both the problem and the solution to the future fortunes of this team.
If Kelly is playing well they are the equal of almost anyone. If she is not, they are very vulnerable. Sponcil is consistent and smooth, and already is among the top half-dozen defenders in the world. Claes’ handsets are a thing of beauty but Sponcil receives very few serves.
After that loss to the “A” team last weekend, they responded by getting shellacked in the first set to Sara Hughes and Brandie Wilkerson, 21-12. They played better in sets two and three, but still lost and ended up what had to be a dispiriting fifth.
Claes won an AVP back in 2017 with Sara Hughes, but April Ross did not play in that tournament. Sponcil has four seconds in FIVB and AVP tournaments, three with Claes and one with Lauren Fendrick. In the race for the second Olympic spot (assuming Ross and Klineman lock up the first) Claes and Sponcil will need to play every available FIVB tournament and make sure that Claes can consistently side out.
If they can get it together, watch out.
The Claes/Sponcil equivalent on the men’s side would be Trevor Crabb and Tri Bourne.
They have taken third the last two weeks, but have not figured out yet how to beat Gibb and Taylor Crabb or Dalhausser and Lucena. In the two Long Beach tournaments Trevor and Tri have been swept in two by both teams and the results have not been particularly close. The key issue: On defense, Trevor Crabb and Bourne have not been effective at digging balls and converting point-scoring opportunities. The question is should they continue to split block? I am not sold yet on this combination. They will have to stave off their two aforementioned nemeses to get the Tokyo berth that they hunger for.
And speaking of Tokyo, when will the FIVB release at least a fall schedule of events?
I am worried that the effects of the coronavirus may make Olympic qualifying even more treacherous in the remainder of 2020 and ’21. I am sure the Olympic organizers can come up with a solution like a testing passport that will work so that we can have the Games themselves, but if its too dangerous to have the proper number of qualifying events to determine the field that presents a whole set of different issues.
Fortunately, for Trevor Crabb and Bourne, as time goes on, their fourth-place finish in Hamburg at the World Championships, and the 560 points that went with it loom very large.
A couple of notes off the playing field. For the first Long Beach event NBC drew a robust 731,000 viewers on Sunday for the women’s final. On Saturday for the men’s first round match 429,000 tuned in. It is probably a given that the women will always garner a larger audience then the men, and it was certainly not a final on Saturday and it was tape delayed to boot, but hopefully the delta between the sexes will not be that significant rolling forward.
It is not a good trend when a blue blood like Stanford eliminates men’s volleyball. Granted it is an indoor six-man program, but the Cardinal produced beach legends like Fred Sturm, Matt Fuerbringer, Andy Fishburn, Mike Lambert and most recently Bill Strickland and Curt Toppel. Here’s hoping Bernard Muir and the other school administrators will rethink the decision.
It was a real joy listening to May-Treanor on the Prime shows and she had good chemistry with Dain Blanton. Her experience, volleyball world view and the ability to communicate it just classes up the broadcast. On court two, the coach Jeff Alzina was magnificent breaking down the intricacies of the teams that played.
Here’s hoping we can hear more from these two going forward, and of course more of the that great natural sound coming from the players and the referees. Finally, also thanks to the folks at Amazon/AVP/Echo for multiple-camera coverage on the outer court. Now if we can get some replays (I know I am greedy), too!
Feuer has also worked for Prime Ticket/Fox Sports West as an executive producer where he produced AVP broadcasts in 1989-1990, and later, pioneered the popular “AVP Classics.”