AUSTIN, Texas — The AVP Austin Open dodged thunderstorms by as little as 11 miles Saturday, keeping play going without interruption.
But lightning struck again, so to speak, on the women’s side as Sunday’s semifinals are left with the Nos. 4, 5, 10 and 14 seeds, assuring that there will be a first-time champion Sunday. Indeed, none of the semifinalists have ever been to a final previously.
Sunday’s men’s semifinals will pit fourth-seeded Jeremy Casebeer and Chaim Schalk against No. 5 Tim Bomgren and Troy Field at 9:15 a.m. Central.
Then top-seeded Taylor Crabb and Jake Gibb play second-seeded Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena at 10:15.
But the women’s semifinals are hardly what anyone would have expected as No. 10 Falyn Fonoimoana and Nicolette Martin play the surprising pair of No. 14 Kim Hildreth and Sarah Schermerhorn at 11:15.
The other semi has fourth-seeded Karissa Cook and Jace Pardon against No. 5 Terese Cannon and Irene Pollock right after.
It should be noted that many of the top women’s teams competed this week at an FIVB four-star event in Brazil, but that opened the door for first-time AVP champions.
The semifinals will be streamed on Amazon Prime, but the finals won’t be shown until 10 p.m. Central on NBC Sports.
Top-seeded Emily Day and Betsi Flint were eliminated by Fonoimoana and Martin (17-21, 21-14, 15-12), No. 2 Caitlin Ledoux and Geena Urango were eliminated Friday, and third-seeded Brittany Howard and Kelly Reeves lost to Cook and Pardon (21-14, 21-23, 15-13).
Hildreth and Schermerhorn continued their remarkable run out of Thursday’s qualifier as they forced Fonoimoana and Martin into the losers bracket (22-20, 21-15).
Hildreth, 28, and Schermerhorn, 30, live and train in Tampa, Fla.
“I feel like we worked really hard for this,” Hildreth said. “I don’t feel like this is a surprise to us. We work our butts off this offseason at BeVolley Academy in St. Pete with Raquel (Ferreira) and our coach Victor (Gomes Carneiro).
“We started working with a new gym, Seriously Strong Training down there, and we put in a lot of good work and it feels really good for it to pay off.”
Hildreth, a 5-foot-8 defender, won twice on the NVL tour, in Virginia Beach in 2016 with Maryna Samoday and at the final NVL event Long Beach in 2017 with Raquel Ferreira.
Schermerhorn, a 6-1 blocker, began her pro beach career in 2016, finishing third at the NVL Long Beach event with Kaley Melville before partnering with Hildreth.
The pair’s best AVP finish is 13th.
“I haven’t played on stadium on the AVP, but I got to play in the World Series of Volleyball stadium when the NVL was in Long Beach, and I played a lot of stadium matches on the NVL,” Hildreth said. “You always feel a little bit of jitters on stadium, which is fine. I felt like I had been there before.”
With thunderstorms passing within 11 miles of Krieg Fields, it was a relief when their match was moved up to 8 a.m., leaving them the bulk of the day to relax and recuperate, a welcome change from the four matches they had to play in Thursday’s qualifier.
“We’ve been watching a lot of film on our possible competition,” Hildreth said. “We’re definitely relaxing. We had to play the qualifier, so it’s nice to only have one match today. I’ve got a Hypervolt (massage device), we’re using that, we utilized the medical staff at the event, they’ve been awesome. Just hanging out. It’s been nice.”
Cannon — who just finished her career at USC — and Pollock — who was the volunteer assistant for NCAA-champion UCLA — have only had two opportunities to practice together since returning from the NCAA championships in Gulf Shores, Ala.
“Our main thing is we kept saying, ‘Stay patient.’ With us being such a new partnership, that’s what this whole tournament is about, staying patient and trying to find that rhythm together,” Pollock said in a post-match interview with Amazon Prime.
Cannon also stressed the importance of communication.
“I think we’re definitely talking a lot on defense, where I’m blocking and where she’s defending, and we’re trying to give each other good calls,” Cannon said. “Out here, it’s different than the college game, it’s very straight up, but the defender is moving a lot, so I need to stay patient and give the right call so we can score and side out.”
Cannon, a 6-3 blocker from Pittsford, N.Y., who transferred from Georgetown to walk on and play beach at USC, seems to specialize in upsets. She advanced from the qualifier to finish third at last year’s AVP Championships in Chicago with UCLA’s Sarah Sponcil.
Pollock, who earned All-conference honors on TCU’s indoor team is from Fort Worth, Texas, and had an impressive entourage, including her husband, mother, father, sister, aunt, grandmother.
Hester and Cannon planned to relax at Barton Springs, a popular three-acre pool fed by underground springs.
“We’re so excited to go to Barton Springs,” Pollock said. “We went there yesterday, we’re going to sit in the river and kind of have an ice bath, and maybe do a pool activation workout later, scout, and all that stuff.”
Cook and Pardon won a pair of three-set matches to get out of the contenders bracket, defeating No. 3 Brittany Howard and Kelly Reeves (21-14, 21-23, 15-13) and No. 15 Meghan Mannari and Taylor Nyquist, who came out of the qualifier for a career-best fifth place finish (13-21, 21-14, 15-11).
Mannari and Nyquist won the first set easily with down-the-line service pressure, but Cook and Pardon were able to make the adjustment.
“I think I more or less got served off the court to my left, so I had to adjust for that,” Cook said. “(Nyquist’s) serves were awesome. I have to thank Jace for being patient, and give me amazing sets, at some points if you keep getting amazing sets you’re going to side out.”
Austin is the pair’s second event after their fifth place Huntington finish. They employ what is now an unconventional split-blocking strategy, new for Cook this year.
“I’m trying to figure it out a little bit, but Jace gets so many good touches, it’s really nice to have two people that can do both, so the adjustment hasn’t been too bad,” Cook said.
“Good ball control helps a lot,” noted Pardon. “We just started passing forward, and staying aggressive, that was huge. They have a really fast game, and we were taken out of our own game, and once we started cleaning it up, and I know Taylor, we went to college together (at Florida State), I know she’s a great player.”
Also out of the contenders bracket were Fonoimoana and Martin, who dismissed top seeds Day and Flint (17-21, 21-14, 15-12) and No. 9 Janelle Allen and Kerri Schuh (21-13, 21-14) in a nearly flawless match.
Fonoimoana and Martin, both products of USC, are one of 2019’s new teams. Fonoimoana’s best domestic finish of 2018 was a ninth in Chicago with Priscilla Piantadosi-Lima. Martin scored a pair of fifths last year with Sarah Day (Austin) and Allie Wheeler (Seattle).
Fonoimoana credits the quantum leap to off-season work.
“I really took this off-season seriously,” Fonoimoana said. ‘I went into diet, I went into what works for my body, I really researched in and out, what I need to do to be the best athlete.
“I asked questions, I asked the best. I really took my body to the next level for training, and eating well, and supplements. Not only was it volleyball, it was on the other side of being a true athlete, and I think that’s what really brought me to the next level.”
Together the pair are the fieriest and loudest competitors on the tour, Martin said.
“I’ve always been this way. It’s nothing fake, I brought the fire, that’s how everybody knows me, they’re like, ‘You’re over on stadium, we can hear you outside of the stadium.’ So finding someone that gets that fired up with me, it’s just awesome.”
Fonoimoana, a 6-4 presence at the net, and the 5-9 Martin are especially effective when Fonoimoana goes over on two. Fonoimoana tried to focus on control as well as pace.
“I focused in on the little things the most. As a big hitter, we call it meathead, and hit the ball as hard as I can, but I try hard not to just hit the ball, I try to place it, and that’s most important because they were so scrappy.”
The men’s side recovered from Thursday’s upsets as the No. 3 seed, Ed Ratledge and Roberto “Rafu” Rodriguez were the only top seeds that didn’t make it back to the semifinals.
Dalhausser and Lucena defeated Ed Ratledge and Roberto Rodriguez (21-13, 16-21, 15-11). The three-time (2005, 2017, 2018) Austin winners were led by Dalhausser’s five blocks.
“We had a little hiccup in the second set there, but came back strong in the third, and that was good enough,” Dalhausser said in an Amazon interview.
“I didn’t feel like I blocked that great today, but the ones I did get today went ‘boom,’ because Rafu hits so hard.”
Lucena also inflicted damage, splitting the Ratledge uprights.
“I didn’t mean to. I cut him open a little bit, which is impressive, that I can still do that at 39 years old with no glasses. It happens sometimes. Phil gets hit in the head more than anyone I know except Ryan (Doherty).”
The pair are off to Jinjiang, China, Sunday evening for a nine-week international trip in pursuit of Olympic qualification. Dalhausser’s wife and children will join him for six weeks, Lucena’s for a week.
“We signed up for it. It’s our last run towards the Olympics, we’re trying to have a positive mind-set about it, but it’s difficult. It’s difficult to stop playing a tournament and go on a 15-hour flight and try and perform at a high level the next day,” Lucena said.
“A lot of teams have to do it, so everyone’s dealing with the same conditions. It’s difficult, tiring, mentally exhausting, but we’re trying to keep a positive mental outlook. Or at least I am.”
Casebeer and Schalk also had the easy road to the semifinals, defeating No. 9 Sean Rosenthal and Ricardo Santos (21-15, 21-15). The team is new for 2019 and will improve on their fifth place Huntington finish.
Schalk, a dual citizen of the USA and Canada, is in the process of switching federations to play for the United States, which required sitting out until October, at which time he and Casebeer will play internationally.
Schalk is unabashedly enthusiastic about the team’s potential.
“I can’t play until October, but we can play AVP, I want us to build as a team, we want to dominate,” Schalk said. “We want to build through these eight events, and then jump on the world tour afterwards and see what we can do. I think with our dynamic, we can do a lot of damage, with the way we use him on the baseline. We’re a really strong side-out team, I think the sky’s the limit for us.”
Bomgren and Field, another new team, advanced with wins over qualifiers Bruno Amorim and Skylar del Sol (21-14, 21-16) and Ratledge and Rodriguez (23-21, 18-21, 15-6). The semifinals marks the second career Sunday for Field, whose career has skyrocketed.
“Maybe some athletes should say ‘No, I’m not surprised,’ but I would definitely say that I am.” Field admitted. “I definitely didn’t think that when Tim asked me to play that we would be making two Sundays back-to-back to start the AVP season.”
The downside of their partnership is that Field lives in the South Bay, while Bomgren lives in Minnesota.
Field is relatively new to the tour at 25.
“Timmy and I definitely love to look inward, ‘How can we improve?’ I definitely think two things that stand out to me, trusting each other and using all three touches,” Field said. “I personally have been too eager to go on two, and it hasn’t worked out this tournament. We’ve given up a lot of runs, we’ve lost a lot of points, and we’ve even lost a set based on some of those bad decisions.
“I also definitely want to clean up my transition setting, and really get Tim in a position to put away all of the digs he’s getting up and convert them into points.”
He knows they need to be able to increase their pressure from the service line.
“And in the course of the season, we might not be able to fix it by tomorrow, we definitely want to serve tougher and have less service errors,” Field said. “Sometimes we play some of the top tougher-serving teams, such as Casebeer or Rafu, and we feel a little bit of pressure to serve tougher and we haven’t really repped that out enough.”
Casebeer was voted the AVP’s Best Server in 2018.
“What I found is that I can get an idea if he’s really feeling his jump serve in warmup,” Field said. “In our quarterfinal in Huntington, he was feeling it, and it showed. But battling that is getting that serve in the middle, and trusting the set, that my partner is going to set me, and I’ll set him and give us a hittable ball. It’s mental going into it. You’re not thinking about siding out, you’re just thinking about ‘I’m going to pass this serve. And I’m just going to get it up into the middle.’
“A lot of players think too far ahead. ‘All right, I’m going to side out this ball. We’ve got to do this.’ For tomorrow, when Jeremy’s at the service line, we’ll get that ball up, and in the middle, and get a hittable set out of it.”
Field, a modestly sized blocker at 6-4, is one of the tour’s biggest jumpers and planned to give his legs some rehab at Austin’s Generator Athlete Lab.
“I’ve been there four or five days in a row. It’s a local business that has just been saving my body. As soon as I get done playing, I head over there, get in the infra red sauna, hot tub, cold tub, and the Normatec. It’s literally been a tremendous lifesaver.
“I’m going to go home, watch a movie, just like I have been for the last three days, and get a good night’s rest. Trying to do the same thing, not trying to move things around, and see if we can make a final out of this.”
Crabb and Gibb have battled back to the semifinals after an opening-round loss to qualifiers Paul Lotman and Gabe Ospina. Friday they defeated No. 8 Mark Burik and Ian Satterfield and No. 6 Avery Drost and Eric Zaun, and Saturday they beat No. 7 Chase Frishman and Piotr Marciniak (21-17, 19-21, 15-10) and No. 9 Sean Rosenthal and Ricardo Santos (19-21, 21-18, 15-12).
Last week Crabb and Gibb defeated Dalhausser and Lucena 21-13, 15-21, 17-15, although their career head-to-head record is 4-4.