Alix Klineman is quick to point out that although she is still new to beach volleyball, the four-time Stanford All-American, a 6-foot-5 former national-team outside hitter, is intimately familiar with competition. So when she and April Ross had to endure 32 serves after the match-point freeze went into effect in the final of the 2018 AVP Austin open Sunday, Klineman never got rattled.
Even though every serve came straight to her.
“I just draw on my other experiences I’ve had with playing indoor,” Klineman said after she and Ross defeated Sarah Sponcil and Lauren Fendrick 24-22, 25-23 to win the Austin title. “April and I work with a sports psychologist, Nicole Davis, who I played with on the indoor national team, and we do a lot of work with the mental side and talking about referencing our body of work and times when we’ve gotten through this.”
Ross and Klineman’s coach, Jen Kessy, described her squad’s performance on Sunday as “up and down.” The pair took three sets to defeat Lane Carico and Karolina Marciniak in the morning’s semifinals — marking the first set they dropped all tournament. Then in the final, Sponcil and Fendrick pushed them to the brink, almost running away with the first set. Missed serves plagued them, to the extent that Ross’s sister texted Kessy during the championship match saying, “What is wrong with (April’s) serving?”
But once the freeze hit in set two, it was lights out, Kessy said.
“Alix sided out 15 times in a row, and not easy serves and not easy conditions.”
Klineman and Ross won the FIVB Dela Beach Open in January, but Austin marks Klineman’s first AVP title. For Ross, it’s AVP championship number 30.
Kessy compared the speed of Klineman’s success in the beach game to Ross’s. Ross won her first FIVB tournament in 2007 with Kessy after only a year of playing professional beach volleyball.
“(April) is really the only other person who’s done it that fast, and it’s pretty impressive,” Kessy said. “You can see, Reid Priddy is getting better, he’s definitely getting it, but it takes awhile. It’s not just how high you can jump and how hard you can hit.”
While Klineman celebrates her first AVP title, Sponcil is only the third player to make a final in their first-ever AVP main draw. The only other time it happened was when Brazilians Juliana Felisberta da Silva and Larissa Maestrini França won the 2009 Glendale title, but they were well into their well-decorated professional careers at that point. Sponcil, the 21-year-old with a year of beach volleyball eligibility left at UCLA, played like a veteran throughout the Austin tournament, swinging away against some of the biggest blocks on tour and making spectacular plays on defense.
“(Sponcil) was incredible,” Klineman said. “I think she rose to the occasion. I think she proved that she belongs at this level.”
Midway through the freeze, Kessy even told her team to stop serving Sponcil because they couldn’t seem to stop her from siding out.
“I said, ‘You guys, (Sponcil) doesn’t know what she’s in right now. Maybe thinking about serving Lauren a little bit, too, because Sarah’s just going for it,” Kessy said. “She really had no fear, and maybe she plays like that all the time, I don’t know, but I’m excited to see her in the future.”
On the men’s side, Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena won their third AVP Austin title with much less fanfare and struggle, downing Taylor Crabb and Tim Bomgren 21-14, 21-14 with no prolonged freeze period required.
Dalhausser and Lucena won their first AVP title in Austin in 2005. Last year, they won in the Texas capital again, and they kept the streak going this weekend.
“(Austin’s) been good to us,” Lucena said. “We seem to get fired up for this tournament. We played well, I thought, all weekend. I thought it was our best volleyball we’ve played in awhile. I didn’t think we played well in Huntington or Qatar, but that’s what good teams do, they come back and they find a way to win.”
After losing in the bronze-medal match of the FIVB Doha Open in Qatar and taking ninth in the FIVB Huntington Beach four star earlier this season, the pair cleaned up their passing, and this weekend, playing with the Wilson ball instead of the Mikasa, the FIVB’s ball of choice, helped, too.
“The Wilson ball is a little easier to pass that Mikasa ball, so we stayed in system a lot of the tournament,” Lucena said. “We sided out really well, and Phil did a good job mixing it in on-two and stuff, we’ve been working on that. Overall, if you have Phil on your side, it’s going to work out for you.”
Lucena tweaked his back part-way through the second set and dialed back his offense, choosing to shoot and set Phil up on two instead of swinging.
Across the net, Bomgren was also dealing with an injury, a gnarly sprained ankle he sustained on the first day of the tournament. Battling through the pain, Bomgren managed to post his best AVP finish ever, alongside last-minute partner Crabb.
The final versus Dalhausser and Lucena was Bomgren and Crabb’s seventh match of the tournament, while the eventual champions stayed in the winner’s bracket throughout and only played a total of five matches.
“We’ve played Taylor a bunch of times,” Lucena said, “and he’s one of the best defenders in the world, and Tim is a physical player and blocker. But they played a bunch of games, so we knew maybe we could wear them down, and if we sided out at a high level it would be tough for them.”
Next up on the AVP Tour is the New York City Open, June 7-10. With only a lower-level FIVB conflicting, we’ll likely see the return of some of the women’s teams that passed up on the Austin Open to play the Itapema four star, but Ross and Klineman will no doubt enter the field as heavy favorites. And it’s certainly never a good idea to bet against the ultra-dominant Dalhausser and Lucena, who won their eighth AVP title together. They also own nine FIVB gold medals.