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AUSTIN, Texas — After an upset-spiced tournament from Thursday’s qualifier all the way through to Sunday, no matter what happened in the women’s final at the 2019 AVP Austin Open, two athletes would depart the Lone Star State with their first titles.
And that was fourth-seeded Karissa Cook and Jace Pardon.
They defeated upstarts Kim Hildreth and Sarah Schermerhorn, who battled through the qualifier and were seeded 14th in the main draw, 21-11, 21-11 in Sunday’s championship match.
“It was a really tough tournament,” Pardon said. “We came out with everything we had, and I’m just like on cloud nine. I used to volunteer at these as a little kid and it’s just like, being from Manhattan Beach, it’s everything to be an AVP champ and you just work so hard and we’re so excited.”
Cook and Pardon were playing together for just the second time after taking a fifth-place at the Huntington Beach Open two weeks ago. Cook made the semifinals of the 2018 Austin Open with her former partner Katie Spieler, but Pardon’s previous best finish was a fifth.
Cook and Spieler ended their partnership after the 2018 season because Spieler, at just 5-foot-5, needed a bigger blocker, and Kim DiCello had just returned to playing after having a baby last year. The night Cook officially parted ways with Spieler, she texted Pardon to test the waters.
The two women play very non-traditional volleyball. They split block, and they’re not afraid to go over on one or two.
According to Cook, the duos’ play in Huntington, which included upsets of Caitlin Ledoux and Geena Urango and Kelly Claes and Brandi Wilkerson, taught them they can compete with really tough teams.
“We were lucky to see Olympians in Huntington, we saw amazing players that have ranked top in all these tournaments and we held our own with them or took them to extra sets or even won,” Cook said. “I think that just gave us a lot of confidence.”
Cook’s move down to the Los Angeles area last fall after spending a few years prior in Palo Alto as an assistant beach volleyball coach at Stanford has also facilitated the acceleration in results for her and Pardon.
“Just being able to play every day and build chemistry with a partnership is so important,” she said. “Before I was always kind of doing long-distance relationships. Volleyball partnerships are totally dating so getting to build chemistry and work on stuff I think has been really important.”
In the final, Cook and Pardon targeted Hildreth, the defender, having seen Schermerhorn hitting over many of the blockers she faced earlier in the tournament.
“I’ve played them a couple of times in qualifiers and have never beaten them by much at all because they’re a dangerous team, they have really good ball control and they are both exceptional athletes,” Cook said.
“In the past, I had served Sarah also, and I think we just saw her in this tournament and she was just hitting over people, including myself in that match and we were like, I think we have a chance if we play against a player that is our size, but I think they are both equally un-servable. They’re so good.”
Hildreth boiled the loss in the final down to the most basic of volleyball fundamentals: serve and pass.
“I think they served really well and they passed really well,” she said. “That’s I think what volleyball comes down to. They out-served and passed us.”
“We felt maybe a little rushed. We could have taken a little more time to reset on our side and regroup a little bit,” Schermerhorn added. “I feel like when the freeze kicked in we were like, ‘OK, now we have time,’ and we almost like calmed down a little bit.”
Austin marked just the third time Schermerhorn and Hildreth have made it out of an AVP qualifier, but they hope that making it all the way to the final might mean they get to avoid the qualifier all together and start in the main draw moving forward. Although even that is far from guaranteed, especially once the six teams who skipped the Austin Open to compete in the FIVB four-star tournament in Itapema, Brazil, return to domestic competition.
By the time they entered Sunday’s final, Schermerhorn and Hildreth had played seven matches in four days, winning every one and only going to three sets once.
“We just knew we had to go really hard from the beginning because they’re a great team,” Pardon said. “They’re super scrappy. We just knew we had to take care of our side, side out each ball, take it one point at a time and enjoy it. Be present, go for it, not let balls drop. Not be complacent.”
Schermerhorn credited good preparation for her team’s success.
“The last two weeks after Huntington, we went straight back into the gym with our trainers at Seriously Strong and they’re awesome, they push us, we go to practice and our legs are dead, so I think we’ve simulated a little bit of that,” Schermerhorn said.
“We know that if we come to one of these tournaments and we play the qualifier and we want to get where we want to get that it’s going to be three or four days, so just cause we’re tired back in our practice doesn’t mean we take it easy or have an easy practice, we just keep pushing.”
On their way to the final, Cook and Pardon knocked out Irene Hester Pollock and Terese Cannon 21-17, 21-14 in the semifinals. Pollock and Cannon were playing together for the first time and this tied both women’s career best.
“(Irene) does not give up on anything, and I love that,” Cannon said. “Playing with her I know that no matter what, when I turn off the block, the ball is going to be up and I just try and get her a set and she’ll put it away.
“(Cook and Pardon) did a really good job controlling the ball on their side and making us move a lot and I don’t think we made some of the adjustments we should have made,” Cannon continued. “It was a good first tournament for us. Kind of a bummer. Definitely not how we wanted it to end but we’re still learning and growing as a pair so we hope to continue that.”
On the opposite side of the bracket, Falyn Fonoimoana and Nicolette Martin proved that they too are a team to watch this season, far out-placing their seeding of 10th. They lost 21-18, 21-19 in the other semifinal to Hildreth and Schermerhorn.
“They played really well. They put us out of system a lot and we just didn’t execute on the small things,” Fonoimoana said. “In general, they were just disciplined. When you’re disciplined, it works for defense and everything else, it just seemed to click for them.”
“This is the end of a six-week long journey for us,” Martin said. “We’ve been playing NORCECAs, every weekend we’ve had a tournament, so to be able to finish with a championship Sunday for the first time for both of us is really cool.”
And the journey is far from over. AVP NYC awaits just two weeks down the road.