Dain Blanton openly wondered if Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes knew that it was the No. 1 team in the world they had just beaten Saturday in the quarterfinals of the AVP Champions Cup in Long Beach, California.
Claes looked a tad bewildered. Of course they knew.
“Yeah,” she said. “They’re really good.”
“Just stay steady,” Sponcil said of their mindset. “It’s so easy to get wrapped up in future points, past points, especially when you’re playing the No. 1 team in the world.”
Better than steady, they just stayed their normal, weird, goofy selves, the ones who spent their off-season making rap videos, launching YouTube channels, and devising a unique offense specifically for them. Blanton, who was on the call for Amazon Prime, was almost amused at the efficiency of Claes going on two against the Canadians.
“The question,” he wondered as Claes and Sponcil utilized another option to go up 12-9 in the second set, “is if it’s sustainable.”
It was for their first match, against the No. 7-ranked team in the world, Emily Stockman and Kelley Kolinske, just as it was for their second. Claes hit .643 against Pavan and Humana-Paredes, mixing in options of every type, even throwing in a jump-set, another wrinkle in an increasingly difficult to stop offense.
“We spent a lot of time this off-season with our coach, Jordan Cheng, diving into our stats and putting those up against other top teams in the world and making a championship standard,” Claes said. “We were way above with Sarah’s passing and my options and we built a system around that. It might look a little crazy sometimes but there’s a solid system there that we’ve been working our butts off on.”
The only teams that made it through to Sunday at this tournament did nothing shy of working their butts off. Alongside Claes and Sponcil, those teams include April Ross and Alix Klineman, Traci Callahan and Crissy Jones, Kolinske and Stockman, Humana-Paredes and Pavan, and Sara Hughes and Brandi Wilkerson. Advancing for the men are Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb, Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb, Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena, and Chase Budinger and Chaim Schalk.
“The crazy thing about this tournament is that every match is super tough,” said Ross, who with Klineman won both of her matches, over Callahan and Jones and Hughes and Wilkerson.
“Normally we’re not playing a team like that on the first day,” Klineman said of Hughes and Wilkerson. “We started a little slow, we’re not used to mustering up the energy for the second match right away. They played really good. They made us uncomfortable, put us in some tough spots.”
One team who never saw a tough spot on Saturday was Dalhausser and Lucena. They cruised, from start to finish, jumping out to big leads over Ed Ratledge and Skylar del Sol and Casey Patterson and Theo Brunner and never relinquishing them. They won the first, 21-9, 21-12, and carried that momentum into the second, beating Patterson and Brunner, 21-12, 21-14.
“You can only play so much volleyball without stakes, for me, anyway,” Dalhausser said. “I like to play for some stakes again.”
On Sunday, there will be stakes aplenty, with $200,000 on the line for the Monster Hydro Cup. Dalhausser and Lucena are in the semifinals vs. Bourne and Crabb, who knocked out John Hyden and Jeremy Casebeer in the quarterfinals. The other semifinal features Taylor Crabb and Gibb, who went undefeated Saturday.
Play will begin at 8:15 a.m. Pacific, with Humana-Paredes and Pavan vs. Callahan and Jones, and Kolinske and Stockman vs. Hughes and Wilkerson.