Second-seeded Taylor Crabb and Jake Gibb and top-seeded April Ross and Alix Klineman successfully defended their respective AVP Chicago Gold Series Championships titles on Sunday. Crabb and Gibb beat third-seeded Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena 21-19, 21-10, while the A Team overpowered second-seeded Emily Day and Betsy Flint 21-12, 21-15. Both the winning teams split $30,000.
Taylor Crabb isn’t one to use an abundance of words. Not because he’s disrespectful. He’s just reticent. Lets his play speak for him. Or his partner.
When, after a semifinal win Sunday over Chase Budinger and Casey Patterson, Amazon Prime reporter Dain Blanton asked Crabb and Jake Gibb a question in a post-match interview, Crabb demurred, and Blanton expanded upon the question to fill the silence. Gibb stepped in, of course, because he’s a pro at this sort of thing by now. And besides, he knows that, of Crabb’s many talents, a TV interview is not a high priority.
And yet it was Crabb who grabbed the mic when Blanton asked about the impending final at AVP Chicago, against the team that always makes for the most anticipated matchup: Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena.
“A month ago,” he said, “we were the number one seed. We come back and we’re number two. That doesn’t sit well with us.”
Evidently it did not.
The first set was vintage Gibb-Crabb vs. Dalhausser-Lucena, the best rivalry and matchup on the men’s side all season long. A 21-19, back-and-forth, seesaw battle, one that was reminiscent of the match that bookended Saturday’s play, a stadium court brawl that went 15-11 in the third set, to Dalhausser and Lucena.
“That,” Blanton said, repeatedly, “was the best match of the weekend.”
The final was, surprisingly, not. Or maybe it’s not surprising that the score of the second set wound up as lopsided as it did, a 21-10 shellacking to give them their second consecutive win in the Windy City.
As Crabb said: Dropping a spot didn’t sit too well with him. Their coach, Rich Lambourne, has lightly criticized his team for being such slow starters, both in matches and in tournaments, all season long.
They won in Huntington Beach, but did so by fighting through three contender’s bracket rounds and four matches that went three sets. They won Austin, but did so after losing their first match of the tournament to a team, Paul Lotman and Gabe Ospina, who had come out of the qualifier.
They get better as tournaments go on, as matches go on. Maybe it’s because they’re slow starters or maybe it’s because Crabb just has a different mode that he, and few others in the world, can reach. Sometimes that takes an early loss to engage that mode.
Or, on Labor Day weekend at Oak Street Beach, a drop in seed.
They did what they do best on Sunday: They grinded. The quarterfinal loss to Dalhausser and Lucena meant three matches rather than two to win their third 2019 title. Each match went the same way: Close first set, comfortable second.
A 26-24 first-set win in the quarterfinals over Maddison and Riley McKibbin became a 21-18 second set. A 22-20 first-set win over Patterson and Budinger turned to a 21-15 second-set victory.
Few would have predicted the same to happen in the finals, against Dalhausser and Lucena. Six of their previous eight matches had gone three sets. So when Crabb and Gibb won the first, 21-19, it would have been right for many to assume a Dalhausser-Lucena rebound in the second. They also would have assumed wrong.
Crabb and Gibb turned it up one final time in Chicago, turning in a 21-10 second-set win, their biggest margin of victory since Huntington Beach, the first event of the season. Crabb out-dug Lucena 17-7. He and Gibb combined for just four hitting errors compared to nine from Dalhausser and Lucena. They more than doubled their hitting percentage.
A win as dominant as that needs no words.
Just the way Crabb likes it.
The scores are telling enough: 21-8, 22-20; 21-8, 21-19; 21-10, 21-16; 21-15, 21-17; 21-12, 21-15. The record, too, is a reliable indicator: Five wins, zero losses. Ten sets won, none lost.
But perhaps the greatest barometer for just how dominant April Ross and Alix Klineman were at AVP Chicago came after a 21-12 first-set victory over Betsi Flint and Emily Day in the finals. Amazon Prime broadcaster Camryn Irwin sat with Flint’s and Day’s coach, John Mayer, wondering what the mindset would be in the second set after losing by nine.
“We’re playing well,” he said, and the best part was that he absolutely, totally meant it. One of the best teams in the United States, who won Hermosa and finished second in Seattle, was playing well — and still lost by nine.
Such was the dominance of Klineman and Ross in Chicago this weekend. It’s not all that unusual that Ross and Klineman are the clear, unquestionably best team in the tournament. They’ve played four AVPs this season, won three, and made the finals in the other. It’s also possible they played their best volleyball this weekend because of the one win that eluded them, two weeks ago, in the finals of the Manhattan Beach Open.
“Both Alix and I hate losing,” Ross said afterwards. When the rare occurrence of a loss happens on the world tour, without the opportunity for them to go to their separate homes, they’ll just take a break, think for a few hours. Then, periodically, they’ll text: We could work on this, we can fix that.
This is how we can get better.
On the FIVB, though, there is little practice time, meaning those fixes are made oftentimes on the fly, in the middle of sets.
After Manhattan, though, they weren’t on the world tour. They were home, with their full coaching staff, their home gym, their home trainers, their home kitchens. They could put in the exact training they needed, fixing everything in practice, rather than in competition.
“We put in a lot of work at home,” Klineman said of the two weeks between Manhattan and Chicago. “I think we had a really good training block and it just feels good to have it transferring on the court.”
Did it transfer, all right. Klineman led the tournament in blocks and hitting percentage. As a team, they hit .573, a cartoonish number for a tournament in which the finals matchup at World Champs – and the Manhattan Beach finals rematch — was played in the third round of the winners bracket; they met the third-ranked American Olympic hopeful team, Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes, in the quarters; matched up against the 2018 FIVB Blocker of the Year, Brandie Wilkerson, in the semifinals; and the second-seeded AVP team in the finals.
And not a single set was dropped.
“We were a little hungry after Manhattan,” Klineman said.
Consider the deep dish pizza earned, then.