Be still, any American hearts who tuned into Wednesday’s qualifier of the Ostrava Elite16.
Had any USA fans tuned into the broadcast on Volleyball TV around 10:45 a.m. Pacific, they would have been treated to a pair of frenetic, close-your-eyes-and-hope-for-the-best affairs. On center court were Trevor Crabb and Theo Brunner, deep in a third set with Austria’s Moritz Pristauz and Robin Seidl. At the same time, on court two, Andy Benesh and Miles Partain were enduring one of the wildest seesaws of a third set you’ll ever find at the Elite16 level.
Benesh and Partain, the 3 seed in Wednesday’s qualifier, had staked themselves to an early 7-3 lead. A four point lead is, typically, quite a safe one for those two, who have finished with a pair of top-fives and a victory in AVP Huntington Beach this season.
Safe was not a word to be used on Wednesday.
That 7-3 lead was held to 11-8 when an abrupt and frankly alarming implosion took place. A sideout from Estonia’s Kusti Nolvak preceded a block from Mart Tiisaar on Partain, then a transition swing from Tiisaar after a fantastic dig from Nolvak, another block on Partain, an error down the line from Partain, and another block from Tiisaar, this time sealing a line swing.
In a blink, the Americans’ 11-8 lead was flipped into an 11-14 deficit. That’s a type of deficit that is, in most every case at this level of the sport, near guaranteed elimination.
Meanwhile, less than 100 yards away, Crabb and Brunner were leading Seidl and Pristauz, 13-12, in the third set when Crabb mishandled a swing from Seidl down the seam. On the ensuing point, Pristauz, having dug a Crabb line shot, missed an opportunity of his own, swinging angle — directly into the block of Brunner. After failing to convert on five set points in the opening set, Brunner and Crabb now had their first match point, one that Pristauz would put away with a line swing after covering Seidl off the block, tying it up at 14-14.
Had you flipped, understandably, off of court two, thinking Partain and Benesh doomed vs. Estonia, you may very well have fallen off your chair to find their score matching that of Brunner and Crabb: 14-14. Benesh had buried an angle swing, Partain converted a dig due to a miscommunication on offense from Tiisaar and Nolvak, and Benesh put the roof on a Tiisaar angle swing, tying it, unbelievably, at 14 apiece.
On center court, Brunner optioned to take a 15-14 lead, while Tiisaar stroked a cut shot around Benesh to take a lead of the same score on court two. An option from Seidl and a line swing from Partain matched the scores at 15 apiece.
A float serve, slow and down the seam, tripped up Brunner and Crabb. Both reached in. Brunner only half-committed. Off the forearm it went, a seam ace that looked painfully reminiscent of the same ace that doomed them in a 24-26 opening set loss. After failing to capitalize on two match points, they were now staring down their first match point defense. On court two, after another Tiisaar swing into the angle, Partain and Benesh were forced to fend off their fifth, which Benesh did with authority, hitting an option into the angle that would go untouched. Brunner and Crabb did so as well, albeit with far more stress, Brunner needing to block a transition opportunity from Seidl to keep the match tied at 16-16.
And then the break: Another Brunner block, his sixth of the match, sealing an angle swing from Seidl. Match point No. 3. At the same time, Benesh put up a block that looked like a clone of Brunner’s, sealing an angle swing from Nolvak to give Benesh and Partain their first match point. But a dig from Partain on the enusing floated to close to the net, into Tiisaar’s swingspan, and down it went — one match point fended off by Estonia.
Austria couldn’t do the same. Seidl swung angle again. He eluded the block of Brunner this time, though he also, unfortunately for him, eluded the court, spraying it wide, the final point of a 17-15 belter of a third set.
“Qualifying is basically useless,” Crabb said afterwards, maybe joking, maybe not, you never really know. “We need to go all out tomorrow and escape pool.”
It all depends, of course, on your definition of useless. Partain and Benesh may argue otherwise, in favor of the utility of a main draw berth. After a Partain swing into the angle, their match, and main draw ticket, was punched with a Partain ace down the seam, a positively bonkers, 18-16 third set victory complete.
“Highest pressure I’ve ever been under,” Partain said. “The win was a send from God.”
Terese Cannon and Sarah Sponcil, the final American team to qualify on Wednesday, needed no such divine intervention. They swept China and Lithuania in a combined 64 minutes, winning by a total of 27 points. Ostrava marks the fifth straight main draw of the season for Sponcil and Cannon, who are currently No. 3 in the USA in the Olympic ranks, behind Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes and Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth, both of whom were seeded directly into the main draw.
Left on the cutting room floor on Wednesday were Emily Stockman and Megan Kraft, the recent Queens of the Court (see below) who fell to Italians Marta Menegatti and Valentina Gottardi (21-12, 20-22, 15-13). Savvy Simo and Toni Rodriguez escaped the first round with a win over Italians Margherita Bianchin and Claudia Scampoli (15-21, 21-19, 17-15) but fell in the second to Brazil’s Barbara and Carol (21-18, 21-16).
For the men, Tri Bourne and Chaim Schalk were shown the door by Crabb and Brunner in the first battle of the exes, in convincing fashion, no less, a 21-15, 21-16 win in which Brunner logged five blocks and Crabb had one of his own on his old partner.
“A nice warm up,” Crabb joked of that match.
There was no such nice warm up for Chase Budinger and Miles Evans, who fell in the first round to Brazil’s Evandro and Arthur in what was a rematch of the gold medal match in last month’s Saquarema Challenge. Neither was there much of a warm up for Paul Lotman and Troy Field, who were swept by Estonia in the first round.
After all of that, then, six American teams remain in the hunt: Crabb and Brunner, Partain and Benesh, Cheng and Hughes, Nuss and Kloth, Sponcil and Cannon, Julia Scoles and Betsi Flint. And, of course, the first match Thursday of the main draw is an all-American one, between Nuss and Kloth and Sponcil and Cannon in Pool A. Partain and Benesh will play Germans Nils Ehlers and Clemens Wickler in Pool D, and Crabb and Brunner meet France’s Arnaud Gauthier and Youssef Krou in Pool A.
Two hours later, Hughes and Cheng have yet another matchup with Barbara and Carol, their third match this calendar year (Hughes and Cheng have won both). At the same time Hughes and Cheng are scheduled to play Brazil, Flint and Scoles have a rematch of the semifinals of last fall’s Torquay Elite16 against Australia’s Taliqua Clancy and Mariafe Artacho.
The afternoon slate includes four additional American matches: Sponcil and Cannon vs. Latvia’s Tina Graudina and Anastasija Samoilova, Nuss and Kloth vs. Brazil’s Ana Patricia and Duda, Partain and Benesh vs. Chile’s Grimalt cousins, and Brunner and Crabb vs. Brazil’s Pedro and Guto.
You can watch all matches on VolleyballTV.