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Sponcil-Claes, Patterson-Budinger, Schalk-Brunner advance to FIVB Doha qualifier, photo gallery

HUNTINGTON BEACH, California — USA Volleyball was the host Thursday for an FIVB country-quota event to determine the final USA berths in the only four-star event currently on the schedule, the Katara Beach Volleyball Cup set for March 8-12 in Doha, Qatar.

The winners of the coveted spots were Casey Patterson and Chase Budinger, Theo Brunner and former Canadian and now newly minted American Chaim Schalk, and Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes. They advance to the March 8 qualifier.

Scores and a photo gallery by Ed Chan and Jim Wolf follow.

Five American pairs were already into the field, the men’s pairs of Taylor Crabb and Jake Gibb and Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena, and April Ross and Alix Klineman, Kerri Walsh-Jennings and Brooke Sweat, and Kelley Kolinske and Emily Stockman on the women’s side.

The event is the first four-star-plus FIVB event since the Katara Cup last year, when Dalhausser and Lucena finished fifth, only to then see the FIVB World Tour shut down by the pandemic.

The tournament has significant ramifications for Olympic hopefuls, which in the case of Americans includes Dalhausser-Lucena, Crabb-Bourne, Walsh Jennings-Sweat, and Claes-Sponcil. Currently. While the FIVB is expected to add more events, it is the only four-star-plus event on tap during the Olympic qualification period.

Budinger and Patterson have brought the band back together after separating for 2019. Budinger said that it was like riding a bike.

“It felt good to compete again,” Budinger said. “You get those nerves and a different kind of energy you get to compete again. To be back with Casey it felt very natural and it was like we didn’t miss a beat very much.”

Brunner and Schalk’s practice time has been limited as Schalk contracted COVID in December, unable to practice until mid-January. Then Brunner tweaked his calf, recovering just in time for the CQ.

Brunner competed in the Katara Cup in 2018, finishing ninth with John Hyden.

“There was zero pressure on us,” Brunner said, “we were a dangerous team today because we had nothing to lose, it wasn’t the worst thing if we lost. We’re really happy to get the win.”

Brunner and Schalk’s win is a significant disappointment for Bourne and Crabb, who must wait for additional events to be announced while Dalhausser and Lucena cut into their 520-point lead.

On the women’s side, Sponcil and Claes defeated Kelly Reeves and Terese Cannon, then Sara Hughes and Emily Day to book their flight to Qatar. The pair are embroiled in a tight race for the second USA Olympic berth with Walsh Jennings and Sweat, currently trailing by 320 points.

“It’s huge, because it’s the first tournament and we’ve been off for a year and half,” Sponcil said. “Everyone is gearing up for the first tournaments and just to make it in is an amazing feat. It’s a match that we’ve been looking forward to for a month now, so I’m glad we got out with a win.”

Sponcil said she and Claes trained a lot in the wind and that paid off on what turned out to be a windy day.

“We just focused on our side of the net. We’ve gone a good job on focusing on us,” Sponcil said.

Match 1: Sara Hughes/Emily Day def. Kelly Reeves/Terese Cannon 21-15, 21-13
Match 2: Casey Patterson/Chase Budinger def. Bill Kolinske/Miles Evans 21-14, 21-19 (advance to Doha qualifier)
Match 3: Chaim Schalk/Theo Brunner def. Tri Bourne/Trevor Crabb 17-21, 21-17, 15-11 (advance to Doha qualifier)
Match 4: Sarah Sponcil/Kelly Claes def. Sara Hughes/Emily Day 21-19, 21-16 (advance to Doha qualifier)