Depth, fierce competition in men’s beach tournament

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Bruno Oscar Schmidt/Brazil

The men’s Olympic beach field in Rio is the most stacked in history.

This year alone, 13 different teams won gold medals on the world tour. It’s safe to say that 23 of the 24 teams could do damage, with all due respect to Tunisia’s Mohammed Naceur/Choaib Belhaj Salah, who likely are going to struggle.

Experts and players alike are unanimous in their assessment of the depth of the Olympics field.

“There are about 15 teams that could win the tournament,” the USA’s Nick Lucena said. “This is the toughest competition I’ve seen my whole career.”

2008 gold medalist and Cal Poly beach coach Todd Rogers agrees.

“Any team in the field can upset a top team,” Rogers said. And the USA”s Jake Gibb’s suggested that “There are 16 teams that could medal. “

The top tier includes the Brazilians, the Americans, and the Dutch.

Top-seeded Alison Cerutti/Bruno Oscar Schmidt of Brazil (that’s Schmidt in the photo above) have been playing impressively, with the exception of a ninth-place stumble in Gstaad. Cerutti, nicknamed “the Woolly Mammoth,” is the most physically intimidating blocker on the tour. Schmidt has been the best defender in the world for the past two years, not only for his defensive prowess, but has a fast jump and puts away transition sets like a much larger defender.  The duo has two gold and two silver medals this year in seven events.

The No. 2 seed is the Netherland’s Alexander Brouwer/Robert Meeuwsen. This pair plays big banger volleyball, and are famous for getting up high and hitting hard. The 6-foot-9 Meeuwsen puts up an impressive block and the 6-6 Brouwer is a solid defender who sides out well.

“Brouwer and Meeuwsen are playing pretty good ball,” Rogers said. “Their game is pretty much predicated on tough serving, Alex has a nasty jump serve, and Robert has a nasty jump float serve. If they can get their serve going they can beat pretty much anyone in the world.”

Phil Dalhausser
Phil Dalhausser

The No. 3 seed is the USA’s Phil Dalhausser/Nick Lucena. The 6-9 Dalhausser is the world’s best server, the best setter (among blockers), and one of the top three or four blockers. That gives the Americans a very potent first strike capability. The 6-1 Lucena is one of the world’s fastest defenders, has an excellent vertical leap, and good court vision. The Americans have two gold, one silver, and one bronze medal this year.

The fourth seed is Brazilians Evandro Goncalves/Pedro Salgado and the 6-11 Goncalves has a vicious serve.

“It’s an absolute missile,” Rogers said.

Goncalves recently won a fastest server award in the Netherlands, clocking in at 60 mph. His serve is a high-risk proposition, so the Brazilians are vulnerable to serving errors. Goncalves/Salgado’s results are all over the map from first to ninth this year as they tend to go with Goncalves’ serve. Surprisingly, Goncalves splits the blocking chores with the 6-4 Salgado. Goncalves can dig shots fairly well for such a tall defender, but struggles with the hard hit ball. If he does make a dig, he is certainly a capable transition hitter.  Goncalves recently put on an impromptu serving clinic in the final at Gstaad, serving Americans Dalhausser/Lucena off the court. If Goncalves’ serve is on, and stays on, they will contend for medals. The team started 2016 hot, with two silver medals, then went cold until they reestablished their abilities with a gold in Gstaad.

The No. 5 Dutch pair, Reinder Nummerdor/Christiaan Varenhorst, is a question mark. The 6-4 Nummerdor, 39, is a crafty hitter, and uses his experience to read hitters exceptionally well, and the 6-11 Varenhorst throws up an enormous block. Their results this year have been subpar by their standards, with only a single gold medal in Moscow. The pair forfeited their last match at Klagenfurt, so they may be dealing with injury.

The No. 6 seed, the USA’s Jake Gibb/Casey Patterson, are a dangerous team. Gibb, a 6-7 blocker, is a veteran Olympian, the oldest in the field at age 40. Gibb hopes to better his fifth-place finishes in Beijing and London. Patterson, a 36-year-old 6-6 blocker,  is an underrated defender, and his size and aggression help them in their side-out and transition game. The pair have been just shy of  the medal stand this year, with two fourths and five fifth-place finishes.

Other dark horses: Aleksandrs Samoilovs/Janis Smedins of Latvia have been playing exceptionally well, with two firsts, one third, and one fourth-place finish in their last four outings. The 6-5 Samoilovs splits the blocking duties with the 6-3 lefty Smedins. This team is on fire and is poised to make an Olympic run.

Rogers thinks Canadians Chaim Schalk/Ben Saxton could actually surprise a couple of teams.

“They’ve been playing really well of late. They’ve been playing some really good ball. I had the chance to train with them a month and a half ago, and they’re playing good ball now. Good block, good defense, good serving, the whole nine. I could see them making a few upsets. They have the potential to make some waves in the Olympics.”

The second tier consists of quality teams that are likely to create problems for higher-ranked teams, including Spain’s Adrian Gavira/Pablo Herrera, Italy’s Daniele Lupo/Paolo Nicolai and Adrian Carambula/Alex Ranghieri, and Austria’s Clemens Doppler/Alexander Horst.

“I think Alison and Bruno, when they’ve turned it on, have been the best team in the world the last couple of years,” Rogers said. “You’ve got the best defender in the world, and certainly the strongest and most gnarly blocker. They should be the favorites, they’re in the prime of their career age wise. I think Nick and Phil can beat them, and certainly Jake and Casey can as well.”

How will the Brazilians handle the pressure? Is it really a home-court advantage, will the Brazilians be swamped by media requests, and family and friends seeking tickets? Will the Brazilians be able to focus and stay present with the Olympics in a volleyball-crazed environment?

The medal count for beach events held in Brazil indicates that Brazil should be heavily favored, as Brazil has 62 medals to the USA’s 30. That data may be skewed, as most of the events are held in postseason for Brazil but pre-season by northern-hemisphere standards.  Plus, there is nothing like the pressure cooker of the Olympics, so it is difficult to say if there is a home-court advantage or not.

Regardless, there’s every reason to think that the men’s competition will be awesome and there will be surprises. 

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