RAROTONGA, Cook Islands – It was only two months ago that Chris Austin and Earl Schultz set out on their first tournament as partners. Just a quick, 7,600-mile trip to Doha, Qatar, for a one-star, where they’d be in the qualifier, and where they’d lose in the qualifier, first round. It was a stinger of an onset to the partnership, to be sure, though if nothing else, the loss provided a sense of urgency, no small dose of motivation, and the desire to right the ship, and quick.
A fifth two weeks ago at a Beach Bums tournament in Treasure Island, Fla., where they’d battle with eventual champs Ricardo Santos and Raffe Paulis to three sets, was an improvement. And then, on Wednesday in the Cook Islands, came their biggest jump: two consecutive wins on the first day of main draw, 21-14, 21-16 over Norway’s Jorre Kjemperud and Stian Opsahl and 21-14, 21-13 over Japan’s Koichi Nishimura and Daisuke Shibata put Schultz and Austin straight into Thursday’s quarterfinals.
“Cook Islands has been multiple things so far,” said Austin, whose best international finish was a silver medal at a NORCECA in Bonaire this past October. “It’s been a good opportunity to play in the winter and gain experience. It’s been daydream-type sunny and picturesque here, and it’s been pacific-northwestern type rainy and wet. Beach volleyball requires comfort in all elements.”
Wednesday indeed included all types of elements. Winds regularly exceeded 20 miles per hour while rain poured in throughout the day, enough to create standing water on the courts. The event, of course, went on. A little rain and wind wasn’t enough to halt either the tournament or the Americans.
Adam Roberts and I, the other American team in the tournament, beat Tuvalu’s Ampelosa Luka and Saaga Malosa 21-10, 21-5, in what was mostly a mild-weather match. And then we had a minor monsoon in the second, against a good, young Australian team, Garang Anyang and Justin Schumann, whom we topped 21-12, 19-21, 15-7.
The consecutive wins puts us in the quarterfinals with Schultz and Austin, as well as New Zealand’s Sam O’Dea and Griffin Muller and Japan’s Hitoshi Murakami and Takashi Tsuchiya.
“I just thought we were super steady,” said Roberts, who’s career high on the FIVB is a fourth at the Shepparton one-star with Marty Lorenz in 2017. “It’s kind of the name of this game, you know? Good win through adversity and rain.”
Austin and Schultz will play the winners of Tuvalu and Japan’s Kensuke Shoji and Masato Kurasaka, while we will play the winner of Canada’s Liam Kopp and Alex Russell and Norway.
“There are some strong teams and lots of cool culture,” Austin said. “Grateful to be on the trip, grateful to be in the playoffs, and determined to have good growth and good results. Looking to represent strong for USA.”