The 2021 FIVB beach volleyball season is under way and it began in very much the same way this Olympic quad, paused a year for COVID, has gone, with the American women prevailing in the Doha four-star and the men struggling.
Late on Sunday night in the U.S., though at a reasonable hour in Doha, Qatar, Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes fended off a talented young Dutch team, Raisa Schoon and Ktja Stam, 19-21, 22-20, 15-12 in one of several white-knuckler matches in the qualifier.
They’d be the only one of three American teams in the qualifier to move on to the main draw.
Chaim Schalk and Theo Brunner, competing together for the first time after winning a country quota over Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb, were felled by Spain’s Alejandro Huerta and Cesar Menendez 18-21, 21-13, 15-12 in the first round.
In the second round, after a first-round bye, Casey Patterson and Chase Budinger went down, losing to Dutch pair Jasper Bouter and Ruben Penninga, 22-20, 21-18.
Curiously, the qualifier results impacts the American men’s Olympic race not at all. Only three teams are in contention for the men’s race to Tokyo, and one of those teams, Bourne and Crabb, were eliminated from Doha before the event even began.
The women’s race, however, remains a high-octane thrill-ride, especially with Claes and Sponcil, the third ranked American team in the race to Tokyo, moving on to the main draw.
Below is a team by team breakdown of the potential Olympic implications for each of the American contenders.
April Ross, Alix Klineman
Olympic rank: 2 (1 in the U.S.)
What they need to do in Doha: Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Ross and Klineman have nearly 2,000 points of insurance over second-ranked Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat. They can cruise until the Tokyo Olympics (they won’t, because they’re world-class athletes with world-class work ethics and a world-class competitive fire). Technically, they can still improve. Their worst finishes on the Tokyo ledger are 480-point fifth place finishes in Xiamen, Ostrava, and Warsaw. Anything better than a fifth here will improve their already substantial lead.
Kerri Walsh Jennings, Brooke Sweat
Olympic rank: 5 (2 in the U.S.)
What they need to do in Doha: Here’s where this race gets fun. The gap between Ross and Klineman and Walsh Jennings and Sweat is likely insurmountable, with the limited amount of time and events prior to the qualification deadline. But the gap between Walsh Jennings and Sweat and the next two teams in the American race — Claes and Sponcil, Emily Stockman and Kelley Kolinske — is marginal. With some rumors, but little known, about events for the rest of the season, Doha is a massive event. Currently, Walsh Jennings and Sweat have a 320-point lead over Claes and Sponcil. Like Ross and Klineman, the worst finishes they’re dropping are 480-point fifth-place finishes, of which they have four. They can only move forward with a fourth or better in Doha.
Sarah Sponcil, Kelly Claes
Olympic rank: 6 (3 in the U.S.)
What they need to do in Doha: Sponcil and Claes might be down in the race at the moment, but they have the easiest path to improving their points. On their Olympic ledger are a pair of 400-point finishes in Las Vegas and Yangzhou. A fifth or better in the next two tournaments will improve their rank, while a big jump could be made should they move into the medal rounds. With wins in the country quota and qualifier, Claes and Sponcil are now in Pool A, opening with Austrians Lena Plesiutschnig and Katharina Schutzenhofer.
Emily Stockman, Kelley Kolinske
Olympic rank: 7 (4 in the U.S.)
What they need to do in Doha: Anything better than a 17th in Doha will help Stockman and Kolinske. The more events there are prior to the qualification deadline, the better these two will be, as they have four finishes below a quarterfinal they can drop and improve their standing. If they win their pool — their first match is against Italians Marta Menegatti and Viktoria Orsi Toth — they’ll already have a new finish that’s worth keeping. The higher they finish, obviously, the more they’ll close the gap on Sponcil and Claes and Walsh Jennings and Sweat, but anything in single digits will help their Olympic cause.
Jake Gibb, Taylor Crabb
Olympic rank: 8 (1 in the U.S.)
What they need to do in Doha: Gibb and Crabb find themselves in a position almost as comfortable as Ross and Klineman: They’re mostly set, especially with their win in Chetumal, their first medal as a team, in November of 2019. Helping matters is the fact that they’re dropping a 320-point finish — 17th in Espinho — making it a relatively easy task to improve their standing over Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena, and Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb. They open pool play with Turkey’s Murat Giginoglu and Volkan Gogtepe, who finished fourth at the recent Doha one-star.
Phil Dalhausser, Nick Lucena
Olympic rank: 16 (3 in the U.S.)
What they need to do in Doha: Show up. Seriously, that’s it. Simply by showing up to Qatar, Dalhausser and Lucena will be gaining points, as this marks their 12th and finish in the Olympic qualification period. So, they’re winning either way. However, they can surpass the absent Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb with a fourth or better in Doha, which would put Dalhausser and Lucena firmly in the driver’s seat for the No. 2 spot. They will begin pool play with France’s Quincy Aye and Arnaud Gauthier-Rat.