LAS VEGAS — Seven of the eight American teams in the FIVB Las Vegas Open presented by p1440 advanced into Thursday’s modified pool play, including 39-year old veteran Nicole Branagh, teaming with Brittany Howard for this event, and Tri Bourne, whose remarkable recovery from nearly two years off continues with partner Trevor Crabb.
Top-seeded Americans Taylor Crabb and Jake Gibb face France’s Youssef Krou and Edouard Rowlandson at noon Eastern. Also at noon is Jeremy Casebeer and Reid Priddy against second-seeded Norwegians Anders Mol and Christian Sorum. There are a trio of American matches as 12:50 p.m. Eastern as Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb face Austria’s Robin Seidl and Philipp Waller, Billy Allen and Ryan Doherty play Canadians Grant O’Gorman and Ben Saxton, and Chase Budinger and Sean Rosenthal get the Netherlands’ Alexander Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen. Casey Patterson and Stafford Slick’s first pool opponent is Brazil’s Saymon Barbosa and Gustavo Carvalhaes at 1:40 p.m., the same time as Miles Evans and Billy Kolinske versus Latvians Martins Plavins and Edgars Tocs.
On the women’s side, top-seeded Americans Sara Hughes and Summer Ross will face China’s Meimei Lin and Lingdi Zhu at 2:30 p.m. Eastern. Kerri Walsh Jennings — also the promoter of the tournament — and new partner Brooke Sweat will play the Netherlands’ Joy Stubbe and Marleen Van Iersel at 3:20 p.m. Emily Day’s and Betsi Flint’s first opponent will be Spain’s Elsa Baquerizo and Liliana Fernandez at 2:30 p.m. Kelley Larsen and Emily Stockman face the Netherlands’ Laura Bloem and Jolien Sinnema at 4:10 p.m. Branagh’s and Howard’s first opponent are Russians Svetlana Kholomina and Nadezda Makroguzova at 4:10 p.m. and Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil face Brazil’s Elize Maia and Maria Clara Salgado at 5.
To watch the event Friday and Saturday, you need the p1440 app. Sunday’s finals will be broadcast on ESPN2 from 4-6 p.m. Eastern.
Branagh and Howard defeated Austria’s Dorina Klinger and Ronja Klinger 21-17, 21-8. Emily Day and Betsi Flint defeated the Colombia’s Andrea and Claudia Galindo 24-22, 21-15. Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil defeated Serbia’s Kathryn Hogan, who played at FIU, and Milena Matic 21-12, 21-13.
In the men’s draw, Casebeer and Priddy first defeated Spain’s Antonio Burgal and Salvador Pastor 21-14, 21-11, and then defeated China’s Peng Gao and Likejiang Ha 13-21, 27-25, 15-11. Bourne and Crabb defeated Greece’s Angelos Mandilaris and Vaileios Mandilaris — brothers who play for the Barton College men’s team — 21-18, 21-17. Budinger and Rosenthal defeated Canada’s Aaron Nusbaum and Michael Plantinga 21-15, 19-21, 15-13. Evans and Kolinske defeated fellow Americans Eric Zaun and Avery Drost 18-21, 21-19, 16-14.
Branagh has been one of the top USA pro beach players for the better part of two decades. The product of Orinda, Calif., has 17 domestic and three international wins to her credit. She knew that Howard has had a strong season with Kelly Reeves, with whom she’s going to Chetumal, Mexico next week for a three-star FIVB event.
“I thought it was a great opportunity for us to partner up and see what we could do here in Vegas,” Branagh said. “She’s been playing well all year, she’s a great blocker, new out on the beach, she shows great potential, and I think she’s a great player, so I’m excited to be playing behind her this weekend.”
“It’s an opportunity to learn from an Olympian,” Howard said, “And I’m super-excited to be here. We practiced all last week, we practiced six or seven times, I’ve learned a lot from her in practices and this match. We’re just excited to play together and see what this weekend holds.
“I’ve picked up a few strategy tips, and some tips on what to do with my hands on blocking a little bit, but we’re just gelling really well together and I’m just learning how to play with different players, and how to play against the best in the world.”
Branagh has the distinction of winning the AVP Most Improved player award twice, in 2006 and 2008.
“I played with Allie Wheeler in Hermosa (the duo finished fifth), and I liked it, it was a lot of fun. (Young players) are very eager to learn, work hard, and it’s fun, too, for me to pass down things from the veterans that I looked up to, like Holly (McPeak), Elaine (Youngs), Liz Masakayan, and just now be able to pass it on to the younger generations. It’s fun. It’s good. They improve, and get better, and I learn from them too, and feed off their passion and fire as well.”
In 2008 Branagh placed fifth in the Beijing Olympics with Youngs. Asked about her Olympic aspirations for 2020, Branagh replied, “I don’t know yet. I’m going to see what happens after the season’s over, have time to think about it, see how I’m feeling.
“I have two kids, one is 5 (Teegan), one is 2 (Will), and they’re my priority. They’re the best things that we’ve ever done. I love being a mom, I love having them come to the tournaments, they love watching at home if they’re not able to come, it’s been a lot of fun. They like to bump the ball around in the backyard. I want to show them that you can follow your dreams, whatever they are, and have no regrets.
“I hate to lose, but it’s nice when they’re there, that I can have a hug, or have them run up to me and put things into reality, so it establishes perspective. If I’m going to be away from them, I want to make it worth it, and work as hard as I can, and not end a practice or tournament and say, ‘Ah, I could have done more.’ ”
Branagh, a former Minnesota Gopher, played on the USA indoor national team from 2001 to 2003 before initiating her beach career in 2004. This year she played with Brandie Wilkerson, Allie Wheeler, Caitlin Ledoux, Lauren Fendrick, and Walsh Jennings. She currently doesn’t have any other tournaments scheduled.
“I’m playing here this weekend, I’m focusing on Vegas, on a great finish, and see what comes up.”
After a 746-day absence from the world tour, he and his boyhood friend, Crabb, won the opening Olympic qualification event, a three-star event in Qinzhou, China, earlier this month.
“It felt amazing,” Bourne said. “I was visualizing being on the podium, being a top world-tour player, the whole time I was out, and to be able to get back there. I haven’t reached where I want to be yet, obviously, but to be back on the podium right away, is amazing. I feel like I’m where I like to be, and can do what I want to do.”
Bourne made a run for the 2016 Rio Olympics with John Hyden, playing well enough to qualify but for the country quota rule, with only two teams per nation allowed into the 24-team field.
Bourne and Crabb have not yet committed to the qualification process for Tokyo 2020.
“I’m all about being here and present,” Bourne said. “I realize that you have to set goals for the future when it comes to the Olympics and going through entire seasons. Our goal was to partner up, commit to each other for the season and finish it, so that’s what we’re here to do is finish that commitment, and then recommit to our partnership, and think about it, and see if we want to commit to it, because it is a big commitment, then we’ll go for it. It could go either way.”
Bourne, who played indoor men’s volleyball at USC, is finding joy in the game again after his extended absence. He received both the AVP’s Newcomer of the Year and Rookie of the Year awards in 2013.
“I wanted to win so badly that I let it overtake me a little bit and take the fun out of it a little bit,” Bourne said. “I really want to work harder at maintaining that and remember why I’m playing in the first place, because I really love this sport.
“This time around I’m dedicating myself a little more to the skill of the game, I want to learn it with that kind of veteran’s mind, and learn the skills, and the tactics, and all that. That’s what’s fascinating me this time around, versus the physicality and just being capable of competing on this level. Now I want to master it.”