QINZHOU, China – It can be one of the most uncomfortable elements in sports, the unknown. Here you are, Kerri Walsh Jennings, winner of three Olympic gold medals, a veteran on the FIVB Tour of nearly two decades, and you and Brooke Sweat are playing a team, Daniela Alvarez and Tania Moreno of Spain, you’ve never seen or heard of before this weekend’s FIVB three-star tournament in Qinzhou.
You don’t know their tendencies or habits. Don’t know who to serve, who to pick on.
It can be unsettling, even to the best in the world.
“When you don’t know your opponents, there’s not a lot of video on them, it’s all about taking care of the ball on your side of the court and that’s always our focus no matter if we’re playing the No. 1 seed or the 32nd seed,” Walsh Jennings said. “So there’s not much of a difference there but since we were going in blind we really just wanted to take care of the ABCs on our side.”
Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat, as well as the rest of the American women, took care of their side of the net in a big way on Thursday. Despite none of the Americans competing against a team they had seen before — or seen much of — the four women’s teams didn’t allow a set go closer than 21-17.
Walsh Jennings and Sweat beat Spain 21-16, 21-16. Sara Hughes and Summer Ross, playing in their first event since the Gstaad Major in July, thumped China’s Meimei Lin and Jinjin Zeng 21-17, 21-11. Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil toppled another home team in Shuting Cao and Jie Dong, 21-10, 21-17. And Kelley Larsen and Emily Stockman, playing in the final time slot, handled Cyprus’ Mariota Angelopoulou and Daria Gusarova, 21-11, 21-12.
“It’s just kind of all about the ABCs and focusing on our side of the court,” Walsh Jennings said. “I thought Brooke and I did a good job controlling the tempo and staying patient. Game one was a little bit tight for too long in my opinion but it’s really good when you can outlast that and catch a rhythm at the end and Brooke and I pulled away and it felt really good.”
The men, on the other hand, wound up on the other end of the spectrum of the unknown. Mike Boag and Travis Mewhirter, after beating Israel and Japan to qualify on Wednesday afternoon, lost to No. 1-seeded Switzerland, Mirco Gerson and Adrian Heidrich, 15-21, 10-21, as Heidrich put on a blocking show at the net.
The other Americans here, Ryan Doherty and Miles Evans, met a Danish team they had never seen, one coming out of the qualifier as the eighth seed. They fell 21-12, 21-23, making it a must-win situation for both American men’s teams in Friday’s early morning matches.
The women, however, are sitting pretty, as it has gone for the vast majority of the season. All of them, regardless of their next match’s result, will move onto the elimination rounds.
“Having only worked with Kelly and Sarah now for a couple weeks, I’ve been blown away by their ability to compete yet remain intentional about implementing the new things we’ve been working on,” said Jordan Cheng, who is the new coach for Claes and Sponcil. “Today’s match was a good example of that against an opponent we’ve never seen.”