Nothing major needed to be changed. Not after Emily Stockman and Kelley Larsen lost just 19-21, 23-25 to Melissa Humana-Paredes and Sarah Pavan at AVP Chicago. It was a bummer that it came so early in the tournament, for seventh place rather than on a Sunday.

But there was nothing disheartening about the play. Pavan and Humana-Paredes are the World Champs, after all. And they’d get another shot at them just five days later, at the World Tour Finals in Rome.

It was in Rome on Thursday that the small adjustments were made. Rather than trying to shoot over and around Pavan, Larsen and Stockman took a more aggressive approach.

“I think we wanted to come out with more of an aggressive mindset,” Stockman said. “Sarah is a really good shot-blocker and she beat us in Chicago doing that so we wanted to come out swinging.”

They came out swinging and serving, and the result was picking up those two points they needed in Chicago, upsetting the World Champs, 21-15, 21-23, 15-13.

Two other American teams, Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil and April Ross and Alix Klineman, went 2-0 Thursday without dropping a set.

Claes and Sponcil beat Russians Ekaterina Birlova and Evgeniya Ukolova 21-15, 21-14, and then got past Germans Sandra Ittlinger and Chantal Laboreur 24-22, 21-19. Ross and Klineman, the No. 2 seed, beat Italians Gaia Traballi and Agata Zuccarelli 21-16, 21-17 before rallying late in the first set and cruising in the second to defeat Canadians Heather Bansley and Brandie Wilkerson 22-20, 21-11.

The fourth American team, Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat, who emerged from the country quota and qualifier, split on the day, beating the Czech Republic pair of Barbora Hermannova and Marketa Slukova 22-20, 21-17 in the morning before falling to Brazil’s Rebecca Cavalcanti and Ana Patricia Silva 21-15, 21-15 .

Either way, all four teams will break pool, something the American men have an uphill battle to guarantee.

Two of the three men’s teams lost their first round of pool on Thursday. Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb fell to Italy’s Adrian Carambula and Enrico Rossi 13-21, 13-21, while Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena were upset by Dutch Christiaan Varenhorst and Steven van de Velde 18-21, 16-21.

World Tour Finals 2019 Thursday-Taylor Crabb
Taylor Crabb and Jake Gibb won both matches to advance to the second round of elimination playoffs/Nicol Marshall photo

Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb, coming off a win at AVP Chicago, are the only team on the men’s end to guarantee breaking pool. They won their first, over Germans Lars Fluggen and Nils Ehlers, 21-17, 21-18, and then came back to beat Italians Paolo Nicolai and Daniele Lupo 23-21, 17-21, 15-8 for the top spot in pool.

“Having played them a few days ago, I think we did a good job in making adjustments in the game because when we played in Chicago both teams played a little differently,” Larsen said. “We made some good adjustments and Emily was serving lights out and that really helped our defense. I think it was a big part of our success today.”

More important than making the adjustments in just that one match was doing it twice. Earlier in the day, they beat the Netherlands’ Joy Stubbe and Marleen Van Iersel, 16-21, 21-15, 15-13, assuring them a bye in the elimination rounds and an enormous points jump in the Olympic ranks.

“It feels great to start with two wins,” Larsen said. “But every game is going be tough, all the teams here are super strong, so every game is going to be a battle no matter where you’re seeded in pool or in the playoffs, so we get to be ready to play tomorrow.”

Claes had praise for the Germans.

“Chantal is a great defender and they’re both consistent, so it’s really fun to play against them,” Claes said. “It was a good finish for us and getting to skip that first round is really valuable to the rest of the tournament. Now we’ll try to keep this momentum going for the next one.

“We have the advantage of watching our next opponents play tomorrow morning and we’re going to use it as much as we can.”

To be fair, Bourne, who broke his right hand at the Vienna Major, is playing left-handed, so wins aren’t exactly to be expected, though either way, he and Crabb will improve their Olympic standing simply by showing up.

“It was a little frustrating to play that style,” Bourne admitted. “But I think it handled well. It didn’t hurt too much, so now we know how I can play tomorrow and hopefully we can figure it out, get a win and remain in the tournament.”

Gibb and Crabb had a big comeback late in the first set against the Italians and got hot in the the third.

“In the third set, we just got a good feel, we just had a good bead on things,” Gibb said. “We were serving well and it’s nice that we kind of got them in some serving trouble. That’s a fantastic team and we’ve had so many battles with them and every match goes three. We lost to them in Russia 16-14 or something like that, so it’s nice to get one every once in a while.”


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