HAMBURG, Germany — On this 243rd birthday of the United States of America, the patriotic fireworks displays got started early across the pond.
Before most Americans opened their eyes and began to prep for a day packed with barbecues and parades, Stafford Slick and Billy Allen pulled off a massive first-round upset of Brazilians Bruno Oscar Schmidt and Evandro Goncalves at the 2019 FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships in Hamburg, Germany.
“It’s poetic, almost,” Allen said of winning such a significant match on July 4th. “We’ll remember this one.”
By the time the action ended on Thursday, the sum of all the results added up to what is perhaps the greatest day ever for USA beach volleyball outside of the Olympics. Heading into the men’s Round of 16 four American men’s teams remain in contention, while two U.S. women’s pairs will compete in Friday’s quarterfinals.
Here is the women’s quarterfinals lineup:
Marta Menegatti/Viktoria Orsi Toth Italy (24) vs. Melissa Humana-Paredes/Sarah Pavan Canada (9)
Fernanda Alves/Barbara Seixas Brazil (12) vs. Nina Betschart/Tanja Huberli Switzerland (17)
Mariafe Artacho/Taliqua Clancy Australia (7) vs. Svetlana Kholomina/Nadezda Makroguzova Russia (14)
Sara Hughes/Summer Ross United States (11) vs. Alix Klineman/April Ross United States (5)
The first thing you’ll notice is that the two remaining American women’s pairs will face each other in the quarters, so on the bright side, a USA team is guaranteed a spot in the semis and a shot at a medal.
No. 5 Alix Klineman and April Ross got there with a 21-11, 21-18 shellacking of the No. 26-seeded Latvians Tina Graudina, a current member of the USC beach volleyball team, and Anastasija Kravcenoka.
“We weren’t going to give that Latvian team an inch,” Ross said on the 10th anniversary of her World Championships victory with Jenn Kessey in Stavanger, Norway. “We know that if you do, they can play really, really well, and they started to play a lot better in the second set.
“We knew how important that match was, so we just came in as hard as we could.”
No. 11 Sara Hughes and Summer Ross defeated No. 31 Joy Stubbe and Marleen Van Iersel of the Netherlands 21-14, 21-19 by relentlessly going after the 21-year-old blocker Stubbe.
“We had a game plan to serve Stu,” Hughes said. “We wanted to serve her the whole game, she’s a really great player, and if she gets into a rhythm, we’ll give van Iersel a few, but for the most part, serve Stu.”
The quarterfinal matchup with Klineman and April Ross already occupied the minds of Hughes and Summer Ross before the younger pair even walked off the sand after their match versus the Netherlands.
“We want to be in the semifinals,” Hughes said. “Watch out, we’re ready, we’re ready to fight. I think this will be a big battle for us.”
“It’ll be the biggest game of our lives,” Summer Ross added. “I hope we get to play on center court where the vibes are booming and the crowd is just lit.”
Losing 26-24, 21-16 to a tough Italian duo of Marta Menegatti and Viktoria Orsi Toth, Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes ended their first World Championships appearance with a ninth and became the only USA team to lose on Thursday.
“It sucks to come this far and to lose like that when I know deep down that we are such a better team than that, and we have so much more to put on the court,” Claes said. “They outplayed us today. It sucks, but it will fuel us for later matches, and tournaments, and hopefully the sting hurts enough that we won’t do it again.”
“This is the biggest stage that I’ve ever played on,” Sponcil, who just finished her senior season of NCAA beach volleyball at UCLA a couple months ago, said. “I think just being patient in those tough moments, this is an amazing experience and I’m going to learn from it. Everything’s different from college. Everyone’s faster and stronger.”
Brazilians Agatha Bednarczuk and Duda Lisboa can certainly empathize with that feeling of underachieving. The No. 6 seeded and No. 1 world-ranked pair was upset by 21-year-old Svetlana Kholomina and 22-year-old Nadezda Makroguzova of Russia in a marathon three set match (22-20, 18-21, 22-20).
Back to the men…
It was the first match of the day, but No. 29-seeded Slick and Allen’s surprise sweep of No. 16 Bruno and Evandro, who were fresh off winning gold at the Warsaw Four Star just a few weeks ago, remained the day’s most shocking result.
“Bruno and Evandro are unbelievable talents and athletes, Olympic and world champions,” Slick said. “We’re not going to beat them every day, but we were fortunate to beat them today.”
They did it by not flinching in the face of Evandro’s formidable serve, which has to date earned the 6-11 blocker four FIVB Best Server awards.
“We were talking about how to deal with Evandro’s serve, because it’s a tremendous weapon, and one of the key words we’re using today was disarm, so how can we disarm that weapon,” Slick said. “I think Billy did a really good job receiving those serves, and siding out at a high level. [Evandro] started floating serves in towards the end of the match, so we knew at that point that we had taken that weapon away from him.”
Slick and Allen entered the World Championships as the 49th ranked team in the world and the No. 6 American team in the Olympic qualification race, but by advancing to the second round, they’ve already earned 800 valuable points, the equivalent of winning a four-star event, regardless of what happens in tomorrow’s Round of 16 match versus Paolo Nicolai and Daniele Lupo of Italy.
“I think this is the biggest win of our career,” Allen said, ranking the defeat of Bruno and Evandro above even winning the AVP Seattle Open in 2017 with Slick.
“It’s the biggest win and the most difficult win we’ve had,” Slick echoed. “Those guys are an incredible team, and super tough.”
Here’s the men’s Round of 16 matches coming up on Friday:
Anders Mol/Christian Sorum Norway (1) vs. Martins Plavins/Edgars Tocs Latvia (23)
Billy Allen/Stafford Slick United States (29) vs. Daniele Lupo/Paolo Nicolai (8)
Alison Cerutti/Alvaro Filho Brazil (20) vs. Julius Thole/Clemens Wickler Germany (12)
Nikita Liamin/Taras Myskiv Russia (15) vs. Phil Dalhausser/Nick Lucena United States (6)
Viacheslav Krasilnikov/Oleg Stoyanovskiy Russia (3) vs. Taylor Crabb/Jake Gibb United States (7)
Adrian Carambula/Enrico Rossi Italy (45) vs. Robin Seidl/Philipp Waller Austria (32)
Ilya Leshukov/Konstantin Semenov Russia (5) vs. Tri Bourne/Trevor Crabb United States (13)
Andre Loyola/George Wanderley (17) vs. Michal Bryl/Grzegorz Fijalek Poland (2)
As the No. 13 seed playing the No. 39 seed, Bourne and Crabb might have, on paper, been the favorites in their first-round match with Germans Lars Fluggen and Nils Ehlers, but playing in a stadium packed with rowdy German fans certainly put the Americans at a disadvantage from the start, and they stumbled in the first set, losing 15-21, before launching an incredible comeback, wearing their opponents down for a three-set victory.
“We both got better reads on them blocking-wise, and that fuels our whole game, when both of us are getting blocks, not just one of us,” Crabb said. The split-blocking duo finished the match with five total blocks, with Crabb scoring four and Bourne getting one.
Both men admitted the atmosphere in the stadium played a role.
“It always feels like you’re losing out here. It’s crazy,” Bourne said in the post-match interview with NBC’s Dain Blanton.
Crabb used the opposition from the fans to fuel his performance. “The crowd in the stadium was awesome. We really wanted to have a little redemption after yesterday’s match against the Germans where we lost.”
Trevor Crabb’s brother Taylor and his partner Jake Gibb faced veteran Spanish players Adrian Herrera and Pablo Gavira in their elimination-round opener, winning 21-16, 21-17 with Gibb collecting six blocks.
“I tell you, that’s one of the best, maybe the best, sideout team in the world,” Gibb said. “We had a great scouting report. Rich Lambourne really earned his pay right there.
“This whole game is a game of adjustments, they do something to you, and you come back and do something to them, and next time they’ll watch this video and they adjust. It’s just this continual match-to-match chess point, and this is just one move.”
Gibb and Taylor Crabb now face Russians Viacheslav Krasilnikov and Oleg Stoyanovskiy, who have already won two gold medals and one silver on tour this year, but Gibb said he prefers not to look ahead.
“It’s a trick Karch Kiraly taught me,” Gibb said. “I remember asking him in the player tent who he had the following day, and he replied, ‘You know, Jake, I prefer not to know.’”
In the final match of the day for a USA team, No. 6 Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena advanced over Qatar’s No. 4-seeded Cherif Samba and Ahmed Tijan 21-18, 21-15 in what was the cleanest match the Americans have played all week.
“We didn’t want to be the American team that lost,” Lucena said. “They all won, and it’s good that we’re all still in it, especially on the fourth of July, so it’s special.
“We did find our rhythm today,” the 39-year-old defender continued. “Who knows about tomorrow? Today we played well, yesterday we played well. I think we play Russia, who is very physical. Nikita [Liamin], he’s a specimen. Dang. We’re going to have to play at a high level, and are going to have to continue to side out at a high level.”
Lucena and Dalhausser went 1-2 in pool play and had to win a lucky losers match to even get into the elimination rounds, but with the help of a sports psychologist, they feel like they’ve found the missing component: energy.
“USOC sent a sports psych and we sat down with him as a team and with our coach, and we talked about our feelings,” Dalhausser said. “Terrible, no one wants to talk about their feelings in general, right? And we just laid it all out there. Since then, energy’s been up, we feel like we’re playing with house money, we could have been gotten 33rd, or whatever last place is, and now we feel like we have nothing to lose.
“It is the Fourth of July today, Independence Day for the U.S., today was a good day for us,” he continued. “There are so many good teams out here, some days countries have better days than others, and today just happened to be a good day.”
Let the fireworks commence!
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