Megan Kraft and Delaynie Maple were nervous, and at that moment in their young and unbelievably promising careers, nerves usually meant one thing: A downward spiral of shaky play, inevitably to end in a loss.
After winning the first eight sets of the FIVB Under 19 World Championships in Phuket, Thailand, two weeks ago by a combined 74 points, here they were, in the second round of bracket play — they received a bye in the first — against a tough Dutch team, down one set to none.
And they were nervous. Nervous their trip to Thailand was over, that the 36-hour travel was going to result in a disappointing ninth. Nervous they were going to lose. But then, between the first and second set, their coach, Jose Loiola, who was allowed in the players’ box, said the darnedest thing: “You’re going to be nervous. But don’t think you have to lose because you’re nervous. You can still win.”
It’s easy to forget just how young Kraft and Maple still are, that advice such as that, which may seem obvious to a Hall of Famer like the 51-year-old Loiola, could be groundbreaking. Already, Kraft and Maple, just 19 years old each, have made an AVP quarterfinal, won an NCAA Championship as freshmen at USC. Already, they have claimed a top-10 finish on the FIVB, and are always safe bets to qualify on the AVP Tour, when they’re not directly into the main draw.
Yet they’re still young, college underclassmen who, no matter how high level their training, get nervous when the stakes are high. And that’s ok.
“That was a mindset I’ve never really thought about,” Maple said. “It was a good mental switch.”
With that mental switch flipped in the proper direction, Kraft and Maple resumed the dominant show they had authored in the previous four matches, defeating the Netherlands’ Brecht Piersma and Desy Poiesz, 21-8, 15-10, a team they both agreed was the toughest they faced in Phuket, in the succeeding sets. They’d go on to win every set afterwards en route to a World Championship gold medal.
Fellow Americans and current Stanford beach players Kate Reilly and Xolani Hodel took fourth, felled by Kraft and Maple in the semifinals, and Ukraine’s Anhelina Khmil and Tetiana Lazarenko for bronze. There’s no shame in either loss: Kraft and Maple won gold, and the Ukrainians would follow their bronze medal in the U-19 tournament with a gold the following week at the FIVB U-21 World Championships.
Despite the age limit, these tournaments are rife with talent. But world-class talent is nothing new to Kraft and Maple. Every day at USC, the two San Diegans and former teammates at Torrey Pines High School, compete both against and with Olympic-caliber beach volleyball players. In her freshman season at USC, Kraft partnered with Tina Graudina, who finished fourth in the Tokyo Olympic Games representing Latvia; Maple played alongside veteran Joy Dennis.
Combined, the two finished their freshman campaigns 56-6, culminating with an NCAA Championship and a potential rebirth of yet another USC dynasty.
“Our team is so stacked. We have some of the best blockers with Tina and Julia [Scoles], so we were trying to remind ourselves that we weren’t playing them,” Kraft said. “Even though we were playing international, we’re not playing April Ross, we’re not playing people who were in the Olympics. We started playing and we said ‘They’re kids too. We can figure them out and they’re not going to adjust as quickly as a pro would.’”
It’s worth remembering, and reminding Kraft and Maple, that, in spite of their precocity and manifold accomplishments, they’re kids, too. It just only shows on rare occasions, such as the first set against the Dutch, or up 18-12 in the second set of the gold medal match against Russia’s Olga Gavrilova and Alina Salmanova. That was the moment that both of them knew they were going to be World Champions, that it was the Star Spangled Banner that would be playing on the podium, that it was Old Glory that would be flying the highest at the awarding ceremony.
But then their minds went to that strange place a mind can go to when nerves begin rearing their ugly head: “What if,” Kraft remembered thinking, “they hit six straight trickle aces and we can’t do anything about it?”
They both laughed at that thought. The dreaded six-straight-trickle-ace run never happened, because of course it didn’t, though Kraft and Maple did cede a small bit of ultimately inconsequential ground. Up 20-17, Maple carved a sharp line swing off the block, sealing up their World Championship win.
They were nervous towards the end, sure.
But as the learned, and as the world must surely now take note: You can win a World Championship on nerves.