Ditch the tiaras, ladies. Queens of fifth, you are no longer.
Since the Volleyball World Jurmala Elite 16 in June of 2022, Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth settled for fifth place in six of seven tournaments. Five of those quarterfinal losses came in the third set, some in the wildest, most tantalizing deciding sets of the season — 18-20 to Tina Graudina and Anastasija Kravcenoka in Gstaad, 22-24 to Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes in January’s Beach Pro Tour Finals.
On Saturday night at the La Paz Challenge, it all felt so eerily similar. Nuss and Kloth watched as a 19-16 lead in the first set of the quarterfinals evaporated into an eventual 25-27 loss to France’s Lezana Placette and Alexia Richard. On multiple occasions, the match was stopped due to technical difficulties with the lighting. Placette and Richard passed the time playing tic-tac-toe on the sand, the added minutes building a tension that had been accumulating for nine months.
A different team materialized after the break. Nuss and Kloth resumed the dominant form that had staked them to a 19-16 lead in the first place, winning the second set 21-18, and dominating the third, 15-9. The proverbial quarterfinal monkey was off their backs, tossed to the coast of Baja California Sur.
They took advantage, winning another three-setter over Brazilians Taina Silva and Victoria Lopes (15-21, 21-18, 15-12) in the semifinals to earn a gold-medal matchup with familiar foes in Savvy Simo and Toni Rodriguez, a pair of March Cinderellas dancing from the qualifier to the final match of the tournament.
They know each other well, those four. Rodriguez wore the purple and gold as she played alongside Nuss and Kloth at LSU. Simo, a UCLA alum, played against Nuss and Kloth three times in their senior seasons. The respective pairs were even playing against each other last May in New Orleans when Rodriguez went down with injury, the rest of her season lost.
She’s back, of course, and the first professional match of the 2023 season featured these very same pairs, in the opening round of the qualifier of the Doha Elite 16, one which Nuss and Kloth won in three.
There would be no such extended match this time. Not in La Paz. The moment Nuss and Kloth flipped a 9-12 first-set deficit at the technical timeout into a 14-14 switch, the narrative had changed. Nuss had a read on Simo. Kloth finished with four blocks. The all-American final few expected came to a quick end, 21-16, 21-13 in Nuss and Kloth’s favor, their third gold medal on the Beach Pro Tour.
“What a battle,” Nuss said afterwards. “Hats off to our fellow Americans. What a game. What a tournament. La Paz, thank you, this atmosphere has been absolutely unreal. This is what beach volleyball is supposed to be like.”
Indeed, what a tournament it was for Simo and Rodriguez. It’s just the second tournament back for Rodriguez since that fateful AVP New Orleans last May. They passed up a main-draw opportunity at AVP Miami this weekend and gambled in the qualifier of La Paz instead. The risk paid off. Seven straight matches they won, including victories over the top pairs from Austria, Italy, Mexico, and the Czech Republic. They knocked off three Olympians and prevailed in three three-setters. It was a gritty, tough, distinctly American performance, as Simo and Rodriguez established themselves as yet another threat to medal in a federation overflowing with podium-worthy talent.
“So proud of what Taryn, Kristen and Toni are doing,” LSU coach Russell Brock said. “These are players who didn’t grow up playing the game and weren’t on the national radar until well into their college careers. They have had to earn every single opportunity and they are maximizing the chances they get. Couldn’t be more excited as they represent the hard work they’ve put in, everything they’ve overcome, our program and our country as they compete for the championship. And the greatest part about it is they are just getting started.”
Kloth and Nuss took home $10,000, while Simo-Rodriguez won $8,000. And the success of Simo and Rodriguez throws a fascinating wrinkle into an Olympic and World Championship race that was already more competitive than any nation in the world.
It puts Simo and Rodriguez sixth in the world in the Olympic rankings, and third in the USA, behind Nuss and Kloth (No. 1 with 1,560 points) and Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes (No. 2 with 1,360). They are closely followed by Emily Stockman and Megan Kraft (860 points), who finished ninth in La Paz alongside Kelley Kolinske and Hailey Harward (460 points).
The Olympic race is, obviously, a long one, but of vital importance is the push for a berth into the World Championships, the event with the most Olympic points. Teams qualify using their best six finishes of the 2023 season prior to the World Championships in October. A silver medal from Rodriguez and Simo gives their standing a considerable boost, as well as a much-needed boost in their entry points, which will allow them to get into Elite 16s later this year.
The American men, however, are under a different sort of interest. Just two teams competed in the main draw in La Paz. Only Trevor Crabb and Theo Brunner broke pool, finishing fifth, bowing out to an excellent Dutch pair in Stefan Boermans and Yorick de Groot, who is alas healthy after sitting out the majority of the 2022 season with a hernia. The debut of Tri Bourne and Chaim Schalk fell flat, as they fell to Brazilians Evandro and Arthur and were whacked by France’s Remi Bassereau and Julien Lyneel.
Evandro and Arthur wound up in fourth in their debut as a team, while Bassereau and Lyneel settled for fifth. Topping the podium was Spain’s veteran duo of Pablo Herrera and Adrian Gavira, who stumped the made-for-Hollywood comeback story of de Groot and Boermans. Bronze went to the new Austrian duo, Moritz Pristauz and Robin Seidl.