In a match that featured three Olympic rookies, it was experience, and the only player with it, that prevailed.
Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil entered these Olympic Games as its potential darlings, the youngest American Olympic team in history, the duo who dethroned Kerri Walsh Jennings in the most thrilling fashion possible, with two gold medals in the final two qualifying events.
Brandie Wilkerson entered these Games as one of Canada’s brightest rising stars, a 29-year-old, 5-foot-10 blocker with one of the most impressive vertical leaps and dynamic blocks in the game.
Yet it was 5-7 Heather Bansley — humble, understated, impressively decorated 2016 Olympian Heather Bansley — who was the rock that ultimately decided the seesaw of a 22-24, 21-18, 15-13 victory. It was Bansley who scored on 26 of 45 attacks, Bansley whose 17 digs led the match, an Olympic high for the 33-year-old defender.
It was Bansley — who five years ago in the Rio Olympics tied for fifth with then partner Sarah Pavan — who stayed calm amidst a world of pressure.
That’s where all the pressure was for Canada, this entire match: Squarely on the shoulders of Bansley. She can handle it, this pressure. Three times, she’s been named the FIVB’s Best Defensive Player. Virtually every serve, from an exceptionally good serving team, went her way. And she could have let it get the best of her, too. After a Bansley hitting error ended the first set with a 22-24 loss, the Americans kept the pressure on, jumping out to a 10-4 lead in the second set.
And then, just when all could have fallen apart, just when Canada could have come undone, as it did twice in pool play in losses to China and Brazil, they did just the opposite.
“I think it goes to show the experience and even the leadership from Heather,” Wilkerson said. “I can speak for myself, where we just had to kind of look to each other for advice, confidence and just sticking to the plan and staying very present to each point.
“Anything can happen in these games. These are high-level games, you can never really ever be comfortable, even with something that seemingly seems like such a large gap. So I think we were just ready to win today and we weren’t going to give it up.”
With the USA kids — USC product Claes is 25, UCLA’s Sponcil is 24 — holding a seemingly comfortable lead in the second set, viewers missed much of the run that put Canada back in the match because NBC had yet another of its volleyball-unfriendly extended commercial breaks.
But it was Bansley who sided out to stop the run, then Bansley who made a dig and converted in transition. Then it was Wilkerson who dug and sided out in transition, compounded by an error from Claes and Sponcil and a block from Wilkerson that drew the match back to within one.
This match was far from over.
“It’s a lot of mindful work,” Wilkerson said. “These are things we communicate about beforehand. We know what our tools are, we know how to speak to each other. It’s like any relationship, you really want to be clear in your intention, and we both have very high standards, so we like to keep each other to that.”
The standards remained high, as Bansley and Wilkerson for the most part traded sideouts until 16-16, when Bansley made a pair of digs, putting both away, before Claes made a rare error on an option attack.
The Canadians held firm for a 21-18 win, finishing the set on a 17-8 run.
The momentum would hold.
Bansley and Wilkerson grabbed a 3-2 lead that the Americans couldn’t retake, no matter the amount of trickery from Claes, who would finish with a match-high 29 kills, the majority of which came on options of every variety. She hit right-handed and left, scored deep and short, poked and swung. Claes showed little of her youth or lack of experience on this Olympic stage. She and Sponcil — who were the hottest team entering the Olympics — were here by no accident.
Their run would come. Their run would come because it has always seemed to come when they have needed it most in these Olympic Games. It came in Sochi, Russia, when they required a medal to qualify, despite not having medaled in a year and a half. It came in Ostrava the following week, when any doubt that gold may have been a fluke was put to rest with a second such finish. It came against Latvia, when they lost the second set but regrouped to win the third, despite trailing late. It came against Brazil, when they dropped the first set but rebounded once again to win in three.
And here it came.
Down 12-10, Claes chopped one angle, the exact type of dart their coach, Jordan Cheng, has been working with her for two years. Now down just one, it was Sponcil serving — and Sponcil acing, her first ace of the match.
Until it wasn’t. Claes and Sponcil celebrated what they viewed as the match-tying ace. Wilkerson and Bansley celebrated what was initially ruled as a service error, extending their lead to 13-11. Then it was Claes and Sponcil celebrating once more, as their challenged proved successful, with the video appearing to show the ball clipping the line on the way out.
And then, inexplicably, it was Wilkerson and Bansley celebrating one final time, as the challenge, which overruled the initial call, was subsequently overruled. No explanation was provided to Claes and Sponcil, only that the challenge was no longer successful, that the match was no longer tied, that they were again down two in the biggest match of their lives to date.
“I thought it was in,” Claes said. “I mean it sucks, but it shouldn’t have come down to that third set. We did such a good job in a second, and then let them back in.”
There was this in the USA Volleyball recap:
The challenge referee, Marco Spinnicchia of Italy, confirmed the original ruling of out, but a graphic showing the challenge as successful was accidently shown in-stadium and on the broadcast. Rules allowed for another review to clear up the confusion. The correct ruling – challenge unsuccessful – was displayed.
“We’ve used the challenge system on the World Tour and there’s been times when I think they’re working out some kinks,” said Bansley, who is from London, Ontario. “You know, it says ball out, but then challenge successful. So it was just a little bit confusing, but we trust the technologies that they have here. The referees do a great job. The ref just said, ‘Wait, wait, wait, we’re sorting it out.’ So I think tensions are just high at that point, everyone’s fighting for that point, we want that point.”
They all did, but the Canadians got that point, and the next, as Sponcil overpassed and Wilkerson threw it down, a 14-11 lead they wouldn’t relinquish, as they prevailed 15-13 in the third.
“It was more mental, yeah,” Bansley said of the match. “This whole tournament is about managing emotions and expectations, and so I think that Brandie and I definitely did a better job as a team of doing that today compared to our play in pool play.”
The uproar from American fans on the overturned challenge was swift, though Claes and Sponcil didn’t take the bait, choosing instead to hold themselves accountable for failing to hold onto a 10-4 lead in what would have been the decisive second set.
“We made more than enough opportunity for ourselves to win,” said Claes, who hit 67 percent in the match. “Fought through that first, up in the second, we let them back in. It shouldn’t have even come to the third, so, yeah for sure we let them back in. Everybody’s good out here, so letting that door open just a little … here we are, we lost.”
While the Olympic journey of Claes and Sponcil is over, it continues for Wilkerson and Bansley, who will meet the winner of Latvia vs. Russia.
It also continues for Brazil’s Rebecca Cavalcanti and Ana Patricia Silva, whom Claes and Sponcil beat in pool play. In the match after the USA and Canada, Brazil swept China’s Xinxin Wang and Chen Xue, moving onto the quarterfinals, where they will meet Switzerland’s Anouk Vérgé-Depre and Joana Heidrich.
“We want to play our best. And I think that’s been our goal,” Bansley said. “And we’re just taking it one match at a time, and especially today, it was really point by point. And it paid off for us and we’ll look to look to play similar and play our best.”