TOKYO — All four USA beach volleyball teams – April Ross and Alix Klineman, Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil, Jake Gibb and Tri Bourne, and Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena – have advanced to  the Tokyo Olympics knockout rounds that begin Sunday at Shiokaze Park.

“First of all, I think USA teams played great throughout pool play,” said Tyler Hildebrand, the USA Volleyball director of coaching for the beach national teams. ” … I feel that this was a test of changes, dealing with some adversity, and getting our bearings straight on all of the things that had to be adjusted. 

“Then we had to go and put all of that aside and go focus on pool play.”

And with all four pairs out of pool play, “Now the tournament starts,” Hildebrand said. “It’s win or go home from here. Everyone’s been preparing for this for a really long time, so we’ll all take this one match at a time.”

Hildebrand is here in a dual role, because as soon as the Games end, he heads back to his day job, as Associate head coach at Nebraska, a team that is certainly expected to be in the NCAA-championship mix this season.  

Hildebrand was an assistant at Nebraska in 2017 and the Huskers won it all (We profiled him during the NCAA final four). Then he left for USA beach volleyball before getting hired back at Nebraska in January 2020. He planned to do both jobs through last summer and the 2020 Olympics, but it all got delayed a year.

“When the pandemic hit, everything got pushed back. There was no reason to hire for my position at USA volleyball, so I just stayed on,” Hildebrand said.. 

Splitting his time between California and Nebraska hasn’t been easy, running training camps in California and working with teams via Zoom from Nebraska.  

“It can be challenging,” Hildebrand acknowledged, “It’s a little challenging from the time standpoint. What downtime would normally be going to family is now going to USA, it’s probably been more challenging for my wife and my kid. For me personally, it’s something I wanted to finish out, the teams wanted to keep continuity.

Tyler Hildebrand hitting balls during USA practice at Shiokaze Park

So far so good here at the Olympics.

The USA women’s pairs both went 3-0 in pool play. Dalhausser and Lucena rallied after losing their first match to finish 2-1. 

And Gibb and Bourne is a special story, after Gibb’s partner Taylor Crabb tested positive for COVID and Bourne came in as a last-minute replacement. They, too, went 2-1 in pool play.

“Jake and Tri are focused on competing, not trying to make it something that it isn’t,” Hildebrand said. “It’s a new team, they don’t know each other super-well off the court or on the court, so I think they’re out there as two great competitors trying to go and see what they can do and represent the United States.

“They’ve got a little edge to them, and they can feed off of that, ‘Hey, no one’s expecting us, because we’re a new team,’ and maybe they can go deep, and they know they can. And we believe they can. ”

Gibb and Bourne have their usual coach, Rich Lambourne, and are getting remote input from Crabb.

“That’s what they’re focusing on, surprising some teams, playing for Taylor, and going as deep as they can,” Hildebrand said.

Tokyo is likely the final Olympics for Dalhausser and Lucena, who are both 41. It’s Dalhausser’s fourth Olympiad. He won gold in 2008 in Beijing with Todd Rogers, tied for ninth in London in 2012 with Rogers, and fifth in Rio in 2016 with Lucena. 

Their Pool D proved to be extremely competitive. For that matter, the Americans, Brazil’s Alison Cerutti and Bruno Schmidt, and the Netherlands’ Alexander Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen tied atop the pool at 2-1. They all beat Argentina’s Julian Azaad and Nicolas Capogrosso as Dalhausser and Lucena finished third on tiebreakers.

“Phil and Nick have a great story,” Hildebrand said. “They were original partners, this is their last rodeo and they know it. Right now they know that every match could be their last match together. They’ve been best friends since well before they were playing volleyball together, it’s their last international event.

“They’re going to be playing with a little bit of emotion, a chip on their shoulder.”

In 2017 Ross selected Klineman as her partner, a talented indoor player with a limited beach resume. Ross and Klineman have proven to be one of the most potent teams in the world. They won the silver medal at the 2019 World Championships in Hamburg, have dominated the AVP when they’ve played, and are seeded second here.

Ross is a three-time Olympian. She won silver in 2012 in London with Jen Kessy, and with Kerri Walsh Jenning won bronze in Rio in 2016. 

Ross and Klineman, called the A Team, are coached by another A, Angie Akers. They won Pool B, defeating China’s Xinxin Wang and Chen Xue, Spain’s Elsa Baquerizo and Liliana Fernandez and the Netherlands’ Sanne Keizer and Madelein Meppelink, dropping only one set in the process, to Keizer and Meppelink.

“April and Alix have been together for a long time, they’ve won a lot of tournaments, I think they’ve won more tournaments than anyone else in the field this quad,” Hildebrand said. 

“They know that when they’re playing their best, they can beat anybody. So for them, it’s going to be about not only preparing well, but being able to adjust. Because teams will adjust against them because of Alix’s block, and all of the weapons they have. You saw their serve at the end of the third set against the Dutch. 

“Their block and D can be good, and they can be kind of unstoppable on offense. They have a lot of weapons, so it’s really going to be about can they hang in and grind when everything isn’t rolling, like they did against Netherlands. Just find a way to hang around long enough for one of their weapons to come through and shut the door.”

Olympic newbies Kelly Claes (25) and Sarah Sponcil (24) are not only the youngest American beach Olympians ever, but they won two of the last FIVB events this summer, four-stars in Sochi and Ostrava. 

Team Slaes, as they’re known, won Pool D, defeating Brazil’s Ana Patricia Silva and Rebecca Cavalcanti, Latvians Tina Graudina and Anastasija Kravcenoka and Kenya’s Brackcides Khadambi and Gaudencia Makokha, dropping a set to both Brazil and Latvia.

Claes and Sponcil frequently employ an on-two offense more often than anyone else in the field, making them a more difficult opponent to prepare for, Hildebrand said. 

“I think Sarah and Kelly are the most creative team in the field,” Hildebrand said. “I think they do things that are very unique, they’ve proven that they can run through tournaments, like they did in Sochi and Ostrava. 

“For them, can they be great teammates and battle together and be in that kind of creative flow state, versus analyzing and trying to be great every play and everything has to go right.”

These Olympics are fan free, while things are wide open back in Lincoln, Nebraska. 

“It feels really abnormal here, over the top abnormal here,” Hildebrand said, “and it feel really, really normal back home.”

Back home, Nebraska leads NCAA volleyball in attendance, so the 2020 shutdown hit them especially hard.

“It’s all very understandable, but what we’re looking forward to is having a full crowd in Devaney,” Hildebrand said of the Huskers’ home arena. “That’s already been cleared. That’s one of the best parts of Nebraska – the state support, the support from the administration. It didn’t feel like that last year because we didn’t have our fans, and everything was strange.”

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