MANAHATTAN BEACH, California — What started out as an idea to have a fun gathering of top women’s pro teams prepping for the final FIVB event of the season resulted in Friday’s p1440 Pro Challenge, a one-day beach tournament that included Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat, old-timers Tim Hovland, Mike Dodd, Sinjin Smith and Steve Obradovich.
In the end, Americans Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil won their first tournament together in a tough international field, edging Canadians Brandie Wilkerson and Heather Bansley in three tough sets 16-21, 22-20, 18-16.
All four of those teams, plus Walsh Jennings and Sweat, Kelley Larsen and Emily Stockman and Australians Nicole Laird, Japan’s Megumi Murakami and Miki Ishii, and Australia’s Nicole Laird and Becchara Palmer are headed to FIVB four-star event that starts Tuesday in Chetumal, Mexico.
“I knew there were going to be a lot of international teams training for Mexico here, because everyone was reaching out for training camps, and so I told my (p1440) team we should put together a little competition day so we can get some live competition reps with nothing on the line, and it turned into this,” Walsh Jennings said.
“On a normal day with all these teams here, we would just have practice together, but instead we’re competing, and the athletes get a little bit of money, we get to stream this, build our brand a little bit, and have some fun.”
Of course, Claes and Sponcil enjoyed the event, getting an opportunity to challenge themselves at home without having to be concerned about entry and Olympic points.
“So fun,” Claes said. “We love having opportunities to play, so it’s a great opportunity to gear up for the last tournament of the year in Mexico. We’re so glad that so many international teams came out, because all the Americans train and play against each other all the time. So it’s really nice to get more reps against the top teams in the world.”
Claes and Sponcil and Walsh Jennings and Sweat had gotten back earlier last week from playing in China.
“It’s a great team win, it’s our first win of the season. We’re fine-tuning a lot of different things, we’ve had a few weeks to go over it and practice them,” said Sponcil, who after winning back-to-back national titles at UCLA is nearly finished with her first season on the pro tour. “I’m excited to go to Mexico. Sure, this gives us some confidence, but there are a lot of great teams out there for the last tournament.
“We’re just taking it one match at a time and not thinking too far ahead.”
They are in the midst of one of the most tightly contested races for an Olympic berth. Walsh Jennings and Sweat (6,960 points), Claes and Sponcil (6,560 points), Sara Hughes and Summer Ross (4,380 points), and Day and Flint (3,040 points) are all viable contenders behind April Ross and Alix Klineman (8,760 points).
“It’s gnarly,” Claes admitted.
“We just have to stay true to the process that we’ve been working on. The results will come, especially after the work we’ve done this off-season. We have to be process oriented not results oriented, because that’s how we’re going to make those bigger strides this summer.”
Hovland and Dodd were joined by Chase Budinger and Sean Rosenthal for a 4-man and defeated Smith and Obradovich, who played with Troy Field and Taylor Crabb. Hovland’s and Dodd’s team won 11-9 in an old-school scoring match.
The day also featured Developmental Finals. Branden Clemens and Dylan Maarek defeated Chris Austin and Earl Schultz on the men’s side and Allie Wheeler and Brittany Tiegs beat Alexa Strange and Jessica Gaffney for the women.
The Legends Pro 4-man match was entertaining, as much for the quality of play as for hearing Hovland’s running on-court commentary. Smith and Hovland rolled for pro choice, with Smith going over the line, giving Hovland first choice.
Hovland-Dodd selected Budinger and Rosenthal, with Smith-Obradovich picking Field and Crabb. Hovland, Dodd, Budinger and Rosenthal prevailed as Dodd’s steady passing supplied setter Rosenthal, who pumped it out to Budinger.
Hovland, who earned more than a million dollars during his 60-win career, had a blast.
“We had a great time. We can still play fours. Me and Mike play a lot, we play every weekend down on 33rd with a bunch of ex-pros, and we can still dig, serve, and pass, it’s the hitting and jumping that we can’t do any more,” Hovland said. “We love to dig everybody that can flat-out play, it’s great entertainment.
“It’s the only way we can continue to play, and we play a lot, we love it.”
Walsh Jennings hopes that this event will kick start a Pro Challenge series in the future.
“It’s kind of genius, no? We’re hoping this will turn into a series. This time of year in the off-season the athletes are all broke, and literally getting live competition reps is priceless with nothing on the line,” the five-time Olympian said.
“It’s such a great way to team build, bond, and just improve. A lot of these foreign teams, they’re super-interested in coming back to train, and we’re going to make this happen.”
VolleyballMag.com’s Ed Chan, Jim Wolf, and Allen Szto were on hand to record the action, click on any thumbnail to see the image full size: