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Megan Kraft celebrates 21st in style with qualifier wins at the Paris Elite16

The Paris Elite16 has only been an event for two years. Already, it has established a peculiar penchant for celebrating birthdays in style.

Last year, Katja Stam, the Netherlands’ 6-foot-4 blocker, celebrated her 24th birthday by winning a gold medal with Raisa Schoon. One year later, Megan Kraft celebrated her 21st with a pair of wins in the qualifier — sweeps over Austria and then France — and a main-draw berth with Terese Cannon.

The best part?

More volleyball, extending the birthday weekend at least two more days and three more matches.

“I am just grateful to have such a supportive and joyful partner in Terese and we’re both so excited to get to play more volleyball,” Kraft said.

For both Cannon and Kraft, it is their first event without their previous partners. Kraft had competed this season alongside Emily Stockman, who retired after the AVP Chicago Gold Series, while Cannon had played the previous two years with Sarah Sponcil, who recently signed with the Grand Rapids Rise of the upstart Pro Volleyball Federation.

“Honestly we’re just really excited to play more volleyball,” Cannon said. “At least three more games to keep finding our groove and it kinda just feels like we’re playing with house money at this point so we’re having fun with it.”

And how can they not? There is precisely zero pressure on the new team, especially given the fact that Kraft hasn’t defended since split-blocking with Latvian Tina Graudina at USC in 2021. They will now contend in Pool B, against fellow Americans Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth, Australians Mariafe Artacho and Taliqua Clancy, and Italians Marta Menegatti and Valentina Gottardi.

Ahead of them, in Pool A, is Betsi Flint and Julia Scoles, who are joined by Brazil’s Ana Patricia Silva and Duda Lisboa, Tanja Huberli and Nina Brunner, and Finnish qualifiers Niina Ahtiainen and Taru Lahti. Pool D, meanwhile, features Germany’s Svenja Muller and Cinja Tillman, Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes, France’s Lezana Placette and Alexia Richard, and German qualifiers Laura Ludwig and Louisa Lippmann, who look stronger every tournament and made remarkably quick work of the qualifier.

As much fun as Cannon and Kraft had on Wednesday, they were, unfortunately for USA Volleyball as a whole, the only team to enjoy such fun in Paris.

Terese Cannon-Paris Elite16
Terese Cannon passes at the Paris Elite16/Volleyball World photo

Alix Klineman, Hailey Harward upset in opening round

Olympic gold-medalist  and new mom Alix Klineman played her first beach volleyball match in nearly two years on Wednesday. All things considered — the fact that she went 718 days without competing, that she is just three months out from giving birth to her son, that she had never played a competitive point with Hailey Harward — she and Harward played well.

Matched up with Ukraine’s Ievgeniia Baieva and Valentyna Davidova, Klineman and Harward staked themselves to a 12-10 lead in the third set, and siding out. But four straight earned points for Ukraine flipped the script, and Baieva and Davidova finished the upset with a 15-13 third set win.

“Moving a little slow out there still,” Klineman wrote on social media, “but happy to be back playing.”

They will have eight days of rest and tuning up before next week’s World Championships.

American men fall flat in Paris Elite16

While there could have been minimal expectations or pressure on either of the American women’s teams — both new pairs and a player returning from maternity leave — the pressure only mounts with each event on all American men not named Miles Partain and Andy Benesh.

Three USA men’s teams competed in Wednesday’s qualifier.

Zero will be competing this weekend.

Tri Bourne and Chaim Schalk fell in the first round to Chile’s Grimalt cousins, Marco and Esteban (21-18, 22-24, 15-11), while Chase Budinger and Miles Evans did the same to the Netherlands’ Robert Meeuwsen and Alex Brouwer (21-17, 21-18). Trevor Crabb and Theo Brunner nearly pulled off an epic comeback against Austria’s Julian Horl and Alexander Horst, rallying from down 1-7 and 6-12 and even had a swing to take a 14-13 lead. Alas, that swing was blocked by Horl, and Crabb’s out of system line shot on the ensuing point sailed long, sealing the 23-21, 13-21, 15-13 win for the Austrians.

Wednesday marks the first time Bourne has ever lost to the Chileans, and the first time in nine years for Schalk, whose last loss to the Grimalts came in 2014 with Ben Saxton. For the second straight tournament, Bourne and Schalk have been eliminated in the first round of the qualifier, a brutal blow to their entry points moving forward. Similarly, the loss drops the entry points for Budinger and Evans to the point that getting into any Elite16s in 2023 or early 2024 will be nearly impossible, unless they are able to slip into next week’s World Championships and make a sizable run.

While Partain and Benesh were already comfortably ahead in the Olympic race, the failure of their peers to advance into the main draw guarantees that lead will be even comfier.

The top seed in the tournament, Partain and Benesh are in a difficult Pool A that includes Brazil’s Evandro Goncalves and Arthur Mariano, the Netherlands’ Stefan Boermans and Yorick de Groot, and Australian qualifiers Thomas Hodges and Zac Schubert.

All matches of the Paris Elite16 can be seen on VolleyballTV. Use “VOLLEYBALLMAG” for a discount.