From Short People to kicking around the NCAA volleyball round of 16
December 5, 2023
June 15, 2022
HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — In the moments before recording a podcast episode in which she would talk largely about herself, as requested, Emily Stockman settled into a couch at Tri Bourneâ€™s house in Hermosa Beach, and she wanted to use the time off-air to talk about someone else.
â€œGuys,â€ she said, shaking her head. â€œPlaying with her is so easy.â€
By her Stockman was referring to Megan Kraft, one of a number of precocious American wunderkinds emerging onto the AVP and Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour. So easy has Kraft made playing with her, in fact, that Stockman opted to compete with the 19-year-old from San Diego over a dozen or so other blockers vying for the chance.
If that surprises you, perhaps it shouldnâ€™t.
Megan Kraft has been making volleyball look easy her entire life.
â€œItâ€™s just so easy with her,â€ Savvy Simo said.
Thereâ€™s that word again: Easy.
â€œI could set her at the 15-foot line and she goes â€˜Great set!â€™ ” Simo continued. “Sheâ€™s just so talented and so easy to play with. As a partner, it helps so much, being comfortable with her.â€
Volleyball is not easy, of course. Yet to take stock of Kraftâ€™s resume is enough to make you wonder. In 2019, at just 16 years old, she and Delaynie Maple, another highly recruited talent out of Torrey Pines High School, finished fifth at AVP Hermosa, knocking off the 11 seed (Emily Hartong and Geena Urango), the 6 (Brittany Howard and Alexa Strange), and the 3 (Corinne Quiggle and Amanda Dowdy). The only two matches they lost, they did so in three sets.
When you go back and watch the film from that tournament, there doesnâ€™t appear to be any nerves or wide-eyed fear of the big stage of the AVP. It all looks rather normal to the teenagers.
Some might even call it easy.
â€œIt was such a cool spark because I knew I wanted to get back here and play the AVPs,â€ Kraft said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. â€œIt was an inspiration. It was a great summer for volleyball.â€
Kraft is a member of a unique generation of women athletes. The NCAA had adopted beach volleyball as a scholarship sport long enough for her to know that she didnâ€™t necessarily have to play indoor to compete in college, as many of her elder peers did (Stockman, in fact, didnâ€™t even have the option to play beach at all, and starred indoors at Wichita State). She knew she loved beach. So much so that, when Brennan Dean, her coach at Torrey Pines, moved the 6-foot tall Kraft from libero to outside hitter, she didnâ€™t accept it with the enthusiasm many might expect when given the opportunity to hit and pack the stat line. There was a significant portion of her that wanted to save her shoulder for the beach.
â€œIt was in my head for what I wanted to do but I didnâ€™t know, honestly, if it was going to be indoor or beach,â€ Kraft said. â€œI stopped playing club indoor when I was 15. Back then I figured I could play indoor, I really liked it. But once I started getting good and getting recruited, I thought [beach] was more of a possibility, and then with the AVP, I said â€˜This is definitely possible and really fun.â€™ Itâ€™s been in my head for a while but that was probably around 16 or 17.â€
By 16, she had not only made two AVP main draws, but finished fifth in one.
By 17, she was competing for medals on the World Tour, falling in a bronze medal match in Guam to Japanâ€™s Suzuka Hashimoto and Ayumi Shiratori.
By 18, she had piled up a laundry list of NCAA accolades: First Team All-American, Freshman of the Year, Pac-12 Pair of the Year, Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, NCAA Championship All-Tournament team, NCAA Champion. She did so playing alongside an Olympian in Tina Graudina, playing both defense and blocking, without wilting in the slightest.
Neither did she wilt on the international stage, when she and Maple won the U-19 World Championships.Â
It was impossible not to notice the quiet freshman, who seemed to leave a glittering trail of success in her wake, no matter the setting or stakes.Â And Scott Davenport noticed.
The coach of Theo Brunner and Chaim Schalk, Sarah Sponcil and Terese Cannon, and Emily Stockman, among others, took note of Kraftâ€™s success on the AVP the summer following her freshman season at USC. He saw her and Simo qualify in Atlanta, upsetting Brazilians Lili and Larissa Maestrini, upsetting Sponcil and Kelly Claes (now Cheng), upsetting Karissa Cook and Kelly Reeves. He saw Kraft and Graudina take another top-10 in Manhattan just one week later.
In Kraft, he saw an Olympic talent at the net. He saw, potentially, Stockmanâ€™s next partner.
They tried to test out their partnership in Itapema, Brazil, last November, but Stockman had prior commitments, which meant that their debut would come in the Kusadasi Challenge event just this May, two weeks after Kraft would win her second straight NCAA Championship. On little practice together, with little preparation with the Mikasa, they finished fifth. The following week, in New Orleans, they finished third, a career-high on the AVP for Kraft.
â€œItâ€™s so different, the college season is more team oriented and then this is totally different. Itâ€™s more solo, just you and your pair,â€ Kraft said. â€œI was excited for the summer because it was something different. It wasnâ€™t the same thing, the same practices, everything was different. So I havenâ€™t felt that burnout. I took a couple days off to rest the body, but other than that, the travel has been fun, and with it being so different, I never felt â€˜I gotta keep going, this never ends.â€™ Itâ€™s more excited for the next chapter.
â€œItâ€™s really nice to learn from her on the court and off. Itâ€™s very different going from USC and I was playing with a senior in Sammy [Slater] leadership wise, and switching to Emily, sheâ€™s also the leader of our team. Just soaking it all up as much as I can. Sheâ€™s playing so well, siding out, getting digs in transition, I donâ€™t have to do much.â€
Itâ€™s a funny way of putting it, because now, at 19, Kraft has already done so much. Depending on how the rest of this Beach Pro Tour season goes, itâ€™s possible she takes a gap year from USC to pursue the Paris Olympic Games with Stockman.
â€œSometimes Iâ€™m like â€˜No way,â€™â€ Kraft said of her pursuit of the Olympics. â€œObviously itâ€™s really hard to do because thereâ€™s so many good U.S. teams and so many really good teams out there competing and everyone is getting so much better. Itâ€™s very tough but itâ€™s cool to say it out loud and put full faith in it. Itâ€™s worth a shot and if it doesnâ€™t happen it doesnâ€™t happen, but itâ€™s cool to have a team who says â€˜Letâ€™s do it.â€™ â€