HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — It was inevitable: Sarah Sponcil was going to win an AVP tournament.
Everybody knew it, from the moment they saw a blue-eyed, implacable 22-year-old Sponcil make the finals of the first “real” AVP she had ever played, in Austin of 2018, when her only loss came in the finals at the hands of a new partnership in April Ross and Alix Klineman.
Some, take John Mayer, then her coach at Loyola Marymount, now simply an enormous fan, like so many in the United States, knew earlier than that: Sarah Sponcil was a generational talent, the type of athlete whom young girls would put up posters on their wall and giggle when requesting autographs one day. Over the next three years, Mayer proved, per usual, prophetic in his praise of Sponcil. She’d go on to win back-to-back FIVB events, in Russia and the Czech Republic. She’d qualify for the Olympic Games. She’d finish the 2019 AVP season making every semifinal. Her name was firmly in the mix when it came to discussions of the best defenders in the world, alongside Duda, April Ross, Laura Ludwig, Heather Bansley, Mariafe Artacho, Barbara Seixas.
Yes, Sarah Sponcil belonged.
Yet one thing was missing: The AVP title so many viewed as inevitable, a simple matter of time.
“There’s always that thing in the back of your head: ‘You’re the Olympian who hasn’t won an AVP title,’” Sponcil said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “I was no longer wanting to be that person. That was one of the motivations. But there was something that came over me. Every other final I’ve been in, there was something about who I was as a player, I wasn’t ready to win. Going into that Sunday, the final match, I was ready, now is the time. That was really special and I was so stoked to get another chance.”
What changed on “that Sunday,” July 10, the finals of AVP Hermosa Beach, is impossible to pin down, as intangible as it is tangible. Both everything and nothing shifted for Sponcil. She is still the sensational defender she has been ever since Lauren Fendrick pulled her into the main draw of Austin in May of 2018. She’s still the gritty competitor who won multiple NCAA Championships at UCLA, helping to resurrect the program and turn it into a dynasty. She’s still the goofy kid who made music videos with her former partner, Kelly Cheng, and, in between sets of the semifinals of AVP Hermosa against Kelley Kolinske and Sara Hughes, hit skyballs with fans.
But there’s also something different about Sponcil. An Olympic race changes you. Winning — seeing the top of the proverbial mountain, only to realize that medals cannot be all you play this game for, that there has to be something bigger, something intrinsic, something inside of you to sustain the type of career she wants — changes you. Sponcil came out of the Tokyo Olympics a vastly different version of herself, in ways that are difficult to explain, because on the surface, nothing is different, but on an internal level, nothing is the same.
“I wanted to enjoy the game and I knew I was going to enjoy it with [Terese Cannon]. The Olympics was amazing but when you enjoy it, you want to work that much harder. There’s not expectations with T. It’s freer,” she said. “We’re going to try to make the Olympics but whether the wins come or losses come, if you enjoy it and you’re learning and growing together, that means more to me than any medal because I just want to see growth in me, I want to see growth in T and I want to do it for a long time. I’m already thinking in 15 years, I want to still be passionate. After the Olympics, I said ‘Ok that was cool, but now what?’”
Now, if there’s a single word that could get close to describing Sponcil, it may be patient. She’s taking consecutive losses in a Volleyball World Challenger event in Tlaxcala, Mexico, and not worrying in the least. Instead, she’s using the unexpected downtime to plan a visit to Cannon in Rochester to see a Morgan Wallen concert. She’s at 24th Street in Hermosa Beach, every day, repping it out with Scott Davenport, finetuning her arm swing, her defensive movements, her serving — all the little things that take thousands and thousands of repetitions just for a single point three or four months down the road. She’s seeing the bigger meaning of all of this, that there is a great deal more to this game than champagne showers and medals — although those are, she’ll readily admit, quite nice.
“My mind had been swirling since we qualified [for Tokyo],” Sponcil said. “Going back home and seeing family and friends was a huge reset for me. I was pretty ready to dive back into it in January and start the partnership up with T and see what we had together. I just wanted to get back to enjoying the game. The new quad, new partner, that was a huge reset. Throughout the last three months, I’ve seen myself get more competitive than I’ve felt in a long time and that really excites me and makes me want to work that much harder and I’ve just enjoyed the whole process since January. We had a bumpy ride in the beginning but there was never a second where I went, oh my gosh, freakout mode, what’s going to happen. I know that we have so much growth, whether it comes now or later, it’s not really stress.”
Everyone can point to July 10 as the milestone of that growth, the day that Sponcil and Cannon won AVP Hermosa, sweeping Cheng and Betsi Flint, 21-12, 21-15, in a match that took 36 minutes, and all 36 of those minutes were controlled by Cannon and Sponcil. But that was simply the culmination of the small moments of growth throughout an up-and-down season, the end product of a five-week road trip that saw them compete in Turkey, the Czech Republic, Latvia, and Italy for the World Championships.
“Going on that five week road trip really helped us because I know Sarah so well now and I trust her and she can trust me and I have no fear of being who I am,” Cannon said. “I can be who I am and she’s going to be fine with that. It’s cool to have that relationship and that transfers on the court too.”
Cannon felt the pressure of the partnership the moment she agreed to team with an Olympian and maybe the best defensive player in the United States. That pressure came not from Sponcil, but from herself. After a year of grinding it out in country quotas and one-star events, Cannon had paid her dues.
Was she ready?
“Sarah has performed so well on a global stage and I never have. I thought ‘I can’t mess this up.’ It was cool,” Cannon said. “We were talking in November, December, when we first were talking about maybe playing together. There are a lot of things to discuss when making these moves because you want to make sure things mesh well on the court and off the court and we’d played well before but was a couple years ago and a lot of things changed, I feel like a different person and a different player. We played in two tournaments together, had a blast, then didn’t hang out again. Not in a bad way. I was really excited. Really nervous. This was something I wanted to make happen, I just wasn’t totally sure if I could.”
It’s fair for Cannon to ask those questions of herself. Who in their right mind would have predicted a girl from Rochester, New York, would walk on at USC, win several NCAA Championships — then rise to the No. 2 team in the United States, win medals of every color on the World Tour, and win an AVP, in one of its most iconic locations?
“T’s story is pretty incredible: Growing up in Rochester, went to USC, grinded her butt off for five years, she’s so coachable, works really hard, and I love it,” Sponcil said. “I know that she put in so much work doing the international tournaments and things weren’t going great but I knew she was a great player. I knew at the international level that you can be great, but can you still be coached? How hard are you going to work? I knew that she was a great person. I played with her for two tournaments and this girl can’t kill anything. I knew she had the work ethic, and when we got coffee, I thought his is great, I can travel with this girl, we can have some fun, and we just clicked right away. We’ve been rolling ever since.
“It’s the freedom to make mistakes, to grow, and on the macro level it’s a process, you’re going to have losses, you’re going to have wins, and you’re going to grow. That’s the main goal of sports is to reach your potential and that’s not going to happen in a day. Our society is an instant gratification society and that was really hard for me, knowing I made second on my first AVP and knowing it took me four years to get my first. That was painful, because you want it, but you have to keep going and keep going and keep going and this weekend was my time. It was enough.”
It was time for both, whose paths to this point could not have been more different: Sponcil the prodigy since high school, Cannon the quiet talent from upstate New York who had a late start to the game.
“You might not know your path,” Sponcil said, “but it always works out.”
“It’s been cool,” added Cannon. “I was just really excited about how we played. That’s why I’m most excited about it. That really felt like us on the court and if we can continue to play at that level consistently, that’s a really exciting future for us. It felt like a real team win with us, Scott [Davenport], our sports psych, so many people supporting us, so I’m really happy and really excited at the direction we’re moving. Not much has changed. I still get on my bike and go to practice every day, still go to the grocery store, there’s still more big tournaments we want to win but it’s a really cool first one and a really cool start.”
And that’s just it: This is only the start.
Sponcil’s inevitable time has come.