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HERMOSA BEACH, California — Terese Cannon wanted to play. She also wanted nothing to do with playing.
It was August of 2018, and on the one hand, this was Sarah Sponcil asking her to partner up for AVP Chicago, the final tournament of the year before fall practice was set to begin at USC. On the other hand, this was August of 2018, and Cannon had struck out in AVP qualifiers that season, falling in the final round in three consecutive events.
Did she really want to try one more?
“I had lost in so many qualifiers that year,” the 6-foot-3 Cannon said. “So I was like ‘Oh man, one more shot, I really want to play but I’m really nervous.’ I just hoped I didn’t screw it up again.”
But in the leadup to Chicago, the more she talked with Sponcil, long her court 2 foe across Los Angeles at UCLA, the more the nerves melted away.
“Sarah was so calm and relaxed and just laughing, like ‘We’re fine, we’re just playing volleyball,’” Cannon recalled. “Then the whole weekend was like that, where we just stepped on the court and did our own thing. That was cool, something I haven’t experienced with a lot of people.”
For the first time since the fall of 2018, they’ll both be experiencing it again, and they’ll be experiencing it quite a bit. For the foreseeable future, Cannon and Sponcil, a Tokyo Olympian, are partners once more, reviving the brief 2018 fling in which they finished third in Chicago — still a career-high for Cannon — and seventh at the AVP invitational in Hawai’i.
Depending on how the points shake out with other developing partnerships in the country — more on them throughout the week — it’s possible that they could very well be the No. 1 ranked American team on the Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour, one of the few seeded directly into the coveted Elite 16.
“It was easy to look back on those tournaments and I had some of my best times playing beach volleyball,” the 5-foot-10 Sponcil said. “It was easy. So I just kind of got my life together and said ‘I’m in a clear head, I’m ready to commit.’ It was an easy decision.”
To describe their paths to this point as opposite is almost understating it. Sponcil’s career has been one steady moonshot, a 25-year-old who has dominated at every stop in her career. She was a two-time Arizona Gatorade Player of the Year as a high schooler and was a standout indoors player at Loyola Marymount, where she also started on Court 1 on the beach for the Lions.
She transferred to UCLA and won back-to-back NCAA beach championships.
In her second event on the AVP, she made a final.
In her first on the World Tour, she medaled.
In her first run at an Olympic Games, she qualified last summer with Kelly Claes in the most dramatic, Hollywood-ized storyline imaginable, winning the final two events of the FIVB qualification process to become the youngest American team in history. They’d finish ninth in Tokyo, competing in another three AVPs and the World Tour Finals before parting ways.
As for Cannon?
A runner-up for the New York Gatorade Player of the Year, the native of Pittsford, New York had played beach a handful of times on the sands of Lake Ontario, participating in a couple high performance camps. When she transferred to USC after a freshman season as an outside hitter at Georgetown, she did not do so as a blue-chip recruit, but as a walk-on. She didn’t immediately start on court 1, but developed on court 6. She was even nervous she’d get cut.
She didn’t — former USC coach Anna Collier is not one to whiff on obvious talent — and Cannon would go on to become a linchpin for a program that would also win two NCAA beach titles. And while her rise on the AVP and FIVB tours has not been the meteoric one experienced by Sponcil, Cannon’s improvement has also been unmistakable. Matches she was once losing in qualifiers she was now winning with ease. Twice she made Sunday in 2019, in Austin with Irene Pollock and in Manhattan with Kelly Reeves.
Even when the inevitable stumbles came, as they did early in the 2021 season, she pushed on. She shrugged off six straight country-quota losses and flipped them into four consecutive top 10 FIVB finishes and three medals of every color, firmly putting herself in the mix of potential options for defenders like Sponcil who were seeking a new blocker.
So when Sponcil says choosing Cannon, who has been able to find success with virtually any type of player and personality, was easy, she means it.
“It’s really easy to work with Terese. She can worry about her stuff, I can worry about my stuff, and it’s really easy to communicate what we need during certain situations,” Sponcil said. “I think that explains why I like T so much. I feel like she wants me to succeed as much as I want her to succeed. I just want her to ball, and that goes both ways. That’s what makes it fun. You’re just trying to make each other better.”
Barring any more schedule changes, Sponcil and Cannon will begin their partnership on March 24, at the Rosarito Elite 16, although they could play in the Tlaxcala Challenge the week prior. After playing with seven partners in one season, Cannon alas has a foundational team, with a steady partner, a coach in Scott Davenport, and at least a three-year timeline to the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.
“It’s cool to actually build a team and practice every day,” Cannon said. “The three of us are in it together.”
More partnerships are being formed as we head into the 2022 pro beach season and we’ll have more here soon.