HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — Are you curious about the secret to beach volleyball success? Theo Brunner has a succinct answer for you: “24th Street in Hermosa.”
What happens there, exactly? Four, sometimes five days a week, you’ll see some dozen odd players training, from 8 to noon or so, although on this Sunday in Hermosa Beach, four names in particular stand out amongst the rest: Sarah Sponcil and Terese Cannon, and Chaim Schalk and Theo Brunner.
They’re there, every day, working with head coach Scott Davenport and assistant coach Chris Flood. (It’s worth noting that Emily Stockman and Megan Kraft are typically there as well, though this weekend they were in Gstaad, Switzerland, finishing ninth in an Elite 16). On Sunday, the dividends of 24th Street came pouring in, as Sponcil and Cannon won their first AVP title as a team, and an hour later, Schalk and Brunner did the same, beating Taylor Crabb and Taylor Sander in a scintillating three-setter, 22-20, 24-26, 15-9.
“Feels amazing,” Schalk said afterwards. “The fans were incredible, it feels amazing, doing it with Theo after a couple years of grinding. It feels amazing.”
Indeed, there was little, if anything, that fell shy of amazing this weekend in Hermosa Beach. It was, by every measure, the most well-attended AVP, with fans packing the stadium and the outer courts from the first match to the final trickle-ace. The viewership on the YouTube stream skyrocketed. The competition — on the men’s side, anyway — may have been the stiffest of the season.
Schalk’s and Brunner’s road to their first AVP win as a team was no easy one. They played seven matches and went the full three sets in five of them, beginning with Lev Priima and Silila Tucker in the first round. After going up 13-10 in the third set of the second round against Miles Partain and Paul Lotman, they fell victim to one of the most heroic performances of the weekend from Partain, who optioned and aced and dug his and Lotman’s way to a 16-14 win that sent Brunner and Schalk into the contenders bracket.
Who would they meet in the seventh-place match? Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb, the struggling 1 seed who was stunned by the 16 in Jake Dietrich and Hagen Smith in the first match of the tournament. It was Brunner’s clutch blocking at the end that kept that one from going three, sealing up a 21-19, 22-20 victory, moving them onto Sunday.
Long day, Sunday.
A 21-18, 21-19 win over Dietrich and Smith pushed them into the semifinals, in a rematch with Lotman and Partain that lived up to the hype: A 21-13, 18-21, 15-12 victory over the Olympian and the most promising male talent in the United States. And while they could have sealed up the finals in two sets — perhaps should have — with two match points coming at 20-18 in the second, it just wouldn’t have been right, really. To three they went with Crabb and Sander, who had made it to the finals unscathed.
In three they won, yet again. By this point, it makes sense that they’d win in the decisive set. They’ve gone there in 10 of their last 15 matches, dating back to the World Championships in Rome, in which they finished fourth and topped all American teams. Meanwhile, Crabb and Sander have only played 15 professional matches as a team.
“After we lost in the second round, we had a talk and decided that it doesn’t matter what’s happening, we just need to focus on what we’re doing,” Schalk said. “We were just building as a team, who cares about what’s happening in the match. If you focus on that, it’ll turn your way.”
And it has been of late. Schalk and Brunner are now the No. 1 ranked team in the United States and will soon pass Trevor Crabb and Bourne for the No. 1 seed on the AVP. Results like these are exactly why Schalk transferred to the United States from Canada: He wanted a blocker like Brunner, and he wanted to win.
Consider both done.
And consider the weekend Scott Davenport’s crowning moment as a coach. Both teams he coaches who played in Hermosa Beach won, while the other, Kraft and Stockman, finished top-10 in the biggest Elite 16 of the year.
“It’s awesome,” Brunner said of winning alongside Sponcil and Cannon. “We share a coach and we share a training court. 24th Street in Hermosa, we’re out there.”
Men’s results from the Gstaad Elite 16
Chilean cousins Marco and Esteban Grimalt returned to the top of the podium after a three-year hiatus, defeating Ondrej Perusic and David Schweiner of the Czech Republic in the finals.
Bronze was won by Steven van de Velde and Christiaan Varenhorst of the Netherlands, who beat Brazilians Bruno Schmidt and Saymon Barbosa for their first medal of the season. No American men competed in Gstaad.