Of the eight USA teams that began Friday in the main draw of the Volleyball World Itapema Challenge in Brazil, six could be described as relatively new:
Julia Scoles and Betsi Flint, as well as Savvy Simo and Toni Rodriguez, are competing in just their fifth event together. Miles Partain and Andy Benesh’s debut tournament of the year is their fourth as a pair. And Kelley Kolinske and Hailey Harward, Tri Bourne and Chaim Schalk, and Trevor Crabb and Theo Brunner are all playing in just their third.
So it stands to reason that they could all use a few extra reps. And goodness did they get them on Friday on the east coast of Brazil. Of the 18 matches played by the eight American teams on Friday, 10 went the full three sets, seven falling in the favor of the USA.
Bourne and Schalk prevailed in both of their three-setters on Friday, the only USA team to win twice in three. They came back from first-set losses to both Austria and Australia, winning 15-13 and 15-7, respectively. Those victories earned them a date with Poland’s Piotr Kantor and Maciej Rudol at 7 a.m. Saturday Pacific.
Joining Bourne and Schalk in the undefeated category are Sponcil and Cannon, and Scoles and Flint, both of whom scored opening round three-set wins before sweeping their second round opponents.
Scoles and Flint, the two seed in the tournament, will play the Netherlands’ Emi Van Driel and Brecht Piersma at 5 a.m. Pacific. At the same time, Sponcil and Cannon will match up with Andressa Cavalcanti and Vitoria De Souza of Brazil, and Kolinske and Harward will meet Finland’s Niina Ahtiainen and Taru Lahti.
Partain and Benesh, meanwhile, will continue playing a who’s-who of Brazilian beach volleyball. After knocking out 2016 Olympic gold medalist Alison Cerutti in the qualifier on Thursday, Partain and Benesh were swept by top-seeded George Wanderley and Andre Loyola, the back-to-back gold medalists in Itapema, in their second match on Friday. On Saturday at 7 a.m., Pacific, they’ll be tasked with fending off the serves of Evandro Goncalves and his new partner, Arthur Mariano.
Three USA pairs were knocked out on Friday. Trevor Crabb and Brunner were swept by Australia and Austria, while Taylor Crabb and Taylor Sander, after a valiant three-set win over Canadians Sam Schachter and Dan Dearing, were swept by Cuba in the lucky loser round. Shortly after, Simo and Rodriguez had a third-set comeback snuffed by Emma Piersma and Mexime van Driel, ending their Challenge run early.
Still: The weekend will feature five American teams in total, nearly half of the pairs who made the trip.
Dutch women show depth, promise
While the Netherlands is one of the deepest federations on the men’s side, with three, sometimes four, teams at the Elite 16 level, the women’s half has been inordinately top heavy. Katja Stam and Raisa Schoon, the current world No. 4, have been carrying the torch for the Dutch since Sanne Keizer and Madelein Meppelink, and Joy Stubbe and Marleen Van Iersel retired in 2021.
Enter the van Driel and Piersma sisters.
Emi van Driel and Brecht Piersma were the 20 seed in Thursday’s qualifier, while Mexime van Driel and Emma Piersma were No. 1. Both made the main draw, and now both find themselves in the ninth-place rounds on Saturday. If all goes well, they could play one another in Sunday’s semifinals.
Cuba’s triumphant return to the Beach Pro Tour
It isn’t often beach volleyball fans are treated to Cuban pairs on the Beach Pro Tour. They typically compete locally, dominating the NORCECA circuits, appearing annually at the World Championships. Twice in 2023, however, Cuba’s top pair of Jorge Alayo and Noslen Diaz have traveled to compete on the Beach Pro Tour, finishing ninth in the La Paz Challenge and guaranteed at least that in Itapema.
After narrowly escaping the qualifier, winning 21-18, 19-21, 15-10 in the final round over Evan Cory and Logan Webber, the Cubans upset Taylor Crabb and Taylor Sander in the lucky loser rounds to cap the night. That win earned them a first-round matchup with the Netherlands’ Matthew Immers and Steven Van De Velde.
Click here for the Volleyball World results and schedule. You can watch all matches of the Itapema Challenge on VolleyballWorld.TV (I’ll be commentating on matches from center court at 9 a.m., 10, 11, and 12, all times Pacific).