The ball arcs tantalizingly over the blocker, aimed for an empty part of the court where there is no defender.
Not so fast. In the blink of an eye, Sarah Sponcil is racing from the other side of the court, dives and stretches every fiber of muscle in her 5-foot-10 frame.
That’s exactly what we’ve come to expect from the defensive wizard. What comes next is anybody’s guess. It’s not “Will she get that ball up?” but rather, “What will she pull off this time?”
She could get the inside of her forearm under the ball. She could extend her arm to the sand and flipper it up from the back of her hand. Anything, really. When she hits the sand, the contortions are like a fingerprint, different every time, with limbs splayed all over the place.
Suddenly, the ball is up and Sponcil has scored another point.
Another opponent is the victim of the Flying Squirrel.
“I describe her as a little bulldog,” partner Kelly Claes said. “She’s a fiery spitfire little thing. We also call her flying squirrel. She’s an amazing defender, I saw a lot of potential in her so we trained a few times and we clicked instantaneously and that was exciting. And we’re goofballs off the court, which is really nice.”
The former two-time NCAA champion at UCLA and one of the best defenders in Loyola Marymount University history, the 22-year-old Sponcil is in her first year as a pro and his being shepherded through her rookie season by the 23-year-old Claes.
It’s only the third full season in professional beach volleyball for Claes, but she sees a lot of that wide-eyed drive and determination she remembers from her first foray into the post-college world.
“So much, oh my gosh,” Claes said. “It’s not like I have a ton of knowledge, but with my two years of knowledge, I’m trying to throw it on her so she can catch up as quickly as possible. She’s been doing an amazing job.
“I’m still learning so much and she’s patient with me, I’m patient with her and that’s a good part of our dynamic because we understand nobody out here’s perfect and we’re learning and growing every time we go out there. Not getting frustrated with each other on mistakes and letting each other be creative and aggressive. If we mess up, we mess up and we’re learning from it.”
By this time in her life, Sponcil thought she was destined for a career indoors that included future Olympic glory. She even sought the counsel of U.S. Women’s National Team coach Karch Kiraly. Then she caught the attention of Olympic beach volleyball veteran Lauren Fendrick.
“I started indoor way before the beach but I’ve been doing beach for a while now since the juniors,” Sponcil said. “I really was driving for indoors and I was talking to Karch for awhile, but then Lauren picked me up last year and that gave me an insight of this could be the life for me after college.”
It wasn’t just volleyball knowledge Sponcil was gleaning from Fendrick, it was the way to approach the travel, scouting, nutrition, among other things that fans don’t always appreciate before the athletes step onto the court.
“I learned so much. Just the traveling aspect, in general, is a lot to take in when you’re on the road for a month and have to do everything yourself,” Sponcil said. “We’re so used to it like ‘Be at the bus at this time, we’re getting you this food.’ That’s not how it is. She taught me all the ropes on that, I’m still learning a ton and Kelly’s been helping me out.
“I just love her for taking a chance on me and helping me out in that first go-round on the tour.”
Claes keeps her eyes focused on the big picture. Sponcil basically says, “Point me in the direction I need to be going.”
In their first season together, the results are starting to pile up for Sponcil and Claes. On the AVP tour, they have a 20-11 match record in 2019 with a runner-up finish in New York and a third-place showing in Seattle.
In seven events on the international tour, their results have included a bronze medal in Qinzhou, China, and silver in The Hague, Netherlands.
They’ll apply their chemistry this week at the FIVB World Championships of Beach Volleyball in Hamburg, Germany.
The new duo clicked immediately, which in a sense does not come as a shock to Sponcil.
“I didn’t think it wouldn’t, I don’t know, I think how well we click off the court is just amazing and it’s something that a lot of other partnerships on tour don’t have,” Sponcil said. “A lot of it is business, which is true. We’re in the early stages but just to be able to enjoy your partner on and off the court, it’s like a gift. I have a blast with her and I’m excited to see what happens next.”
She’s off to a flying (squirrel) start.