All roads lead to Rome, as the saying goes, and this convergence for AVP athletes at the World Tour Finals was not a destination, but a crossroads.
In the final 5-star event of the 2019 FIVB World Tour for the U.S.A. hopefuls for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, the race is on in the chase for gold.
The competition is officially on for both the men and women. Two lucky teams on each side will have a chance in the coming months to reach Tokyo, and all that was determined in Rome was that there will be elation and heartbreak.
We just don’t know which teams will experience which emotion when the final names are confirmed in June. We do know that the fight could be epic.
We also know that the candidates have turned their stress into anticipation for the AVP Hawaii Open that starts Sept. 19th. Talk about a breath of fresh air.
Under the lights at Foro Italico, the Olympic complex in Rome, Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb defied the odds and rallied from a 19-14 deficit in the first set and went on to beat 2016 Olympic silver medalists Paolo Nicolai and Daniele Lupo to capture their pool.
They weren’t done. Gibb and Crabb took center court again and outlasted Olympians Pablo Herrera and Adrian Gavira of Spain, 21-14, 34-32, to reach the semifinals. Their fourth-place finish was their best on the World Tour in 2019.
“It’s huge,” Gibb said. “We’re building confidence throughout the season. We’ve been playing well and had some tough finishes. We know we’re there and we’re kind of flipping over a couple pieces to get wins.
“I’ll tell you what – we’re taking nothing but positives from this week. This is a 5-star, as big as it gets. All we want are chances to medal. We gave ourselves a chance this weekend so I’m stoked
Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena are the American favorites and after leaving the Vienna Major with a fourth-place finish, their goal was to let those points in the Olympic rankings stand through the end of the year. Or as Dalhausser put it, “No November.”
After losing two of three matches in Rome, their spot became a little more precarious and a trip to Chetumal, Mexico for a 4-star in November could be back on the table.
“We still haven’t said we wouldn’t go for sure,” Dalhausser said after the 17th-place finish. “Now there’s a conversation to be had.”
This week, Dalhausser and Lucena are the highest-ranked American team. Gibb and Crabb are third, with a dramatic story unfolding between those two teams.
Tri Bourne broke his hand in Vienna, and he and Trevor Crabb had to forfeit their next match. Bourne and Crabb were the second-highest team in the rankings but they stood to lose that spot in Rome.
Defying his surgeon’s orders, Bourne decided to play in Rome with the metacarpal in his right hand only 60 percent healed. Simply by competing in two pool-play matches, Bourne and Crabb maintained their spot.
They lost on consecutive days to exit the tournament with Bourne basically playing with one hand.
“Today was better than yesterday for sure,” Bourne said after the elimination defeat. “I figured out what I can and can’t do. I hadn’t hit any balls with my right. It’s so sensitive because it’s not fully healed yet, it’s still soft, so it wasn’t really worth testing out. Our first match yesterday was our test run, but it felt good so I decided to use my right hand today and it still feels good. So that’s a plus.”
“The actual date for it to be fully healed is in about two weeks. I think going forward we’re back together, we’re back training, now we move forward.”
Bourne was expected to be cleared to play in his hometown by the time the Hawaii Open rolled around, and he watched as Trevor won the Manhattan Beach Open with Reid Priddy. But speaking of expecting . . . his wife Gabby is due to deliver their first child on Sept. 14.
“The big thing was to show up,” Bourne said. “It was scary for me to come because my wife’s due with the baby, but I wanted to do it for the team and show that we’re willing to put in the work no matter what happens. We’re still in the hunt.
“I think we got closer as a team and we’re going to need that going forward.”
Friday held so much promise. By the end of the evening, three American teams faltered with a chance to reach the quarterfinals.
April Ross and Alix Klineman had a chance to reverse their agonizing three-set loss in Vienna against Barbora Hermannova and Marketa Slukova of the Czech Republic, but lost in two sets.
Kelley Larsen and Emily Stockman won the first set before falling to Germans Laura Ludwig and Maggie Kozuch, the eventual World Tour Finals champions.
Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil had leads of 12-8 and 13-11 in the third set to Fan Wang and Xinyi Xia of China, but were on the wrong end of a 16-14 tiebreaker.
Yet when all the points were sorted out, all three teams, plus Brooke Sweat and Kerri Walsh Jennings, rank among the top 12 in the world.
The big news was that Claes, 23, and Sponcil, 22, moved up to No. 9 in the world and the No. 2 spot among Americans in the FIVB World Rankings.
“I had a ton of people texting me today, freaking out and saying ‘I just checked the Olympic rankings, you guys moved up to the second spot,’” Claes said. “I was like ‘Oh my gosh, this is so exciting,’ and you obviously have to pay attention to it, but it’s not like we can change the outcome of anybody else.”
“We’ve been grinding and working so hard, and it’s so exciting to be where we are right now. It’s crazy how young we are and doing this. It’s exciting and surreal. We’re trying to take it one day at a time and not get too caught up in any of the craziness, because there is so much craziness.”
Intensity in many cities
Good thing Sponcil has Claes to think about the details. Kelly has the whole picture in her mind; for Sponcil, it’s always just one thing. Like winning a point and going on to the next serve, which happened in Vienna.
“To be honest about Sarah, half the time she’s not looking at the scoreboard,” Claes said. “We’ve had countless matches where we finish, we win and I’m celebrating and she goes back to serve. ‘You frickin’ stinker, come here and celebrate, we just won.’”
Sarah’s defense: “Normally, I know roughly what’s going on.”