Well, that was fun.
I expected the first tournament back in the home of beach volleyball to be a doozy. Still, the 2022 Hermosa Beach Open exceeded even my high expectations. From Friday at 9 am to Sunday at 4:30 pm, when the four winners dragged themselves off the court to celebrate their success on the nearby Hermosa Pier, we were all having fun.
Easily the largest Stadium Court of the Pro Series, the 900-ish person bleachers were packed from dawn to dusk. Fans staked their claim with towels lined on the hot, metal seats. From the DJ Booth, we saw groups trading turns for bathroom breaks and food runs so no one lost their spot.
As many AVP athletes live in or around Hermosa, the crowd had more intimate supporters than ever. Even those watching without personal connections to the athletes were engaged and raucously loud. The Friday evening matches of Sponcil/Cannon vs. Turner/Gaffney and Smith/Dietrich vs. Casebeer/Allen were some of my favorite of the year. Every athlete was visibly invigorated by the cheering, both hostile and friendly alike. Too much fun.
Speaking of Smith and Dietrich, they stole just about everyone’s heart last weekend. The pair earned a bid into Hermosa via a series of local CBVA events. As the 16 seed, they could have easily gone 0-2, a not uncommon fate for players who make their debut against the best team in the tourney.
Hagen Smith and Jake Dietrich didn’t care who their opponent was. They were on a mission. Both were on fire in their first three-set match against #1-seeded Tri Bourne/Trevor Crabb. With 40 kills as a team (Bourne/Crabb had 32) and 5 aces (Bourne/Crabb had 0), Smith/Dietrich shocked just about everyone. Then they did it again against the #8 seed.
As the day’s last match, the Hermosa sands and fans were golden and warm. The stands were more full than I’ve ever seen on a Friday, and everyone was deliciously invested. So much fire burned between the two teams; I’ve never seen so many stare-downs from Jeremy Casebeer.
Smith and Dietrich thrived off the energy, often turning to the crowd to bask in their adoration. Hagen Smith is, of course, the son of legendary Sinjin Smith. He’s no stranger to the euphoria of volleyball love. Must have felt good to be on the receiving end this time.
Unfortunately, our Cinderella story ended there. Smith/Dietrich lost their next two matches, but they earned an impressive 5th place. Not sure if that gets them into the Atlanta Gold Series Main Draw. Regardless, they notched valuable points and are sure to grace our beach again.
One of the teams who took them down was our Men’s winners. After losing in the Second Round to Miles Partain and Paul Lotman, Chaim Schalk and Theo Brunner went on a winning tear. They handled Noah Dyer and Chase Frishman, 21-17; 21-17. They then had a #1 vs. #2 match, but they didn’t falter under pressure, getting it done in two sets. Brunner had 5 stuff blocks and 3 controlled blocks, and 4 aces as a team against Crabb/Bourne.
Sunday morning, Schalk/Brunner ended Smith/Dietrich’s run 21-18; 21-19 to the tune of a .543 team hitting percentage. Their Semifinal afforded them glorious redemption; they took down Partain/Lotman in three.
It’s fitting that their Final against Taylor Crabb/Taylor Sander was another three-set thriller. Sets one and two were as close as they could be, with the first going to Brunner/Schalk 22-20 and the second going the Taylors’ way 26-24. After being that close to Championship point, you’d think that Schalk/Brunner’s frustration or fear may take over.
Not that day. Schalk was a monster, touching everything and converting almost every dig. Brunner’s block was, as always, an impassable hindrance to his opponents. Schalk had 13 digs and 22 kills, while Brunner had 3 stuff and 4 controlled blocks.
The Final was more than stats, though. The Hermosa Final was the culmination of a team that should have many wins to their name finally breaking that barrier. With some of the best stats on Tour, it was a long time coming for this duo to get their first team win. Now that they’ve broken the proverbial seal, I expect many more titles going the way of Theo Brunner and Chaim Schalk.
Speaking of a long time coming… can you believe this was Sarah Sponcil’s first AVP win? She’s an Olympian with two FIVB Gold medals and two NCAA National Championships, but an AVP Championship had eluded her until now.
Sponcil/Cannon looked next level from their very first match. As the only Stadium Court match to only go two sets on Friday (the other seven went to three), Sponcil/Cannon looked dialed in and so in sync. In that first big win, Cannon had 6 stuff blocks and 2 aces. Sponcil had 11 digs and 3 aces. Those numbers prevailed throughout.
As I mentioned, Sponcil/Cannon’s second match on Friday will go down in history. Gaffney/Turner played some of their best volleyball, but Sponcil/Cannon did not back down. Sponcil had a mind-blowing 20 digs while Cannon put up 7 digs of her own plus 33 kills. Even with Gaffney/Turner’s 6 aces and Gaffney’s 7 terminal blocks, the eventual winners were untouchable.
Saturday’s match was quick and painless, a two-set victory over the very solid Zana Muno and Lauren Fendrick. Sponcil’s hitting percentage was surprisingly low (.097), but their 24 team digs and Cannon’s 7 terminal blocks were defensive daggers that carried them to the Semifinals.
Sponcil/Cannon’s best match of the weekend came early Sunday morning. Their Semifinal against Sarah Hughes/Kelley Kolinske thrilled throughout. Sarah Hughes played some of the best volleyball I’ve seen, not only of her but of anyone on Tour. She was reading everything, putting up Sports Center-worthy digs, and swinging away on almost every attempt. Her high arm swing and snap were a thing of beauty. You love to see it.
The fact that she and Kelley both played so well but still lost shows how dominant the play was on the other side of the net. The first set remained neck and neck until Sponcil/Claes found themselves down 18-20. Somehow, they dug deep and eeked out some crucial points, finishing the first 24-22.
Hughes/Kolinske then rolled over them in the second set, winning 21-11. Hughes had 8 kills, 0 errors, and 5 digs in that set; the team hit .632 while Sponcil/Cannon hit .000.
That second set beatdown didn’t deter Sponcil/Cannon. They started the third on top and held the lead. Up 14-11, we all thought it was over. Until Hughes/Kolinske tied it 14-14.
All eyes were on Cannon. She had struggled to side out, both from aces and unsuccessful attacks. When she lollipopped the ball to Hughes at 14-14, everyone thought Hughes/Kolinske would regain the lead and likely head to the Finals.
That is until Cannon absolutely housed her USC teammate and friend, taking back the lead and momentum with a bonafide Monster Block. It was a pivotal moment not just in that game, but I also believe in Cannon’s career.
Cannon needed to show up, and she did at the exact right time. That confidence cannot be manifested anywhere other than a do-or-die moment. You can’t teach that in practice; you must find it when you need it. They rode that momentum and finished out the match 17-15.
With those lessons and all the confidence in the world, Sponcil/Cannon sailed through the Final against Betsi Flint/Kelly Cheng. For all intents and purposes, it shouldn’t have been uncomplicated.
It was Cannon’s first Final ever. Flint was the defending 2019 Hermosa Champ. She and Cheng had won the most recent AVP in New Orleans. Sponcil had immense pressure on her as the only Olympian with no AVP win and a chip on her shoulder against the ole partner Cheng. It had all the trappings of a perfect albeit emotion-filled Final.
Early on, Sponcil/Claes dictated the game getting a 12-6 lead. After closing it out 21-12, most thought the second would go in the opposite direction. That happens sometimes; trade big wins and settle in the third. Flint/Cheng looked as good as ever, and they had more Finals experience than either opponent. They’d also been winning, making it to the Finals through the Winner’s Bracket.
The second, however, remained in Sponcil/Cannon’s command the entire time. Cannon, once again, showed up on that match with 6 terminal and 4 controlled blocks. Her defense set Sarah up to notch 15 digs and 17 kills. Classic Sponcil threw herself all over the court to keep the ball in play. Even match point boasted a layout dig and kill. You could see Sponcil knew she was winning; I’ve never seen someone get up so quickly after being parallel to the ground.
Fun fact: both winning teams are coached by Scott Davenport. They refer to themselves as the 24th Street Crew, the training court they spend four days a week at just half a mile from where they all took home their first team trophies. Another fun fact: this was Sponcil’s first AVP Hermosa. Pretty fun to notch your first win in your own backyard alongside your friends. You can’t write that sappy of a storyline, but here we are.
Speaking of sappy – there was just something inordinately special about Hermosa. Both athletes and staff were home or very close to. The entire city rallied, their energy and excitement palpable from the first to last serve. Californians just know and love beach volleyball, and they have for years. It’s in their blood.
Maybe because it’s the first time we’ve been in Hermosa in three years. Maybe because it had been over a month since the last AVP in New Orleans. Maybe because it really feels like we’re back in the AVP groove. I don’t know… I’m just feeling some type of way. And I like it.