The men’s podium, Germany’s Lukas Pfretzschner and Sven Winter, left, Theo Brunner and Trevor Crabb, and Brazil’s Evandro Oliveira and Arthur Mariano/Volleyball World photo

GUADALAJARA, Mexico — Theo Brunner had accepted it. While he and Trevor Crabb wouldn’t get a podium finish at the Guadalajara Challenge, “sweet,” Brunner recalled thinking. “We get to rest up for [next week’s Tepic Elite16].”

Crabb was less on the sunny side of matters.

“We blew it,” he remembered thinking as the score of their quarterfinal against Steven Van de Velde and Matthew Immers drifted further and further into a blowout. Down 6-12 to a team known for its side-out efficiency, that, it seemed to any rational person watching — or playing — was that. Merely a matter of time. But amidst their own acceptance that the match was over, a strange shift began to occur. Immers, who at that point had been playing on a superhuman plane, began erring. Van de Velde, whose swings had either avoided the block of Brunner or gone off the 39-year-old’s hands, missed wide.

Still: A 5-2 run only cut the lead to 11-14. An admirable comeback, a respectable score.

Wasn’t going to happen.

Until a Brunner side out and an Immers error whittled it to one.

Maybe they didn’t blow it after all.

Maybe Tepic could wait.

“So you’re saying there’s a chance,” Brunner said, laughing.

More than a chance after a Brunner block to tie it at 14-14. More than a chance after an Immers error long. And a done deal with a Van de Velde error to gift the Americans the biggest comeback of their partnership.

“I’ve had some crazy comebacks in my life but me and Tevor have had some almost crazy comebacks but we’ve never had one,” Brunner said. “It was good to get that one.”

They’d take advantage of the new life, beating Cuba’s Jorge Alayo and Noslen Diaz in the semifinals (18-21, 21-18, 15-13) and Germany’s Sven Winter and Lukas Pfretzschner in a magnificent final which, of course, went three sets, finishing 12-21, 21-19, 15-12. Brunner and Crabb went to three in all five matches played — discounting a second-round forfeit in pool play — this weekend and were perfect in all of them, atoning for an 0-4 start to the year in three-set matches prior to Guadalajara.

“Losing those in Brazil pissed us off a little bit,” Crabb said. “When we can turn that around it shows us a lot.”

The win is a monumental one in the context of the Olympic race. The 800 points picked up by Brunner and Crabb vaults them to No. 10 in the Olympic rankings, 480 above Chase Budinger and Miles Evans and more than 1,000 over Tri Bourne and Chaim Schalk, both of whom finished ninth. All three teams will be competing in next week’s Tepic Elite16, with Budinger and Evans and Bourne and Schalk beginning in Wednesday’s qualifier.

Zoe Verge-Depre, Esmee Bobner win first career golds

If the 15 total sets played seemed a long road taken by Brunner and Crabb, it was nothing compared to that of Switzerland’s Zoe Verge-Depre and Esmee Bobner.

Unlike Crabb and Brunner, Bobner and Verge-Depre did not have the luxury of a second-round forfeit. Instead, following their first round loss to Thailand’s Worapeerachayakorn Kongphopsarutawadee and Taravadee Naraphornrapat (22-24, 21-15, 12-15), they matched up with American Cinderellas Savvy Simo and Abby Van Winkle — the very pair that knocked out Zoe’s older sister, Anouk, in the qualifier.

Simo and Van Winkle nearly became the most disliked pair in Switzerland, pushing Zoe Verge-Depre and Bobner to three before ultimately falling, 21-17, 18-21, 15-10. Though they never wish to require a second-round win to advance into the playoffs, it isn’t unfamiliar ground for Verge-Depre and Bobner. They did the same in Challenges in Recife and Saquarema, finishing fifth and ninth, respectively.

They’re just fine taking the long road.

“We need more practice,” Bobner said, laughing. “That’s why.”

Perhaps it was the extra reps. Or perhaps it was just a magnificent young team alas coming into its own. Regardless, Bobner and Verge-Depre settled in, winning their next four matches — two in three sets, over Finland’s Taru Lahti and Niina Ahtiainen and Canada’s Sophie Bukovec and Heather Bansley in the semifinals — reserving their finest performance for the gold medal match. There, they’d match up with Brazilian veterans Agatha and Rebecca, though it was the 26-year-old Verge-Depre and 24-year-old Bobner who looked the part of the vets, winning in dominant fashion, 21-12, 21-16.

“I have to really control myself to not get ahead of myself, to not get nervous, to stay relaxed,” Verge-Depre said. “Sometimes it’s harder when you’re leading by so much to stay in the game. It feels really good because we made one final before and we got second and we just wanted to be one of those teams that can actually win it. That feels really good.”

As it should. With their first gold medals donned around their necks, Verge-Depre and Bobner leapt to No. 13 in the Olympic rankings, 220 points ahead of Anouk and Joana Mader for the second Swiss spot.

Sophie Bukovec, Heather Bansley win second medal in three tournaments

Funny enough, as long as Crabb and Brunner’s 15-set road was, winding and stressful as Verge-Depre and Bobner’s journey was to their first career golds, they were nothing compared to that of the adventure of Sophie Bukovec and Heather Bansley.

For the third straight tournament, the Canadians came out of the qualifier. For the third straight tournament, they took a top-five finish, this one being of the bronze medal variety, requiring eight total matches in four days, at 1,500 meters of altitude, in hot, dry, Mexican heat.

No matter.

After dropping their first match of the main draw to Poland’s Ola Wachowicz and Jagoda Gruszczynska, Bukovec and Bansley escaped pool play with a three-set win over France’s Aline Chamereau and Clemence Vieira (17-21, 21-17, 15-11), though that only put them into the lucky loser.

Their reward for beating Kim Hildreth and Teegan Van Gunst in that lucky loser? A date with top-seeded Nina Brunner and Tanja Huberli.

“Can we agree to never lose the first one again?” Bukovec deadpanned.

Might be the more efficient plan, though it’s difficult to argue the results. They’d upset Brunner and Huberli, 22-20, 21-17, and on just two hours of rest, they’d recover enough to sweep Spain’s Lili Fernandez and Paula Soria, 21-18, 21-18, taking the most adventurous of routes to get back into the semifinals.

Somehow, after dropping a tremendous semifinal to Verge-Depre and Bobner, 18-20 in the third set, they’d recover again, sweeping Germany’s Karla Borger and Sandra Ittlinger for bronze (21-18, 21-14).

“Definitely tired,” Bukovec said. “We’re pushing really hard which is setting us up for the rest of the year. I’m really excited about the results we’ve been able to accomplish these last couple of weeks together.”

While Bukovec and Bansley are taking the next week off, the Beach Pro Tour is not, as it is moving two hours northwest for the Tepic Elite16, which begins with Wednesday’s qualifier.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here