US Olympic hopefuls compete in 16th Street Hermosa Beach tourney
by Paul Teetor
How tough was the competition at the unofficial, unsanctioned and un-publicized volleyball “mini-tournament” held at the 16th Street courts in Hermosa Beach this week?
This tough: the best team in America, the already legendary A-Team of Alix Klineman and April Ross, the team most likely to represent the US at the Tokyo Olympics next year, finished third place out of eight teams.
And they had to undergo a grueling 3-set win in the third-place match to achieve even that dubious distinction after three days of intense competition.
“Third place wasn’t what we came here for,” Klineman said after she and Ross beat Emily Day and Sarah Hughes, 21-18, 24-26, 15-12. “But we’ll take it. We also came here to get some good competition, and we certainly got that.”
What really stung about the third-place finish: the mini-tournament was their idea, and they had every expectation of winning it.
A-Team’s coach Angie Akers said all three of them started talking about organizing a tournament a few weeks ago when they got tired of training.
“We were at the end of a training block, and they were hungry for competition,” Akers said. “It’s hard to stay motivated without competition.”
So they called Mark Paaluhi, Director of Beach Volleyball for the Southern California Beach Volleyball Association, and asked him to set it up. He thought it was a great idea and was happy to make it happen. He said after months of pandemic-induced down-time, it was easy to round up eight elite teams eager to play against other elite teams, even without any monetary reward, TV coverage or the other usual trappings of big-time tournaments.
“The purpose was to keep their tournament skills sharp,” Paaluhi said. “And to keep them motivated.”
As Paaluhi talked about the tournament Thursday afternoon under a gun-metal gray ski that threatened rain but never delivered, a small crowd of 50 to 100 fans, friends and family had gathered to watch the world-class volleyball being played. The crowd was substantially smaller than 16th Streets annual Labor Day and Memorial Day weekend tournaments, as was the prize money.
They saw a steady diet of diving saves, soaring kill shots, monster blocks, bullet serves and an occasional off-speed, mis-direction dink shot. The level of play was so high and the intensity level so noticeable that many of the spectators were accidental fans just out for a bike ride or beach-side stroll who couldn’t believe their luck when they came across the Strand-side action.
“I had no idea this was going on, I hadn’t read anything about it anywhere,” said Kim Hughes of Santa Monica. “But when I rode by I recognized April Ross and Alix Klineman, so I pulled over and sat down to watch them play.”
While the A-team was pulling out their tough 3-setter on the B-court for third place, tour veteran Kelly Claes and partner Sarah Sponcil, the second seeded team, knocked off Kelly Kolinski and her partner Emily Stockman on center court for the championship in another tense 3-setter by a score of 21-15, 17-21, 15-13.
Claes led USC to its fourth consecutive national beach volleyball championship in 2017. Sponcil helped UCLA win two consecutive national championships in 2018 and 2019.
“We’re pretty stoked about this win,” Claes said after the match. “We’ve all known each for years from playing on the tour so the competitive spirit is always there, even though this isn’t a regular tournament.”
And she let slip a little secret: at the last moment an anonymous sponsor had donated some money to be divided among the top three teams.
“It’s just a little money,” Claes said. “But it’s better than nothing.”
The match that had everyone buzzing as the tournament neared its end Thursday afternoon was the upset pulled off by Kolinski and Stockman over the A-Team a few hours earlier by a score of 24-22, 21-15.
Kelley and Emily Stockman are currently the second ranked US team on the on the FIVB tour
“They made us more uncomfortable than we were able to make them,” said Klineman, the best player in Mira Costa High School’s long and storied volleyball history. “But still, it was fun just being out there competing even though we didn’t get what we were aiming for.”
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by Kevin Cody
Kevin is the publisher of Easy Reader and Beach. Share your news tips. 310 372-4611 ext. 110 or kevin[at]easyreadernews[dot]com