San Jose's Top 5 women's matches

Film Room Friday: Top 5 women’s matches from San Jose

The two seasons between one Olympic Games and the push for the next are inevitably intriguing. Storylines come and go. Partnerships dissolve and form. Old faces retire, new faces emerge. Such was the case with 2017 and 2018, where the gold medalists on the women’s side, Germans Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst, took a maternity leave and announced a retirement, respectively. The bronze medalists, April Ross and Kerri Walsh Jennings, split up, one forming America’s new power team in Ross-Alix Klineman, the other forming p1440, a new beach volleyball event series as well as a potential Olympic team in Walsh Jennings-Brooke Sweat.

Silver medalists, Brazilians Barbara and Agatha, also split after a supremely successful three-year partnership, Barbara turning to 33-year-old Fernanda, Agatha to one of the most precocious athletes in the sport in now-20-year-old Duda.

It’s a simple way of saying that change is the only constant in the two-year gap between the race for an Olympic Games. It could be argued that the biggest change on the women’s side of the game was the rise of Canada’s women. Two Canadian teams — Sarah Pavan-Melissa Humana-Paredes, Heather Bansley-Brandie Wilkerson — at different points in the season, held the No. 1 spot in the world. By year’s end, it was Bansley-Wilkerson — not the Germans, not the Brazilians, not the Americans — who established themselves as the most dominant team in the world, winning three of their last four events of the year, placing second in the one they didn’t.

It is the leading factor that our top match from San Jose involves Bansley-Wilkerson, who are as delightful on the court as they are off it, tremendous ambassadors for the game both in the way they play and in how they carry themselves — remarkably athletic, humble, convivial.

Another reason, too, is that the match is just downright fun, featuring an international mish-mash of a team in Brazilian Taiana Lima and the Netherlands’ Jolien Sinnema. With the Olympic push now underway, it will likely be two years before we see internationally mixed teams competing. So for now, enjoy this thrilling three-setter between the team that could be labeled as gold medal favorites, and the one we might not see competing together again.

Heather Bansley-p1440

No. 2: Agnieszka Pregowska-Jess Gaffney upset Olympians Lauren Fendrick-Nicole Branagh

Americans love an underdog, and by the time the fourth round of the contender’s bracket rolled around, Agnieszka Pregowska and Jessica Gaffney, two members of the p1440 Developmental Program, had already established themselves as the top dogs in the tournament. Few would have expected a win over veterans and Olympians Lauren Fendrick and Nicole Branagh, two of the most respected players in the game.

And yet there went Pregowska and Gaffney, upending Fendrick and Branagh, 18-21, 21-14, 15-11, in the biggest upset of the tournament.

No. 3: Kim Hildreth, Sarah Schermerhorn nearly stun Brazilians Maria and Carol

All due respect to Pregowska and Gaffney and their upset over Fendrick and Branagh, but had Kim Hildreth and Sarah Schermerhorn, a pair living in Tampa, Florida, who had qualified through the Beach Bums qualifier, pulled off this upset, they’d have laid claim to the biggest upset of the entire p1440 series.

Heading into San Jose, Maria and Carol were ranked No. 1 in the world, and had proven talented enough for that title throughout the entire year. Yet there were Hildreth and Schermerhorn, smoking the Brazilians, 21-14, in the first set, showing enough swagger and panache to attempt kills one one — and pull it off.

They couldn’t close it out, but the only thing better than an upset story is the possibility of one, and this match had all of that and then some.

4. Kelley Larsen, Emily Stockman win in dominant fashion over Branagh, Fendrick

It might seem like we’re picking on Fendrick and Branagh here, with their only two losses in the tournament making it into the top-five, but both selections are more for what happened on the other side of the net. In No. 2, we were able to enjoy a lovely upset. In No. 4, Americans were able to see almost a passing of the guard, from two of the most successful Americans of the past few years — in 2017, Fendrick finished second in the World Championships; Branagh was in the finals of AVP New York in 2018 — to two with the potential to content for several Olympics to come.

Larsen is just 26 years old, Stockman 30. Both have shown the ability to contend at the World Tour’s highest level. The dominance shown in this match, a 21-16, 21-12 win over an excellent volleyball team, is what makes it fun, adding another element of intrigue for what is sure to be a wild race to Tokyo for the American women.

5. Carly Wopat shows promise in win with Pri Lima over Martina Bonnerova, Nicole Eiholzer

This was one of the first looks that American fans had of Carly Wopat, a three-time All-American at Stanford who played several seasons overseas and was on the roster of the U.S. National Team. And indeed it was a good look to have, as Wopat, who is now partnered with Brittany Hochevar and playing beach full-time, and Pri Lima won, 19-21, 21-15, 15-13, over Martina Bonnerova and Nicole Eiholzer.

Wopat piled up 11 blocks, 3 aces and 12 kills on just a single hitting error. They would finish 13th for the tournament, falling in the next round to Janelle Allen and Kerri Schuh, but Wopat established herself as a promising talent at the net for years to come.