Claes, Sponcil win silver at The Hague

Kelly Claes, Sarah Sponcil win silver medal at The Hague

College Beach Volleyball

It was on the streets of Qinzhou that Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil endured their first true test as a burgeoning young team.

“There was a guy,” Claes said after finishing ninth in Las Vegas in October. “I’m convinced he was drunk, and he, like, grabbed [Sarah], so I booked it away. From her point of view, it looked like I just left her.”

“I escaped,” Sponcil recalled, laughing, “but he just kept coming and I was like ‘Oh my God Kelly help me!’”

And thus was born their first off-season training idea: self-defense classes.

“If we took self-defense classes, we’d know what to do in this situation,” Claes said, mostly in jest, though partly serious. “But I do want to do some non-volleyball related activities so we’re trying to figure out what we want to do and have fun with it, get to know each other better.”

Whatever it was, whether it be the self-defense classes, the underwater workouts – another Claes idea – or training with their new coach, Leandro Pinheiro, something seems to have worked for one of the United States’ most promising teams.

This weekend in the Netherlands, competing in a four-star FIVB at The Hague — won last year by another new team, April Ross and Alix Klineman — Claes and Sponcil claimed a silver medal, a career-best finish both in medal color and points. Bigger than the $8,000 they’ll split in prize money is the 360 points they earned, a boost in both seeding for future FIVBs – nobody wants to fly to the Netherlands to play in a qualifier – and for the Olympic race.

“We’ve figured out a ton of things but we still have a lot of things to iron out,” Claes said in Vegas. “We’re really trying to be aggressive with every play and if we make errors then just brush it off and learn from it, not dwell on it too long and just kind of be there for each other play, have fun.”

It is that exact mindset that could have been found in nearly every match this weekend. They brushed off a three-set loss in the second round of pool to Germans Kim Behrens and Sandra Ittlinger. They brushed off a 21-13 shellacking in the first set of the second round of bracket play to fellow Americans Emily Day and Betsi Flint. They brushed off the fact that they let an 8-4 lead disappear in four straight points in the second set of the semifinals — after winning the first — against Finland’s Taru Lahti and Anniina Parkkinen, eventually dropping it, 18-21. They recovered, of course, as is becoming an early theme of this team, winning the third, 15-8, securing a spot in the finals against Brazil’s Ana Patricia Silva and Rebecca Cavalcanti.

While, no, they didn’t fully recover from a 21-10 loss in the first set, eventually losing the match, 21-10, 21-18, they did enough to win silver. They did enough to gain no small amount of points. They did enough to establish themselves as legitimate contenders in a long race to come.

“I love this girl on the court and off the court,” Sponcil said in Vegas. “On the court, we’re just trying to get better. I think we have good communication throughout each play and I’m just excited to continue this and see how fast we can grow.”