Seaside Open: Delaney Knudsen, Katie Spieler Making an Old Partnership Fresh With Nothing But Fun
SEASIDE – In August of 2015, Delaney Knudsen and Katie Spieler thought, reasonably, that they had played their last AVP tournament together. Not that there was anything wrong with it, or that there was tension in the partnership. Both, in the way beach volleyball partners often do, simply saw the writing on the wall.
Knudsen, at 5-foot-10, was an undersized blocker who wasn’t sure if she even wanted to block. Spieler, at 5-foot-5 and quicksilver fast, would have been, the thinking went at the time, better suited with a bigger blocker, someone with a little more size. So after a 17th-place finish at the 2015 Manhattan Beach Open, their second career main draws, they went their separate ways, Knudsen to Meg Dawson and Spieler to Karissa Cook.
They’d remain close friends, though as partners, that seemed to be that.
“When we did split, it was with the understanding that I was not going to be an adequate blocker for her at the next level and not just for her but for anybody,” Knudsen said. “I just definitely wasn’t the size she would need to excel as a defender and I wasn’t necessarily set on being a blocker either. I was at [Pepperdine] splitting and we just didn’t think our team dynamic would work at the next level.”
Forgive the two for being slightly less than prescient in that thought. For the next few seasons, Knudsen almost exclusively defended, and Spieler found immediate success with Cook, finishing seventh in their first event, in Chicago of 2016.
And yet, after AVP New York of this season, both found themselves looking for a partner. Brittany Howard, Spieler’s partner, was taking some time off. Emily Hartong, with whom Knudsen had made main draw in Seattle, had been picked up by Geena Urango. Neither was opposed to turning back the clock, putting together the throwback team of 2015, the same one that kick-started both of their careers.
“It’s so unexpected to be back on the court with her,” Knudsen said. “But I couldn’t be any happier.”
It is not difficult to see why. In their second tournament together, at an AVP Next Gold Series in Chicago, they went undefeated in a field that resembled early Saturday mornings in an AVP main draw: Kim Hildreth and Sarah Schermerhorn, Molly Turner and Brittany Tiegs, Traci Callahan and Carly Wopat.
They didn’t drop a single match. Knudsen picked up the biggest paycheck of her career, and better yet, they assured themselves an automatic entry into the Manhattan Beach Open, mirroring the manner in which they made Manhattan of 2015.
“I love that she’s willing to jump in and take risks and I feel like that’s why she improves so quickly and that’s something I’m so attracted to in a beach partner because that pushes me to go outside of the box and push myself,” Spieler said. “I’m just loving the strides we’re making as a team, and more than that, just how fun it is on the court.”
Sometimes strides are seen in results. Sometimes they’re more intangible. With Knudsen and Spieler, they’re a bit of both. In Hermosa Beach two weeks ago, their 15th-place finish is deceptively low. On the one hand, they mopped up eventual semifinalists Zana Muno and Crissy Jones, 21-14, 21-10. On the other, they lost a narrow, three-set match to Kim DiCello and Kelly Reeves and a close one with Falyn Fonoimoana and Pri Lima.
Both knew a 15th wasn’t close to their potential. Both knew the gains, both tangible and less visible, they had made since their first experimental run at a CBVA in Santa Barbara.
Two weeks after Hermosa, they’d prove as much.
Neither of them spoke about the money. Not until they were walking out of the Pacific Ocean off the Northwest coast of Seaside, Oregon. It was, despite the size of the check – literally and financially – the least of their focuses.
In the previous two days, Knudsen and Spieler had blitzed through another loaded field at the Seaside Open, site of one of the most beloved non-AVP tournaments of the year. They did so with Knudsen top-spin serving, a skill she had only begun practicing a week before, after a practice with Randy Stoklos in which he asked them to do nothing but hit top-spin serves for an hour straight. They did so despite Knudsen never having played in front of a crowd of what was estimated to be 3,000, with fans in dinosaur costumes and chicken suits and an emcee that kept the vibe as electric as you’ll find in beach volleyball.
“It was so fun for me to watch Delaney play at such a high level,” Spieler said. “I felt like I was on the court with her but just observing her play at such a high level, taking in the crowd and playing off how much fun she was having, so that was a really special moment for me. I think she embodies so much of taking in the moment and having fun, and one thing she started saying on our match points was ‘Let’s make this really fun to close the deal.’ I feel like more than anyone I’ve ever played with that’s how she looks at it: An opportunity to have the most fun in each point.”
There was no dearth of fun. Not with Spieler and Knudsen. In two interviews that lasted a combined 17 minutes, the word “fun” was used 15 times between the two. It was fun, Spieler said, watching Knudsen top-spin serve, blocking, taking over a final that would become a 21-15, 21-15 rout over Julia Scoles and Carly Kan. It was fun, Knudsen said, blocking for Spieler, who has an ethereal knack for putting a fist, a knuckle, an elbow, a finger, a hand — anything on the ball to keep it alive.
“It’s the most fun I’ve ever had playing volleyball,” Knudsen said. “I think I generally have a lot of fun playing volleyball, and I think it’s generally a coincidence of timing because I have been having so much fun playing with Katie.
“I think it has to do some with playing a new position and having a learning curve, it’s bringing back this whole new level of excitement to the game and also coming back to the court with a familiar friend is so awesome.
“I just focused on being there with Katie and having as much fun as we could have and she makes it so easy to do that because that’s her biggest expectation. It’s her biggest desire: To enjoy the moment and to have fun with it.
“I know that if I had absolutely played like garbage and we had lost that final it really wouldn’t have mattered that much to her. She probably would have been bummed but it’s not a huge deal. It just takes all the pressure off and allows me to have the most fun and just try with the only expectations of working hard.”
Now, with two tournament wins under their belt, and two new skills under Knudsen’s, they’re straight into Manhattan Beach, just as they were four years ago. An old team turned new again.
“I feel like I’m on the court with her but I’m also observing this awesome transformation of us as a team,” Spieler said. “I think it’s so incredible.”
And fun. If nothing else, it will always, always, always be fun.
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