In a match with three Olympic rookies, experience and the only player with it prevailed.
Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil entered these Olympics as potential favorites, the youngest American Olympic team in history, the duo who dethroned Kerri Walsh Jennings in the most exciting way, with two gold medals in the last two qualifying races.
Brandie Wilkerson competed in these games as one of Canada’s brightest rising stars, a 29-year-old, 5-foot-10 blocker with one of the most impressive vertical jumps and dynamic blocks in the game.
Still, it was 5-7 Heather Bansley – humble, reserved, impressively decorated 2016 Olympian Heather Bansley – who ultimately decided the seesaw of a 22-24, 21-18, 15-13 win. It was Bansley who scored in 26 of 45 attacks, Bansley, whose 17 digs led the game, an Olympic high for the 33-year-old defender.
It was Bansley – who finished fifth at the Rio Olympics five years ago with then partner Sarah Pavan – who stayed calm amid a world of pressure.
There was all the pressure for Canada throughout the game: right on Bansley’s shoulders. She can handle this pressure. She was named the FIVB’s best defensive player three times. Practically every serve, from an exceptionally good serving team, went their way. And she could have got the best out of herself. After a Bansley scoring error ended the first set in a 22:24 defeat, the Americans kept the pressure up and jumped 10-4 in the second set.
And then, just as everything could have fallen apart, just as Canada could have rolled back, as happened twice in the pool with losses to China and Brazil, they did exactly the opposite.
“I think it shows the experience and even the leadership of Heather,” said Wilkerson. “I can speak for myself, where we simply had to stick to the plan for advice, trust and simply had to remain very present at every point.
“Anything can happen in these games. These are high level games, you can never really feel comfortable even with something that appears to be that big. I think we were just ready to win today and we didn’t want to give up. “
With the USA kids – USC product Claes is 25, UCLA’s Sponcil is 24 – had a seemingly comfortable lead in the second set, viewers missed much of the run that brought Canada back into play because NBC had yet another of its inopportune times had. Volleyball-unfriendly extended commercial breaks.
But it was Bansley who stood on the side to stop the run, then Bansley who ditched and converted in transition. Then it was Wilkerson who dug in the transition and switched sides, made worse by a mistake from Claes and Sponcil and a block from Wilkerson that pulled the match back to one.
This match was far from over.
“It’s a lot of mindful work,” said Wilkerson. “These are things that we communicate about in advance. We know our tools, we know how to talk to each other. It’s like in any relationship, you really want to be clear about your intent, and we both have very high standards, so we like to stick to them. “
The standards stayed high as Bansley and Wilkerson mostly traded sideouts until 16-16 when Bansley did a few digs and put both away before Claes made a rare mistake in an option attack.
The Canadians believed they had won 21:18 and ended the set with a 17-8 run.
The momentum would hold.
Bansley and Wilkerson took a 3-2 lead that the Americans couldn’t retake no matter how many tricks were from Claes, who ended up with 29 match-high kills, most of which came with options of all kinds. It hit right and left, hit deep and short, pushed and swung. Claes showed little of her youth or lack of experience on this Olympic stage. You and Sponcil – who were the hottest team at the Olympics – weren’t here by chance.
Your run would come. Their run would come because he always seemed like they needed him the most at these Olympics. It came in Sochi, Russia when they needed a medal to qualify, even though she hadn’t won a medal for a year and a half. It came in Ostrava the following week when any doubt that gold might have been a coincidence was dispelled with a second such finish. It came against Latvia when they lost the second set but reformed to win the third despite being late. It came against Brazil when they lost the first set but bounced back again to win three.
And here it came.
At 12-10, Claes hit a corner, exactly the kind of dart her trainer Jordan Cheng has worked with her for the past two years. Now only one thing was missing, it was Sponcil serve – and Sponcil serve, her first ace of the game.
Until it wasn’t like that. Claes and Sponcil celebrated what they saw as the match-tying ace. Wilkerson and Bansley celebrated what was initially considered a service error and extended their lead to 13-11. Then Claes and Sponcil celebrated again when their challenge turned out to be successful.
And then, inexplicably, Wilkerson and Bansley celebrated one last time when the challenge that overruled the first call was later overruled. Claes and Sponcil received no explanation, only that the challenge was no longer successful, that the match was no longer a draw, that they had lost two again in the biggest match of their lives so far.
“I thought it was in,” said Claes. “I mean, it sucks, but it shouldn’t have come down to that third sentence. We did such a good job in a second and then let them in again. “
There was this in the USA volleyball round-up:
Referee Marco Spinnicchia from Italy confirmed the original disqualification, but a graphic showing the challenge as successful was accidentally shown in the stadium and broadcast. The rules allowed further review to clear up the confusion. The correct judgment – appeal unsuccessful – was displayed.
“We used the Challenge system on the World Tour and there were times when I think they worked out some kinks,” said Bansley, who is from London, Ontario. “You know, it’s called the ball out, but then successfully challenging it. So it was just a little confusing, but we trust the technology they have here. The referees do a great job. The referee just said, ‘Wait, wait, wait, we’ll sort it out.’ I think the tensions are just high at this point, everyone is fighting for this point, we want this point. “
They all did, but the Canadians got that point, and next, when Sponcil overtook and Wilkerson threw him off, they weren’t going to give up a 14-11 lead as they prevailed 15-13 in the third.
“It was more mental, yes,” Bansley said of the game. “This whole tournament is about managing emotions and expectations, so I think Brandie and I definitely did better today than our pool game.”
The uproar from American fans over the knocked down challenge was quick, but Claes and Sponcil didn’t take the bait and instead chose to blame themselves for not taking a 10-4 lead in the crucial second set.
“We have more than enough opportunities to win,” said Claes, who scored 67 percent in the match. “We fought through the first, and let them in again in the second. It shouldn’t even have come to the third, so, yeah, we definitely let them in a little bit … here we are, we lost. “
While Claes and Sponcil’s Olympic journey is over, it continues for Wilkerson and Bansley, who face the winner of Latvia against Russia.
It also continues for the Brazilians Rebecca Cavalcanti and Ana Patricia Silva, who play Claes and Sponcil in the pool. In the game after the USA and Canada, Brazil defeated the Chinese Xinxin Wang and Chen Xue and advanced to the quarter-finals, where they meet the Swiss Anouk Vérgé-Depre and Joana Heidrich.
“We want to do our best. And I think that was our goal, ”said Bansley. “And we just take it one game at a time, and especially today it was really point by point. And it has paid off for us and we will try to play similarly and do our best. “
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