Cheng-Flint, Bukovec-Wilkerson top their pools in Hamburg Elite 16


It wasn’t the smoothest of starts for North American beach volleyball teams at the Volleyball World Hamburg Elite 16. Neither representatives of the United States — Zana Muno and Lauren Fendrick — and Canada — Sam Schachter and Dan Dearing — made it out of Wednesday’s qualifier.

Since?

It hasn’t just been smooth. It’s been perfect.

On Friday, Sophie Bukovec and Brandie Wilkerson of Canada and Betsi Flint and Kelly Cheng of the USA completed their sweeps of pool play, both teams finishing 3-0 and earning a spot in Saturday’s quarterfinals.

“We are stoked,” Flint said after a 21-10, 22-20 win over the Netherlands’ Katja Stam and Raisa Schoon. “We had some ebbs and flows throughout pool but happy we stayed connected and played together in every match. We proved to ourselves we don’t have to feel or be at our best to come out on top.”

If this is the type of play Flint and Cheng can have when they might not feel their best, it’s a wonder what they can look like when they do. They opened pool play with a 25-23, 21-13 victory over second-seeded Rebecca Cavalcanti and Talita Antunes, marking their first win against the Brazilians. On Friday, they followed it up with a morning victory over home team Chantal Laboureur and Sarah Schulz, 20-22, 25-23, 15-13 — quieting the crowd, as Flint sought to do — and capped it with a commanding win over current world No. 2 Stam and Schoon.

On Saturday afternoon in Hamburg — 4 a.m. Pacific/7 a.m. Eastern, streamed on Court 2 on Volleyball World TV — they will meet the plucky underdogs from Spain, Daniela Alvarez and Tania Moreno, who emerged from Wednesday’s qualifier after a pair of upsets over Japan and Spain.

The results are no doubt pleasing to TCU coach Hector Gutierrez, as Alvarez and Moreno represented the Frogs on court No. 1 during their historically successful 2022 NCAA season. The winner will move onto the medal rounds, where the Americans have been conspicuously absent this season. A medal in Hamburg would mark the first American medal in an Elite 16 in 2022.

Kelly Cheng hits a ball around Katja Stam at the Hamburg Elite 16/Volleyball World photo

No stranger to podiums, however, are Bukovec and Wilkerson, the new Canadian duo who took the world by surprise when they won a silver medal at the World Championships in Rome as the No. 20 seed. They’ve proven that result to be no fluke, taking fifth in the Gstaad Elite 16 — despite Bukovec suffering from a concussion — and are back in the quarterfinals once more in Hamburg, their third consecutive top five finish on the Beach Pro Tour.

On Friday, Wilkerson and Bukovec beat Italians Valentina Gottardi and Marta Menegatti as well as Germans Sandra Ittlinger and Isabel Schneider, guaranteeing a quarterfinal appearance regardless of the result of their final pool play match on Saturday afternoon, against Switzerland’s Esmee Bobner and Zoe Verge-Depre. They left no doubt, coming from behind to beat the Swiss, 14-21, 21-15, 15-9, winning six of their last seven matches as a team. Bukovec and Wilkerson will meet the top-ranked team in the world in Brazilians Barabra Seixas and Carol Salgado. Their match will also be streamed on Court 2 on Volleyball World TV at 3 a.m. Pacific.

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