Brazil women sweep FIVB Grand Slam at St. Petersburg, Florida

Upstart pair of American men win gold and bronze at Spa Beach Park

The women’s gold medal match featured a quartet of fierce competitors:

On one side, you had a woman playing in her 72nd FIVB gold medal appearance and 47 golds to her credit–and she is only 31 years young and hails from another part of Brazil.

Juliana Felisberta DaSilva was joined by 11 time gold medalist Maria Antonelli, also age 31 but hails from Rio.

The other side had a pair that was together in 2012, but broke up in 2013 and somehow, decided to come back again in 2014.  By way of Puerto Rico, there was another 31 year named Agatha Bednarczuk.  At 6 feet tall, she is a true tower of volleyball power.

Her partner is 28, but she seems like she has been playing the game and perfecting it well–Agatha paired up with Barbara Seixas de Frietas who also hails from Rio.

Early on in the match, Agatha and Barbara * went at targeting Juliana.  Although Juliana is 5’8″, she definitely plays with the fervor of a Kerri Walsh Jennings and a tenacity seen formerly by Misty May Treanor.

* Small note for those of you who are not familiar with Brazilian athletics.  Most athletes are usually referred to by their first name.  On one occasion, according to NBC Sports volleyball announcer and former gold medalist Chris Marlowe, the name of Maria was given to someone else–so some other woman had to choose another name.

48 of Julianna’s past international wins came with a different partner named Larrisa.  But since Marisa switched, it appeared that their chemistry was a bit off during the 90 degree and 75 percent humidity that swamped Spa Beach Park in St. Petersburg on Sunday afternoon.  Larissa and Talita, just fyi is the top ranked team in the world according to the FIVB rankings.

The two teams that competed for gold on Sunday were Juliana/Maria #2 and Agatha/Barbara pegged at #3 (but only one FIVB tour win to show for it).  They got to this final match sweeping 5 of 6 opponents, and one match was declared a forfeit.  Among their victims was an American squad featuring AVP veteran Nicole Branagh.  Their semifinal win was an all-Brazilian affair, topping the FIVB’s fifth ranking team of Lima and Fernanda.

With Agatha/Barbara leading 7-3, Juliana thought she got a touch on the left side near the net.  An American referee decided otherwise and gave Juliana the yellow card as a warning.  Juliana thankfully cooled her jets just a bit and re-energized her team to rally in forcing eight different ties during the first set.

Towards the middle of the first set, Barbara made a rainbow type of spike going over the top of Juliana and nailing the ball just inside the lower left corner.

Yes, these teams from Brazil are fierce on the court–but it is nice to know that they both like each other off the court and both of their husbands are the coaches and physical fitness trainers for their squads.  So, they both room together and dine together as well.

But too often, the strategy was on Barbara’s to attack Juliana early and often.

It nearly worked towards the end of set one.  Up 19-18, Barbara’s corner shot curved just a bit outside of the lower right corner.  But the match continued past normal time, since you have to win by two points to earn the set.

A pair of cross spikes forced a tie at 21, courtesy of Barbara and Juliana.

A nice rally closed out the first set, but Agatha had just enough strength to muscle the ball just over the net and into a open space of sand with nobody there to dig the ball back.

Agatha showed off her passion to the fans in a surprising 23-21 upset win.

Set number two featured Juliana and Agatha grabbing their first lead, but Barbara’s all-around tenacity and hustle and a pair of aces gave the green-clad bikinis leads of 4-1 and 6-3.

The lead stayed at 3 when Julianna went long on a serve, 10-7.  But somehow, Maria dug down deep inside and managed to bring her yellow-clad team to a 12-12 tie thanks to a 7-3 run.

But then Barbara took over once again–another sweet ace down the line and Julianna never even bothered to play the ball.

Juliana had her team up 17-16 and looking to get even in the match, and yet the simplest of plays blew up in their faces–a perfect cross-court spike and it went out of bounds.

Agatha helped in closing things out with a tap spike and Barbara sealed the deal with a shank pass and a simple ace that Julianna could not catch up to the ball either time.

The 23-21, 21-19 shocked many people around the world in shaking up the FIVB rankings just for a little while.  And yes, Brazil swept the podium in claiming bronze on Saturday.

But throughout this match, I came out of it totally impressed by all four players with their hustle, their desire to go after balls, and their overall tenacity proved to me that these players will be right in the thick of things by the time the Brazilian Federation wraps up qualifying before the last of the Christmas shopping rush takes place this coming December.

By contrast, Team USA will still be holding qualifying matches–but their team will not be decided until a Sunday afternoon in June 2016 (which I am pretty certain NBC will cover it).

In remarks to former gold medalist turned sideline reporter Dain Blanton, the ladies were focusing on this being one step in their ultimate journey towards qualifying for their hometown Olympics in Rio:

“We are really, really happy.  It shows us we are doing the right work.  We know that this is a process (to qualify for the Olympics).”

Gold medal winning player Agatha

Speaking of surprises, a different band of men dominate for the Americans

Jake Gibb and Andy Rosenthal struggled early (sometimes playing in the intermittent rain that delayed several matches thanks to some lightning in the St. Petersburg area on Friday and parts of Saturday).  But somehow, they both found a way to get past a pair of pesky squads from Europe.

Looking for a new set of leaders representing the long, storied beach volleyball history for the Stars and Stripes–it did not come easy.  But courage and persistence paid off handsomely in the end.

The gold medal final saw them come back to defeat Christian Varenhorst and Reinder Numerrdor of the Netherlands by scores of 16-21, 23-21, and 15-13.  Jake Gibb closed things out with an emphatic spike.

My initial thoughts on this FIVB Grand Slam event…

The four ladies that survived such oppressive conditions with the heat index topping 100 degrees on the sand, they’re mostly used to it minus the sticky humidity that usually is not the case during summer in Rio.  I would not be at all surprised if those two Brazilian teams NBC covered on Sunday would be the two representing their home country in the 2016 Summer Olympics.  This match was enough of a sample size for me to fully know and respect that Brazil’s beach volleyball is continuing to be a major factor in international competitions for years to come.

Please remember to check the FIVB website that I linked in a prior blog for all the up-to-date information throughout both countries qualifying tournaments held throughout the world.  And as a small primer for some American cable subscribers in that Comcast owned Universal Sports sometimes does carry overseas matches (usually on tape delay, so check the listings for exact dates and times).

Overall, it was a fun six hours of viewing.  I hope that you fans of the blog enjoyed watching it as much as I did in covering this event.  This was also my first foray covering any Olympic sport overall.

In the future, please look for some brief thoughts concerning the basketball Tournament of the Americas and a revised TV friendly sport that combines several elements of Australian rules football and American football–but played at a more frenetic pace that could be compared slightly to field hockey.

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