Comeback wins an Olympic ticket Women's duo qualifies in U.S. volleyball trials

June 08, 1996|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Linda Hanley and Barbra Fontana Harris became the first team to win a trip to Atlanta at the U.S. Olympic beach volleyball trials yesterday, but not before their Olympic dream threatened to unravel.

They fought off four match points before fending off a surprising challenge from Elaine Roque and Dennie Shupryt-Knoop to score a 16-14 victory in the first qualifying final at HarborView.

How surprising? Hanley and Fontana Harris had faced the same pair in a tour event last week in Austin, Texas, and won, 15-0, but yesterday they found themselves down 14-11 and apparently on the way into the losers bracket of the double-elimination format. Only a lucky drop off the net on the second match point kept them alive long enough to stage the five-point comeback that landed them in the Olympics.

"That was amazing for us," Fontana Harris said. "That was probably the most stressful game -- and the one I wanted to win the most -- in my career, more than any game in high school, college or the tour. You can't put a price on the Olympics. We make our money on the tour and we pay our mortgages with it, but being able to represent your country in the Olympics is really an honor."

It wasn't a do-or-die match for either team. Roque and Shupryt-Knoop also had won earlier in the day and will play again for an Olympic berth tomorrow, facing the winner of today's losers bracket semifinal that pits Gail Castro and Deb Richardson against Janice Harrer and Gayle Stammer.

"We've been there before," said Shupryt-Knoop, who along with Roque appeared to take control of the match with a string of eight straight points that made the score 12-7. "We just took the long route. We'll come back Sunday and try again."

The suspense mounted throughout the third day of competition, particularly when Mike Whitmarsh and Mike Dodd scored a surprisingly one-sided victory over Karch Kiraly and Kent Steffes in the second men's match. The "Mikes" won eight of the last nine points on the way to a 13-8 win that forced Kiraly and `D Steffes into a double must-win situation.

They are expected to stave off elimination today against Carlos Briceno and Jeff Williams -- who looked overmatched in their opening match against Randy Stoklos and Adam Johnson -- but would have to defeat either Stoklos/Johnson or win a rematch with Whitmarsh/Dodd to advance to Atlanta.

"I'm not going to assume anything at this point," said Kiraly, who won two Olympic gold medals in indoor volleyball. "I would like to win tomorrow. I would like to have won today. Those guys just didn't give up any points."

It was Dodd who turned the aftermath of the match into another one-sided debate on the strange Olympic selection process that allowed one men's and women's team to bypass the trials and left one of the best U.S. teams (Kiraly and Steffes) a match away from watching the Olympics on TV.

"It's sweet, but it's tough to beat a guy like Karch, who has meant so much to the sport of volleyball," Dodd said. "It's a double-edged sword.

"I don't think it [the selection process] is good for U.S. volleyball. This is not the best way to choose the teams. One of these teams won't be there, and I think it's obvious that the best teams are here."

Of course, the one that isn't here is the Olympic-bound team of Sinjin Smith and Carl Henkel, which won a berth in Atlanta based on international point rankings. The political nature of that decision has left a bitter taste in the mouths of most of the other Olympic hopefuls, and the controversy only figures to heat up when one of the top three teams is eliminated this weekend.

Four teams are still in contention, but it was apparent during the first men's match yesterday that the team of Briceno and Williams would face tremendous odds in the double-elimination men's final four.

Williams and Briceno were seeded directly into the final four as the second-ranked U.S. team in the FIVB rankings, but knee problems almost persuaded Briceno to withdraw from the trials. Williams even petitioned USA Volleyball to pick up a new partner, but his request was denied.

Briceno answered the bell for the first match yesterday, but his mobility clearly was an issue in a lopsided 15-4 loss to Stoklos and Johnson, and figures to make Kiraly and Steffes a clear favorite in today's one-and-out match in the losers bracket.

"I'm feeling some pain," Briceno said. "I was able to hit fairly decent, but I didn't feel I was jumping really high, which made a difference. I think that hurt us a lot."

It didn't help that Stoklos and Johnson have been playing at the top of their game all week. They cruised through the preliminaries and delivered an overpowering performance yesterday.

"The [Briceno] injury isn't the reason we lost," Williams said. "It was our inability to train together. It was just bad timing, and they are playing great. They have been just blowing every team away."

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