“All is fair in volleyball and war” as Muno-Kraft win semifinal bid against future teammates

MANHATTAN BEACH, CA. — Just one week ago, Deahna Kraft and Toni Rodriguez spent an entire day together in Huntington Beach. Played three matches as a team and won all three, sealing up a main draw berth into the season-ending Chicago Gold Series on Labor Day weekend. On that same day, Zana Muno was split-blocking with Savvy Simo in a practice match against Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes, prepping for their own run in the Chicago Gold Series, where they were seeded directly into the main draw and were able to bypass the qualifier won by Kraft and Rodriguez.

On Saturday afternoon, in the quarterfinals of the Manhattan Beach Open, all four were on the court together once more, the new partners playing with their old and old with new. Or something like that.

Beach volleyball gets weird sometimes.

“It was bound to happen,” Kraft said of the future partners playing one another in Manhattan. “All is fair in volleyball and war. I respect them as players so it’s easier to play hard because I respect them so much so I’m just going to go out there and give them my best game and they’re going to give me their best game. We’re all just competing and we can leave it on the court and hang out afterwards.”

With a 21-13, 22-20 quarterfinal win over Simo and Rodriguez, Kraft and Muno had plenty of time to hang, soaking in a tournament thus far that has felt months in the making. They knew they could be good together, Kraft and Muno, a pair of supreme athletes with excellent touch and skill who displayed an ability to beat the highest-level teams but hadn’t yet sustained it for a full tournament. For every quality win — over Sarah Pavan and Kelly Reeves in Huntington Beach, over the Maestrinis, over Lexy Denaburg and Carly Kan in Hermosa Beach, over Betsi Flint and Megan J. Rice in Atlanta — there was a loss that put a stopper to the momentum.

There has been no such stopper in Manhattan Beach. Not from Madison Shields and Lydia Smith; not from the Waupaca champs, Alaina Chacon and Kylie Deberg, who held a match point over Muno and Kraft in the second round; not Washington’s finest in Chloe Loreen and Natalie Robinson, the highest-finishing 32-seed ever; not even their friends and soon-to-be teammates Rodriguez and Simo.

“The biggest win for us today was getting to the quarters,” Kraft said of their 23-21, 21-17 win over Loreen and Robinson. “That match, to me, mattered more, which sounds crazy. I had two goals this year: make Championship Sunday and make every main draw. We were close before and came up short and it meant so much to me. After that it was whatever happens, happens. Now it’s just a cherry on top.”

Zana Muno and Deahna Kraft celebrate/Mark Rigney photo

For everyone aside from Muno and Kraft, and fellow semifinalists Emily Stockman and Megan Kraft, tonight will be an early night. The AVP, acting proactively to avoid the brunt of Hurricane Hilary, has shifted Sunday’s quarterfinals to 7 a.m. Simo and Rodriguez will play Hailey Harward and 2022 Manhattan Beach Open champ Kelley Kolinske on court one. On stadium bright and early will be top-seeded Betsi Flint and Julia Scoles and No. 2 Corinne Quiggle and Sarah Schermerhorn.

What a ride this weekend has been for Flint and Scoles. Coming off a silver medal at the Montreal Elite16, Scoles withdrew from the Atlanta Gold Series with a knee injury she suffered in the finals of Montreal. Her first match back, against Loreen and Robinson on Friday morning, was a stunner: a 19-21, 21-15, 12-15 loss to the 32 seed.

Whether fortunately or unfortunately, they’re familiar with the territory that is deep in the trenches of the contender’s bracket. They dropped their first match in New Orleans in April and marched back to the semifinals. Now, after five straight wins — two via forfeit on Saturday — Flint and Scoles are in the most unlikely of quarterfinals.

Yes, it is a tad unlikely that Flint and Scoles have made it all the way back. But the comeback of the day, if not the tournament, belongs squarely to Chase Budinger and Miles Evans. Down 10-14 in the third set to Tri Bourne and Chaim Schalk, one could be forgiven for flipping the channel on Bally Live, or just popping back over to stadium court on ESPN+, where Stockman and Kraft were upsetting Quiggle and Schermerhorn.

It’s best you didn’t.

Budinger — perhaps channeling his inner Flint and Scoles — engineered five straight points almost entirely on his own, siding out, serving a pair of aces and forcing Bourne out of bounds on an option swing. Four match points had suddenly flipped into one of their own. They’d only need one more, as Schalk’s swing at 15-16 sprayed wide, and for the second straight time, Budinger and Evans upset Bourne and Schalk deep in a third set.

Epic as that comeback may have been, it did not make for top billing for match of the day. That honor must go to Taylor Crabb and Taylor Sander’s quarterfinal bout with Trevor Crabb and Theo Brunner. By the time the third set began, the spill-over from a completely full stadium court went well out onto the sand and all the way up to the Manhattan Beach strand. Locals climbed up onto balconies to catch a sliver of action in a gap between the stadium walls.

It was well worth the effort.

Fans line up to watch the 2023 Manhattan Beach Open/Travis Mewhirter photo

Trevor Crabb and Brunner, after staving off match points and having several of their own stymied in a manner that perhaps only Taylor Crabb could pull off, alas ended it, a seam ace sealing a 23-21 third-set victory that will hold a fair argument for match of the year.

That put Taylor Crabb and Sander in a twilight quarterfinal bout with Budinger and Evans, who had beaten them for the first time in Atlanta. One absurd third-set comeback was all the tricks they had, however, as a 3-11 deficit in the third proved too much this time, ultimately falling 10-15.

The men’s semifinals, then, feature two teams one would have expected — Trevor Crabb, looking for a fourth straight Manhattan Beach Open title, and Theo Brunner; and Taylor Crabb and Sander — and two dark horses. Logan Webber and Hagen Smith have had one of the cleanest tournaments of anyone in the field, winning four straight matches while dropping just a single set. The 10 seed, they’ve engineered upsets over Bourne and Schalk (21-16, 15-21, 15-13) and Phil Dalhausser and Avery Drost (21-18, 21-19). They now play Taylor Crabb and Sander, both of whom are seeking their first Manhattan Beach titles, at 8 a.m. on court one.

Trevor Crabb and Brunner, meanwhile, will see No. 12 Seain Cook and Cody Caldwell. They’ve only played one tournament together, and that one tournament went awfully well, a sweep straight through the field at the Waupaca Tour Series. Last weekend, at the same qualifier Kraft and Rodriguez won, they didn’t drop a set to punch their ticket to Chicago. This weekend, they’ve upset No. 5 Evan Cory and Troy Field (21-18, 21-14), No. 8 Billy Allen and Alison Cerutti (21-17, 21-13), and Dalhausser and Drost (21-19, 21-18). That earned them a seat at the semifinal table, where they have the opportunity to do something no team has been able to do in the last four years: Beat Trevor Crabb in Manhattan Beach.

Neither the men’s or women’s semifinals are what many might expect.

Then again, not many would expect hurricane season to begin in August in Manhattan Beach.

All’s fair in volleyball and war.

Seain Cook/Rick Atwood photo

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