Wilkerson, Humana-Paredes win hard-fought gold in Montreal Elite16

On Saturday evening, after one of the most titanic defensive battles in recent memory, waged between Kristen Nuss and Melissa Humana-Paredes in the quarterfinals of the Montreal Elite16, the Canadian defender took the mic, a 15-8 third-set victory in hand, and addressed the crowd.

“You guys single-handedly get us two to three points a set,” the 30-year-old Humana-Paredes said.

They’d need all of the help they could get, Humana-Paredes and Brandie Wilkerson. Their gold medal run at this weekend’s Montreal Elite16 was about as difficult as a team can possibly make it. They dropped the first match of the weekend, to Katja Stam and Raisa Schoon of the Netherlands, and after breaking pool, they’d require four consecutive three-set victories. Some of those victories, take their ninth-place slugfest with Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes, required more than a simple comeback.

Down 4-8 in the third, all seemed lost for Canada. Already, the lone men’s team in the tournament, Sam Schachter and Dan Dearing, had been eliminated, and Sarah Pavan and Molly McBain had bowed out as well. Here they were, seven points from elimination while staring down a four-point deficit to the second-ranked team in the world, the same team that had flipped a 4-8 third-set deficit to Wilkerson and Humana-Paredes in the Gstaad Elite16 at the beginning of the month.

That ninth-place match would be the onset of the theme of the weekend for Humana-Paredes and Wilkerson, a motif of just finding a way, any way, to get the ball to the sand. They’d survive that match against Cheng and Hughes, winning 17-15, fending off a pair of match points in the process. Then they’d survive again against Nuss and Kloth, bouncing back from a 14-21 second-set loss to win, 15-8. They’d do it again in Sunday morning’s semifinals, recovering from a 17-21 second-set loss to China’s Chen Xue and Xinyi Xia to win the third, 15-11.

But when the finals rolled around, and the crowd was rollicking, and in came a limping, exhausted, and battered Betsi Flint and Julia Scoles, it seemed that, alas, a third set wouldn’t be needed. That, finally, a stress-free victory could be had. A 21-15 first set, as smooth a set as you’ll see from Wilkerson and Humana-Paredes, appeared to set the tone. Whatever magic Flint and Scoles had packed to Canada seemed used up, emptied from an epic quarterfinal comeback win over world No. 1 Ana Patricia Silva and Duda Lisboa and a pair of come-from-behind set wins in their semifinal against Stam and Schoon.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from Montreal, however, it might be this: Do not ever count out Flint and Scoles. Not when a sense of urgency appears to be kicking in, anyway. For when Flint and Scoles trotted out of their player box for the second set, a different team emerged.

“You made it so frustrating for us,” Humana-Paredes said. “We couldn’t stop them.”

No matter what they tried — jump-serves from Wilkerson and floats from Humana-Paredes, line blocks and angle blocks, double-ups and dives — nothing worked. Flint and Scoles hit a sideout rhythm that would stake them to a 21-16 win in the second. For the fourth straight elimination match, the Canadians were going three.

Few, if any, answers could be found in that deciding set. Even when Scoles came down funny and her knee was visibly injured, the Americans were still up 8-6 and offering nothing even remotely hinting at a weakness. It required an error here, an extended rally there, perhaps a bit more of that juju from the crowd, which was fantastic all week. It required, at 14-13, one more block from Wilkerson, her 21st of the tournament, jumping into Flint’s angle to seal the second gold medal of the season for the Canadians.

“I have to give a huge round of applause to our American opponents,” Humana-Paredes said. “They played out of their minds.”

Melissa Humana-Paredes and Brandie Wilkerson celebrate at the Montreal Elite16/Volleyball World photo

But they didn’t, it must be noted, play in front of a sea of maple leaf-waving fans, worth, as Humana-Paredes said, two or three points per set. It was a crowd that men’s bronze medalist Adrian Carambula, alongside Alex Ranghieri, labeled, on a hilariously hot mic, “f***** awesome.”

Indeed, the crowd, the event, the weekend, was superb for Canada’s first major event since Toronto hosted the 2016 World Tour Finals.

“It was an honor to play in front of all of you guys,” Humana-Paredes said. “This gold medal is just as much yours as it is ours.”

The crowd, too, adopted Norway’s Anders Mol and Christian Sorum as one of their own. They should have, anyway, given the level of play the Norwegians brought to Montreal. Mol and Sorum didn’t drop a single set en route to the finals, where they met Americans Andy Benesh and Miles Partain in a rematch of the Gstaad Elite16 gold medal match, a tournament in which Partain and Benesh did the unthinkable, stumping Mol and Sorum twice.

They nearly did it again in Montreal. Up 15-13 in the first set, Partain and Benesh could only watch as their lead melted amidst the 96 percent humidity in Montreal, flipped into a 17-21 loss thanks to four blocks from Mol. That’s a type of run that can bleed into the ensuing set, which often happens when Norway does such things to teams, a familiar sight on the Beach Pro Tour.

Anders Mol puts up a massive block against Andy Benesh/Volleyball World photo

Yet Partain and Benesh are no normal team. They are the first American men’s team to win three straight major medals since Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena did so in the fall of 2015. Their run to a second consecutive final was no accident. They rebounded nicely, winning the second set convincingly, 21-15. Partain’s sideout steadied, Benesh’s block recovered, and Sorum found himself in his deepest hitting rut of the tournament.

This is, however, Norway, a team with nine straight finals and counting. This is Anders Mol, considered by many active players to be the greatest blocker — if not all-around player — of all time. He delivered again, adding one more block to extend his total to nine for the match and 38 for the tournament, tied at the top with Benesh. They ended their skid against the young Americans with a 15-10 third-set win, the third gold medal of the season for the Beach Volley Vikings.

“The Americans are a really, really strong team and we’re looking forward to playing them a lot in the future,” Mol said. “We have to give it up to them. They played a great match today, a great fight, and they’ve had a great run these last couple weeks. It’s going to be tough in the future.”

The near future is busy for all. Mol, Sorum and the rest of the Europeans will head to Vienna, Austria for the European Championships. The Americans, meanwhile, will fly down the coast, to Atlanta, Georgia, for the first AVP Gold Series event of 2023.

Andy Benesh and Miles Partain flex after a semifinal win in Montreal/Volleyball World photo

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