Emerging Canadian beach volleyball duo Wilkerson and Bukovec continue to grow and gain confidence


Brandie Wilkerson remembers feeling a natural level of nervousness, anxiety and anticipation last spring at the Tlaxcala Challenge beach volleyball event in Mexico. It was his first in five years without Heather Bansley, who had retired days earlier.

They were the highest-ranked women’s team in the world in late 2018 and early 2019 before placing fifth at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. But Wilkerson began a new partnership in February with six-foot Sophie Bukovec, an undersized blocker who had spent two years transitioning to defender and waiting for a call from her fellow Canadian.

They didn’t make it out of the qualifying round in Tlaxcala, swept 21-15, 21-19 by Germany’s Sarah Schulz and Chantal Laboureur in their final game of the season-opening Challenger competition.

“It was all extremely new for Sophie, playing with a new partner on the World Tour in a new position,” Wilkerson said of the inaugural Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour stop. « I can only imagine the pressure that has built up.

« But what I recognized immediately was his ability to deal with that pressure, to step forward and to [show] resilience in these difficult times. Even when we lost, it wasn’t because we gave up. I always thought she was going to do her best and that was a theme this year. »

Wilkerson and Bukovec, who had spent the previous year fighting in one-star events, quickly developed chemistry on the sand and entered their fourth tournament in June – the world championships in Rome – as the 20th seeded in a field of 48 teams. They have finished second and tied for fifth in their last two competitions.

WATCH | First-year partners Bukovec and Wilkerson win world silver:

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Brazilians Eduarda Santos Lisboa and Ana Patricia Silva Ramos defeated Canadians Sophie Bukovec and Brandie Wilkerson in straight sets to win gold at the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championship in Rome.

Ranked 13th in the world, Wilkerson and Bukovec haven’t had a lot of pre-season and have gotten into tournaments quickly, so they’ve decided to end their season at this week’s Paris Elite16 with two events remaining on the schedule.

The Toronto natives open play Thursday at 7 a.m. ET against second-year pros Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth of the United States. At 3 a.m. on Friday, they will face Betsi Flint and Kelly Cheng, who won the last Elite16 tournament in Hamburg, Germany.

Live coverage will be available on CBCSports.ca and CBC Gem, and will continue Thursday at 3 a.m. ET.

Wilkerson and Bukovec lost 21-16, 21-13 in the quarter-finals in Hamburg to the current world No. 1 duo of Barbara Seixas and Carol Solberg of Brazil, who won four medals in 2022.

« I think we were playing extremely well until [Bukovec got injured] and I felt confident, » Wilkerson said. « Passing is something we’ve been working on throughout this tournament and we’ve tried to get more aggressive with our serves. »

It was something that just needed time and rest to heal. … She will always find a way [to play].– Brandie Wilkerson on the sprained wrist of her beach volleyball partner Sophie Bukovec

Since that tournament in mid-August, Wilkerson has participated in several Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) events with different partners, including Melissa Humana-Paredes, her former teammate at York University in Toronto who recently separated from his partner Sarah Pavan.

Bukovec spent the downtime nursing a sprained right hand and reunited with Wilkerson for training camp in Los Angeles two weeks before flying out to France.

« It was something that just needed time and rest to heal. We’re back to a full strike, everything, » Wilkerson said recently, noting that Bukovec had his hand registered at camp and sported a brace, but wasn’t sure if it would be necessary during games in Paris. « She will always find a way [to play]. She will fight. »

Maybe Bukovec will find an answer for Nuss and Kloth, who beat Wilkerson and Humana-Paredes twice, including the final, at the AVP Chicago Open earlier this month. Bukovec and Wilkerson did not play them in tandem.

Wilkerson, who beat Nuss and Kloth with a different partner a week before the Chicago Open, plans to take advantage of his familiarity with the Americans in Paris.

« Sophie is physically bigger than the other partners I’ve played with, extremely strong and dynamic, » she said. « She has a big presence, so I think they will face a much bigger team. »

Nuss and Kloth showed new skills in Chicago, Wilkerson added, serving differently and possessing more two-ball options. In a two-ball offense, a player hits the ball on second contact after receiving the serve rather than preparing for a third contact.

« Now that I’ve seen more of their offense, » Wilkerson said, « I’m starting to understand their tendencies better and see what’s working and not working. [against them]. »

Wilkerson pointed out that she has been working more on two-ball lately and that could help against Flint and Cheng, who take advantage of the latter’s variety of two-ball options.

« She’ll hit slower shots, hard shots or different spots because of how comfortable she is with that offense, » Wilkerson said of Cheng, « compared to people who use two balls when forced or occasionally. time, so you only see one area of ​​the pitch being used or one style of hitting.

« They’re going to stay consistent and not make huge mistakes. Betsi [is] a steady and solid passer, defender and server, so it’s all about making sure we’re ready for any odd plays they make and minimizing mistakes. »

As freshman partners, Wilkerson and Bukovec have developed a way to communicate their game plans and find a routine before and after the game. The trust between them, Wilkerson explained, was first established through admiration and respect for each other and their respective journeys to becoming elite athletes.

Bukovec, who suffered a sprained right hand six weeks ago at the Hamburg Elite16 event in Germany, impressed her partner with her transition from blocker to defender. « It’s one thing to take the ball out of the [sand] but then getting up and scoring is a whole other thing,” says Wilkerson. (Courtesy of volleyballworld.com)

« My game has developed enormously in my confidence »

« When we saw that we were going to fight together through these difficult times – coming back from losses and a series of mistakes – and saw how we responded to and supported each other, the trust continued to grow, » said she declared.

« I’m trying to learn new skills and my game has grown tremendously in my confidence, in my abilities and in my role as a leader. Managing a team is something I’ve learned to do. »

Wilkerson mentioned how Bukovec, who won the Under-21 World Championships with Tiadora Miric, is finding her own style of defense and was impressed with her ability to transition.

« It’s one thing to take the ball out of the [sand] but then getting up and scoring is a whole other thing,” Wilkerson said. “I think that will continue to set her apart from other defenders.

« There are still a lot of things to improve and we just have to keep our heads down and work. »

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