Tri Bourne found a funny way to describe a learning moment he and Trevor Crabb had towards the end of the 2019 season, their first as partners and first as split-blockers.

“Only at the end of the year did we figure out: ‘Oh, our timing is off. We’re not doing defense right,’” he said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter.

Not doing defense right? And still finishing 2019 as the second-ranked American team in the Olympic race? Still being ranked tenth in the world, finishing the season with a bronze medal at the Chetumal four-star?

“It seems simple, but when you’re in the middle of the game, it’s really hard to implement a high level, sophisticated defense with all the right movements and everything,” Bourne said. “So in the middle of the year we were learning and trying to apply it but only some of it stuck. Basically, we think of last year as our foundation and now it’s time to grow on that.”

Bourne and Crabb may be in the most interesting position as any team in the United States, male or female. They enter the season as one of the coveted two American teams who, if the Olympics were to take place tomorrow, would be competing in Tokyo. But the race is close enough that it doesn’t really matter, because the Olympics are not going to take place tomorrow, and at the end of the day, it will likely come down to the Rome Major in June.

What Crabb and Bourne do have is this: An upside – and downside – that is entirely unknown. As Bourne mentioned, neither of them really knew what they were doing on defense last year, and they still finished fourth at the World Championships, taking both Russia’s Viacheslav Krasilnikov and Oleg Stoyanovskiy and Norway’s Anders Mol and Christian Sorum to three sets.

Who knows what the potential upside could be? Then again, who knows how quickly they can begin to, in Bourne’s parlance, do defense right?

Such a quandary is not a quandary at all for either Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb or Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena. Gibb, Dalhausser and Lucena have seven Olympics between them, and Taylor Crabb is on the short list of best defenders in the world. In other words: Defensively speaking, you know exactly what you’re going to get on their side of the net.

With Bourne and Trevor Crabb?

“There’s a lot of stuff to clean up,” Bourne said. “Continue to buy into the stuff that [coach] Jose [Loiola] is bringing to the table. We were spending so much time learning how to play this new style of volleyball that I don’t feel like I ever blocked the way I used to, not even close. So I’d like to get back to that for sure.”

What Bourne is grateful for, at the moment, is the fact that he’s back in this situation at all: Six months of Olympic qualifying to go, sitting in the second American spot. It was only two years ago, sidelined with an autoimmune disease, that Bourne wasn’t sure if he’d be able to play beach volleyball again, let alone at a level that could qualify him for the Olympics.

Now here he is, autoimmune disease under control, tenth-ranked team in the world – and he didn’t even “do defense right” the whole time.

“If we play well and get better at volleyball, if we’re a better team, and we play better, and I become a better volleyball player, I’m good with the result,” Bourne said. “I’m gonna be pissed if we don’t make the Olympics. Don’t get me wrong. That is the goal, but what are you going to do? You got better. You improved. And these other teams did better? Ok, I’ll live with it.

“Right after the last Olympic quad I was like ‘This is my time.’ It’s cool to be in this position and I’m super grateful and it’s going to be fun no matter what happens.”