For Casey Jennings the beach volleyball year has personally been a tumultuous one. After claiming a surprise FIVB title in the Netherlands with partner Kevin Wong in 2010, the 13-time winner on the AVP tour had managed to finish only as high as 5th in all of 2011.
That was until Jennings entered the final domestic event of the season—the Jose Cuervo Beach Volleyball series in Hermosa Beach with Brazilian star Pedro Salgado at his side. The duo took down 2008 Olympians Jake Gibb and Sean Rosenthal in straight games (21-18, 21-7) to cap a remarkable run by the pair in their first event together.
The championship partnership came oh so close to never happening. Jennings had put in a call to Saldago a few weeks prior to the tournament but was unsure whether or not the Brazilian native would be permitted to play due to the previous prohibition of foreign players per USAV rules. But a late rule change from the USAV Director of Beach Volleyball Operations Dave Williams green-lit Saldago’s entry into the tournament.
“It’s so good to be home and it means everything to win a final,” said Jennings, who has spent much of the beach volleyball season playing internationally on the FIVB tour.
A raucous crowd filled the stands for the finals and their loyalty was rewarded by two incredible games that had it all—highlight worthy digs, big-time kills, and ferocious blocks.
Both games saw Rosenthal and Gibb go on big runs to take the lead early. However, in each contest Salgado and Jennings saved their best for last, turning the tables and using late game runs to all but put away the 2008 Beijing Olympic contenders Gibb and Rosenthal.
Rosenthal and Gibb had to battle their way through the losers’ bracket Sunday morning, forcing them to play several games in a row. After the loss Rosenthal was quick to offer praise of the new partners.
“We started both games ahead,” stated Rosenthal. “We were up 12-9 in the first game and 10-6 in the second but they made the plays late when it counted. We made them early, but they’re a real good team.”
Late in the first game Jennings and Salgado erased their 14-11 deficit with a 4-0 run to take go ahead 15-14, a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Rosenthal and Gibb knotted the score at 17-17 but a big kill shot from Jennings followed by a block by Salgado pushed the lead to 19-17. Another block from Salgado, this time on Rosenthal, followed by a Jennings cut shot to the corner wrapped up game one.
Much to the chagrin of Rosenthal and Gibb, game two followed an eerily similar pattern. A 4-0 run from Gibb and Rosenthal gave the No. 1 seed a 10-6 lead, but again Jennings and Salgado came back with a run of their own. Behind a 5-0 run that featured several key blocks from Salgado coupled with timely defense from Jennings the duo found themselves up 12-11. The teams traded points until Salgado recorded a crucial block to give his team a 17-15 advantage. A furious rally on the ensuing point, highlighted by several acrobatic digs from Rosenthal, ended with a Delgado kill to push the lead to 18-15.
The teams traded points again but Rosenthal’s kill try at 19-16 sailed wide to give Jennings and Salgado match point. Jennings recorded the final kill off of Gibb’s block attempt to seal the title.
The magnitude of their victory was far from lost on either Jennings or Salgado.
“This is why I started playing this game at a young age and I still love it,” said Jennings. “I love the sport so much and today is just the cherry on top of everything.”
Saldago fondly recalled watching a Manhattan Beach Open final 8 years earlier in a match that saw Jennings take on beach volleyball legend Karch Kiraly. The international star vowed to return one day and play in his own final here in the states. And for the Brazilian who last played professionally in America as a wide-eyed 17-year-old, unable to speak English, today’s victory held very special meaning as well.
“I know I wanted to be here one day to play in this atmosphere. It was very fun and I’ll never forget it,” said Saldago. “It’s a dream I’ve always wanted to play here in Hermosa or Manhattan and now today I’m living my dream.”
On the women’s side Jen Kessy and April Ross, after disappointing results in their last three domestic tournaments took down upstarts Jenny Kropp and Whitney Pavlik 21-12, 21-16 to capture their first U.S. title of the season.
Kropp and Pavlik had no answers for the duo of Kessy and Ross who also spent the majority of the season overseas playing on the FIVB tour.
Kessy employed her jump serve in the finals and the tactic gave Kropp and Pavlik all kinds of trouble. Ross and Kessy never trailed and they cruised in the first game behind multiple ace serves from Kessy and numerous big kills from Ross. From the start of Game 1 it appeared as if Ross and Kessy knew exactly what Kropp and Pavlik were going to do- consistently putting themselves in the correct defensive alignment to thwart any offense attacks.
Kessy had an explanation for the team’s impressive performance: Watching tape of their previous matches with Kropp and Pavlik.
“We watched video this morning in the player tent. We knew their tendencies and we played their tendencies,” said Kessy. It’s just being mentally prepared for every match.”
Kropp and Pavlik had also gotten the best of Ross and Kessy in the team’s previous meetings.
“We’ve lost to them two times in the last couple of weeks and I just did not want that to happen again,” added Kessy.
Kessy and Ross jumped out to another big lead in the second game before a 5-0 run from Pavlik and Kropp narrowed the gap. But the international stars were not to be denied- a big kill from Ross followed by Pavlik hitting wide sealed the championship.
“I think we were kind of wishy-washy going into the last three domestic tournaments, unsure of how to approach them,” said Ross.
This time around the team’s preparation was different added Ross.
“I don’t know if we were mentally focused the last three, but we came into this mentally focused. Jenn was jump serving really well, siding-out great,”
Kessy and Ross struggles after returning home showed the partners that there’s some talented teams playing on this side of the pond.
“Teams that weren’t getting the high finishes last year have really improved,” said Ross.
“They put up a gnarly fight you have to always be on top of your game.”