Despite the somewhat confusing nature of the World Series of Beach Volleyball, a monster event created by former AVP commissioner Leonard Armato around the FIVB Long Beach Grand Slam, its inaugural year was a slam-dunk success.
Fans didn’t seem to care that they had no idea how the four women’s and four men’s teams were picked for the “World Series Cup.” In fact, they were more fired up for the slightly arbitrary Kerri Walsh Jennings/Whitney Pavlik and April Ross/Jen Kessy match than they were for the hard-fought grand slam semifinal when young Americans Emily Day and Summer Ross came within two points of the medal stand. Which is not to say the fans didn’t love that, too – there was just something electric about seeing three-time Olympic gold medalist Walsh Jennings take the sand for the first time in front of a home crowd since the birth of her third child, against two other Americans who also just happen to be Olympic medalists themselves. Not to mention the additional element brought to the match by Walsh Jennings’ partner for the day, defensive powerhouse Whitney Pavlik.
Another volleyball figure appeared on the scene for these events: Chris “Geeter” McGee, once the iconic voice of the AVP, returned to the sand after dedicating his talents to the Lakers. He introduced the players with his characteristic flair, even breaking out the worm with April Ross and initiating the wave in the packed stadium.
At the beginning of the week, things were rather quiet around the courts adjacent to Long Beach’s Marina Green Park. Starting Monday, the FIVB pros fought through qualification and pool play matches for the Long Beach Grand Slam, a small crowd gathered to watch and sample products from sponsors, but it wasn’t until Friday that things started gaining momentum.
On Friday, the coed 4s matches commenced outside the stadium while the women’s grand slam semis and finals played out inside. With Day and Ross falling to Taiana Lima and Talita Antunes and with the Salgado sisters (Maria Clara and Carol) defeating the crafty German duo of Katrin Holtwick and Ilka Semmler in the semifinals, the gold medal match was a Brazilian all-star game. Maria Clara and Carol captured the audience’s hearts with fiery enthusiasm and their passionate hugs after every point, but ultimately Lima and Antunes came out on top 15-13 in the third set. Joining the two Brazilian teams on the podium were Holtwick and Semmler who made quick work of Day and Ross in the bronze medal match.
On the men’s side, the top American teams, Phil Dalhausser/Sean Rosenthal and Jake Gibb/Casey Patterson, met in the semis, guaranteeing the home crowd a team in the final match. Dalhausser and Rosenthal won in two, with Dalhausser collecting a block and an ace at the end of the second game to win it, meaning they would move on to face Adrian Gavira and Pablo Herrera of Spain (who had defeated Paolo Nicolai and Daniele Lupo of Italy in the other semifinal) the next day to determine who would take gold.
Saturday, as part of the additional activities Armato set up to accompany the World Series of Beach Volleyball, the six-player participants flocked to Long Beach. The top division of the six-on-six tournament promised a purse of $10,000 and attracted upcoming, current, and former pros alike. Team America, captained by Holly McPeak, won the women’s division. That’s no surprise considering McPeak’s hand-picked roster that boasted big names such as Annett Davis, Jenny Johnson Jordan, Christal Engle, and Rachel Wacholder Scott. Later that day the men’s final concluded with Team Smack (with UC Irvine setter Chris Austin and national team members Paul Lotman and Donald Suxho) emerging victorious over Team Fletch (featuring FIVB competitors Casey Patterson, Aleksandrs Samoilovs, and Pedro Solberg Salgado) after many arguments over calls because even with a $10,000 purse, there were no referees.
While six-man continued on the outer courts, the men’s gold and bronze medal matches kicked off in front of a full house of enthusiastic fans munching on free Sabra hummus and Zico coconut water. In the bronze, the Italians took it to Gibb and Patterson, winning in two, with the Americans earning only 13 points in the second game. In the gold medal match, things improved for the home team and their fans as Rosenthal and Dalhausser took control and dispensed with Herrera and Gavira also in two sets, with Dalhausser smashing two aces down the line to finish the match.
After the medalists popped their champagne and the FIVB passed out the checks, the World Series Cup competition commenced. The idea behind the Armato creation was the “U.S. versus the world.” So for both the men’s and women’s competitions, one side of the four-team bracket was made up of squads from the U.S., while the other side was two hand-selected teams from the rest of the FIVB field. For the women, those other two teams were Antunes/Lima and Holtwick/Semmler, the gold and bronze medalists from the grand slam; for the men, Gibb, Patterson, Dalhausser, and Rosenthal were joined by Bruno Oscar Schmidt and Pedro Salgado of Brazil and Aleksandrs Samoilovs and Janis Smedins of Latvia.
Armato certainly got something right with his model, even if spectators didn’t necessarily understand the difference between the FIVB matches and the World Series Cup. During the All-American semifinals the stadium was packed, and for good reason. In the tie-breaking set between Walsh Jennings/Pavilik and Ross/Kessy, the later squad found themselves down 9-2, only to pull off the biggest comeback of their partnership and win the match 16-14.
This meant the women’s final on Sunday was played between Antunes/Lima and Ross/Kessy and the men’s between Gibb/Patterson and Samoilov/Smedins. To the great delight of the crowd, Americans won both finals (with Gibb collecting three consecutive stuff blocks in the second set), and Armato chanted onstage before handing the players the glamorous glass trophy, “The World Series Cup is staying in Long Beach!”
If we believe Geeter, and Armato, and everyone else who pledged to see us back again next year, we have more international volleyball to look forward to in our near future. Here’s hoping it’s bigger and better and that our sport continues to grow in its home country.
Emily and Summer
Much has been made of the career-high fourth place finish by Summer Ross and Emily Day in the FIVB Long Beach Grand Slam during the World Series of Beach Volleyball. But as Day pointed out in various interviews following the match, the duo had just come off a fifth place finish in Gstaad, Switzerland, so that was really their big jump from taking 17th at the World Championship in Stare Jablonki, Poland, to almost landing on the podium. The young team (Ross is 20, Day turned 26 on August 9) came into the first FIVB tournament on American soil in 10 years as a 15 seed and battled their way through pool play, dropping only one match to the eventual gold medalists, Antunes and Lima of Brazil, and then defeating Emilia and Erika Nystrom of Finland, Liliana Fernandez and Elsa Baquerizo of Spain, and Natalia Dubovcova and Dominika Nestarcova of Slovakia. Finally they fell again to Lima and Antunes (14-16 in the third game) in the semis and Katrin Holtwick and Ilka Semmler (21-18, 25-23) in the bronze medal match.
Despite not making it onto the medal stand, Ross and Day finished higher than any other American team on the women’s side. April Ross and Jen Kessy fell in the round of 16 to Agatha Bednarczuk and Maria Antonelli of Brazil, and Lauren Fendrick and Brittany Hochevar were unable to upset the eventual bronze medal German team in the quarterfinals.
Day confirmed that she has Rio in her crosshairs, and when asked if the way to get there is to stick with Ross, she said, “It’s a definite possibility. We’ll see how it works down the road. We have four years to prepare, and I know there’s a ton of girls going for it, so it’s not going to be easy.”
Ross, a child wonder who played in the AVP as a 17 year old and captured the FIVB U19 and U21 titles in the same year, is now a young woman with a season of indoor volleyball at the University of Washington and a sand volleyball national championship at Pepperdine under her belt. Last summer, Ross chose to decline her athletic scholarship and pursue her pro career full time, also in hopes of qualifying for the 2016 Olympics. The Carlsbad Seaside Academy valedictorian entered UW with 30 hours of college credit and continues to pursue her education through online courses while training and traveling for the tour. However, there were those in the volleyball community who questioned this choice, citing the lack of money to be made on the beach circuit and the large pool of talented women pursuing that Olympic berth. But now that Ross has started grasping for medal finishes in FIVB Grand Slams, it becomes a bit more difficult to scoff at her chance to be one of four women representing the U.S. in Rio.
Day, a standout outside hitter for Loyola Marymount between 2005 and 2009, didn’t start pursuing the beach game seriously until after college, when she began playing on the AVP, Jose Cuervo, and NVL tours, most recently with Heather Hughes, another LMU alumna. At the end of the 2012 season, Day and Hughes decided to play with other people; Hughes also competes on the international tour and played in the FIVB Anapa Open in Russia with Brooke Nielson (placing fourth). She has also registered to play in the Moscow Grand Slam in late August with Georgia State’s top sand player from the 2013 season Lane Carico.
It seems that even this promising young partnership we saw in Long Beach is not guaranteed, as Ross and Day will be trying out different partners in the upcoming FIVB events. After playing only three tournaments with Day, Ross will play the Berlin Grand Slam with Brooke Niles who is returning to the international tour after welcoming her first child with fellow pro Nick Lucena this spring. Then for the Moscow Grand Slam in late August, Ross will pick up Kelly Schumacher, a 6'5" former UConn and WNBA basketball player for whom it will be her first FIVB tournament. Day will play in the Berlin Grand Slam with Whitney Pavlik who partnered with April Ross for this year’s World Championships.
Day did confirm that she and Ross plan to compete on the AVP tour together, although not in the kickoff Salt Lake City event (August 16-18) where Day will play with Brook Niles.
With April Ross and Kerri Walsh committed to pursuing Rio together, all the other top American women are vying for the remaining Olympic spot, and in the process putting together a variety of partnerships. We don’t know if the Summer Ross and Emily Day partnership is one that is built to last, but we do know that both these young women are brimming with potential and on a good day can represent as the top American team.
April Ross and Jen Kessy won the semifinal of the World Series Cup 16-14 in the third set after being down 9-2. It was the biggest comeback of their partnership.
Jake Gibb collected 7 blocks in the World Series Cup final versus Aleksandrs Samoilov and Janis Smedins of Latvia.
Before the 2013 Long Beach Grand Slam, the U.S. had not hosted an FIVB tournament since 2003.
Originally published in October 2013