I have to admit, I didn't know what to expect from the AVP's tour stop in Atlantic City, N.J. I had never been to AC before, nor had most of the players, and it had been 16 years since this part of New Jersey hosted any form of pro beach volleyball. When I checked into the event hotel, the Showboat, the guest services woman looked at my California driver’s license, then said, "Isn't Vegas closer for you?" I gave her a courtesy chuckle and explained why I was in her city, but I’m not going to lie, her question made me a little bit nervous.
After I dropped my bags in the room I headed down to the event site located right next to the Showboat. Once I got to the site, any worries I had about how the site would look, being it wasn't actually on the beach and sandwiched between two massive hotels, quickly dissipated. Dave Culpepper, who's been on the AVP crew forever, IMG (the company responsible for this year’s Manhattan Beach Throwback Open & the U.S. Open of Surfing), and Brown (the bleacher company) turned this location into one of the most intimate and inviting venues I've ever been a part of. Bleachers lined three sides of stadium court, which left an amazing view of the boardwalk and Atlantic Ocean. If you happened to be walking down the boardwalk, you could stroll right up to the railing and have one of the best views of stadium court all weekend long, and it was all free!
Being that this was an invitational event, with only eight teams in the men’s tournament and eight in the women's, each match seemed to be fraught with intensity. One of the first matches of the main draw was a rematch of last week’s final from Cincinnati: Kerri Walsh Jennings and Whitney Pavlik versus Emily Day and Summer Ross. Day and Ross won 21-17, 21-15, repeating their performance from Cincinnati, to send Kerri and Whitney to the contenders’ bracket. Kerri and Whitney got another shot at revenge in the semifinals; however, victory would not be theirs as Emily and Summer won again 21-16, 21-15 to move their wins to four in a row over the three-time Olympic gold medalist and her partner. And did I mention that Emily and Summer had to play in the qualifier again to get into this tournament? The way the AVP’s point system works, they knew regardless of their performance in Cincy, they'd have to play in the qualifier in Atlantic City. But fear not, they’re seeded seventh in this weekend’s St. Petersburg Open, so we'll see how one less day of competition treats them.
As for the fans, they showed up in droves all weekend long and the guests services lady who asked me why I was in Atlantic City became a distant memory. It was standing room only on stadium court all day Sunday for the semis and finals. I must admit though, it took a little while for the fans and me to get on the same music page in the finals. The fans cheered and clapped after plays but were eerily silent during. I don't attribute this to them not being knowledgeable about the sport or not enjoying themselves, I just don't think they knew they could be as loud as they wanted to be, whenever they wanted to be. Almost like they were being respectful of the players, as in golf, and didn't want to make noise during the action. But let me tell you something, Atlantic City, the players want to hear you throughout the match, regardless if your dialog is good or not. Casey Patterson and Jennifer Kessy both mentioned it in their post-game victory speeches: This isn't tennis, you can make yourself heard. I'm sure it was the first time some of these fans have been to a live AVP event and it was my first time with most of these fans as well. As in a lot of firsts, things can seem a little awkward, but eventually we all got comfortable with each other and had a great time. Who can't have a great time while watching Casey Patterson pop, lock, and dance his way through a final? I can't wait to be back in Atlantic City next year. We, as in me and the fans, will be that much better together.
Dustin Avol, the AVP's new MC, did a fantastic job of letting the fans know they could clap, sing, and dance along to my music. He pointed out some individuals in each section of the stadium who became leaders for the fans around them. That's all I need, one leader on the dance floor, or in the stands in this case.
Speaking of Dustin Avol, he really came into his own this past weekend on the mic. Dustin has the difficult job of following a legend, in Chris "Geeter" McGee, which can't be an easy thing. I truly feel like Dustin is finding his own voice only four events into the season and it shined through during the finals’ intros this weekend. With no TV coverage dictating how quickly we had to get through the intros, Dustin was able to really get after it and give the players and the crowd all of his energy which carried over into the matches. He may not have the "worm" and a game three "Under Pressure" rant, but neither did Geeter his first year. Dustin is making it his own and I can't wait to see him progress.
In the women's final, coming through the qualifier again was Emily Day and Summer Ross taking on our 2012 Olympic silver medalists, Jennifer Kessy and April Ross (April and Summer are not related, just to be clear). This was a tight match with some high-level volleyball, but Jen and April pulled it out in the third 15-13 to win their second event of the year on the AVP tour. I'm sure this victory was very meaningful as their partnership is coming to an end and every first place finish is precious. And although they didn’t win, Emily and Summer have definitely put the volleyball world on notice that they are for real and a team to be reckoned with.
On the men's side, we finally got to see the matchup we've been expecting: Phil Dalhausser and Sean Rosenthal versus Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson duking it out in the finals. According to the players, the sand was fairly hard packed which made it a "jumper’s beach" and we all know Rosie can fly even in the deepest of sands of Hermosa and Manhattan Beach. So I was fully expecting a lot of hard hits and BOOMS from the players. There definitely were plenty of hard hits, but the real story was how well Casey and Jake played. They looked like they'd been playing together for years and not just months. Give credit to Casey for elevating his game to the next level, to Jake for continuing to play at an extremely high level at the net, and their coach, Tyler Hildebrand for contributing wisdom and strategy to the duo’s game. Jake mentioned on The Net Live podcast recently how much Tyler has helped his partnership with Casey this season. Out of 13 tournaments they've only finished outside of the top 10 once and have three first place finishes so far domestically and internationally. I have no doubts they'll be right back in the mix this weekend in St. Petersburg, Fla.