Americans Kerri Walsh Jennings and partner Brooke Sweat and Billy Allen and Stafford Slick won country-quota matches Tuesday as the the final event of the FIVB 2018-2019 season got under way at the Foro Italico in Rome.

As part of the Olympic qualifying schedule, the format has been expanded from an eight-team invitational to a five-star Olympic qualification event with $600,000 in total prize money and 1,200 points to the winner.

Alix Klineman and April Ross lead the USA women’s delegation as the second seed. Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil are seeded eighth, with Kelly Larsen and Emily Stockman on their heels in ninth. Walsh Jennings and Sweat are seeded second in Wednesday’s qualifier.

For the men, Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena are seeded seventh, with Trevor Crabb and Tri Bourne 14th in Bourne’s first tournament since breaking his right hand in Vienna a month ago. AVP Chicago champions Taylor Crabb and Jake Gibb are seeded 17th, with Allen and Slick seeded fifth in the qualifier. Casey Patterson and Chase Budinger were forced to withdraw following a back injury Patterson sustained in Manhattan Beach.

Walsh Jennings-Sweat defeated Betsi Flint and Emily Day 21-15, 21-10 in the country-quota match, while Allen-Slick edged Theo Brunner and Reid Priddy 16-21, 23-21, 15-13.

Walsh Jennings and Sweat got a first-round bye and will face the winner of the match between No. 15 Azusa Futami and Akiko Hasegawa of Japan and No. 18 Nadine Strauss and Teresa Strauss of Austria for a main-draw berth.

Allen and Slick’s first opponent is No. 28 Alberto Di Silvestre and Tobia Marchetto of Italy, with the winner playing either No. 12 Dries Koekelkoren and Tom van Walle of Belgium or No. 21 Likejiang Ha and Jiaxin Wu of China.

Walsh-Jennings is seeking her sixth Olympics (four in beach, one indoors), and is currently the number two USA team in the Olympic rankings with 6,780 points.

“We are determined to have a good finish at a five-star and we have to get in first, so today was a good start because Emily and Betsi are no joke,” Walsh Jennings told contributor Guilherme Torres. “We had to show up with all we had and we did it. We took care of the ball, Brooke played great and I think we played great defense. Tomorrow we got to keep doing things the same way.”

Walsh Jennings, 41, and Sweat, 33, still have to survive the qualifier to reach the main draw.

“We don’t mind these extra games. We deserved to be back at this spot and it will make us better ultimately. So we want to kick butt here and carry it on. We’re hungry for points.”

Every point, of course, counts.

“It’s been a great season and now that we’ve made it through the corner, everything is exciting,” Walsh Jennings said. “There was the bulk of the season that was mentally and emotionally challenging, but physically it has all been good, so it’s been fun. This is a great opportunity and that’s how we’re looking at every match.”

World Tour Finals 2019 Tuesday-Billy Allen
Billy Allen and partner Stafford Slick defeated Theo Brunner and Reid Priddy to reach Wednesday’s qualifier/FIVB photo

Allen and Slick received a needed infusion of points at the World Championships in Hamburg, where they finished ninth with 400 points. They are currently the fourth place USA team in the Olympic rankings, behind Bourne-Tr. Crabb, Dalhausser-Lucena, and Gibb-Ta. Crabb.

“Country-quota is no fun,” Allen said. “It’s really hard, there was a lot of pressure on that match as we flew all the way here and risked losing even before the tournament started.

“They had us on the first set, they played well and we couldn’t really stop them. They served me the whole time and I had to just find a way to sideout. Stafford stuck with me and set me great and we capitalized on those one or two opportunities we had.”

“We weren’t stopping them at all but then Stafford stepped up his serving a little bit and got a couple of good serves down their line. That kind of catapulted us back into the game.”

Allen and Slick competed in the AVP Championships in Chicago, finishing ninth before flying to Rome, a seven hour time difference.

“It’s not easy to play here coming from the United States, but we’re starting to get used to it as we’ve been doing it all year. We just try to sleep we can and show up and play.”

“We’re happy to be in the qualifier, but there’s still a lot of work to do. It’s the last tournament of the season and it’s just the second five-star in which we have a chance to play in the main draw. We’re hoping to take advantage of it because it’s really important for points.”

In other men’s country-quota action, Austrians Julian Horl and Tobias Winter defeated Christoph Dressler and Alexander Huber 17-21, 21-19, 15-13, and Austrians Martin Ermacora and Moritz Pristauz-Telsnigg received a walkover forfeit against Simon Fruhbauer and Michael Murauer.

For the Brazilian women, Fernanda Alves and Barbara Seixas defeated Talita Antunes and Taiana Lima 16-21, 21-11, 15-11.

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