LONG BEACH, Calif. — Sara Hughes couldn’t hold back her smile. Teammate Kelly Claes was equally pleased.
“Great day,” Hughes said.
April Ross and partner Lauren Fendrick were pretty happy.
Kerri Walsh Jennings and Nicole Branagh? Not so much.
“We are dancing out there,” Walsh Jennings offered after going 0-2. “We just aren’t completing the steps.”
The first day of the World Series of Beach Volleyball, as promised, had a little bit of everything. The weather was ideal, bright and sunny with no wind to speak of. While the FIVB was going on, so was the adjacent AAU junior national tournament and the first stop of the NVL season.
But the FIVB Presidents Cup had not only had great pro-beach volleyball, but the intrigue of both matches involving Walsh Jennings.
That’s because her first with Branagh in the U.S. came against her old partner, Ross, with whom she won the bronze medal last summer in the Rio Olympics, and her new teammate, Fendrick.
Ross and Fendrick won 22-20, 21-18.
And the second was against the new kids on the block, recent USC grads Claes and Hughes.
Claes and Hughes won 21-23, 21-19, 15-10.
Start with Claes and Hughes, who earlier in the day scored a 21-18, 21-19 victory over Betsi Flint and Kelley Larsen, the pair coming off last Sunday’s AVP San Francisco victory. Claes and Hughes have been in Europe, where they finished tied for fifth in Porec and tied for ninth last weekend in Gstaad.
“We love doing that,” Claes said. “We’ve done that a lot internationally. We kind of blow the first set — and I’m not saying we blew the first one today — but we were right there. But we have lots of matches where we blow the first and just come back and take them in three. We’ve done a really good job of learning how to re-set and adjust to these teams and it’s been a lot of fun.”
Beating Walsh Jennings and Branagh was certainly fun.
“It always an honor and kind of humbling to be on the court with them,” Claes said, “because they’re amazing players and people. And it’s just really cool to realize and kind of be on that same level as them. It could have gone either way. They played amazing it was just awesome to be out there competing against them.”
That wasn’t lost on Hughes.
“It was just a great win,” Hughes said. “It was really fun competing against them and I’m really glad we came out with a W, even though we lost that first game. It didn’t matter to us. We were going to come back and win that match.”
“I think our first match we won ugly and we kind of regrouped and came back really fiery in the second one,” Claes said. “So we’re just going to try to keep that momentum going into tomorrow.”
Friday, Claes and Hughes finish pool play against Ross and Fendrick.
Ross and Fendrick, of course, are a new team that has been dealing with Ross breaking her right big toe at AVP New York. She played Thursday with a bright yellow-ish protective sock.
“It just hurts mostly when I bang it on the sand real hard,” said Ross, walking with a slight post-match limp. “But otherwise it’s kind of OK.”
In their second match, Ross and Fendrick, who are both married to college beach coaches, Ross to Brad Keenan at Arizona State and Fendrick to Andrew Fuller at Stanford, also beat Flint and Larsen 21-13, 21-19.
“We just got off to a hiccupy start with my toe and we lost some close games,” said Ross, who had played with Fendrick before and was even in her wedding. “We needed to get that mentality to get confidence together and play big and (today) we played big and confident, so I feel really good right now.”
While the outside world might have drooled at the idea of the Ross-Walsh Jennings match, Ross said simply, “Lauren is my partner and it was just another match.”
Not that Fendrick didn’t enjoy that morning victory.
“Obviously from the outside, yeah, they were partners and now they’re not. And it was the first match they played each other. But I want to win every match I play so it was no different in that respect. But, yeah, it was definitely a fun one to win.”
Fendrick, who played with Brooke Sweat last year, thinks her partnership with Ross is headed in the right direction.
“I love it. She has incredible fire and tenacity and I think it rubs off on me,” Fendrick said. “it’s just a really fun environment to play volleyball.
Which leaves the 38-year-olds, Walsh Jennings and Branagh, looking for answers. For starters, they simply haven’t played together that much. They made their debut in Porec and went one and done by losing the country-quota match. That sent them to Gstaad to train and prepare for a tournament in which they they lost their first two matches before bouncing back with a couple of victories before losing out in the round of 16.
So all told, they had played just six matches together, going 2-4.
“I know it’s in us. I know we have it,” Walsh Jennings said. “It’s just the total package. You’re not going to win if you’re three-quarters and we’re still working on filling in that last quarter of whatever it is. It’s not one thing, it’s just something that we have to develop as a new team against good teams. And it comes from time in the saddle and that was a better match, for sure.”
Friday, they play the reeling Flint and Larsen.
“We played better that game, but it’s frustrating,” Branagh said after the Claes-Hughes match. “I’m making too many errors. The bottom line is there are too many errors, period. Yes, I’m siding out, but I’d say so-so, but when it counts there are runs in there that just can’t happen. That’s the bottom line, period.”
Walsh Jennings, who is not used to losing, was not happy.
“We lost and that’s a big deal,” Walsh Jennings said. “Every loss, I don’t care where we are, holds significance. Since we are doing what we’re doing and starting where we’re starting, there is a lot of room for improvement. We have to watch some film, we have to see what we’re doing. It feels like we’re still guessing and trying to figure each other out and at the same time figure them out.”
The tournament featuring USA and international pools continues Friday at Marina Green Park.
Among the women’s teams going 2-0 on Thursday were Germans Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst, the Olympic gold-medalists, Brazilians Larissa and Talita, Canadians Heather Bansley and Brandie Wilkerson and Americans Brooke Sweat and Summer Ross.
Men’s teams finishing 2-0 included Americans John Hyden and Ryan Doherty and Taylor Crabb and Jake Gibb, Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena and Theo Brunner and Casey Patterson. Friday pits Hyden-Doherty against Crabb-Gibb and Dalhausser-Lucena versus Brunner-Patterson.
Also going 2-0 were Poland’s Piotr Kantor and Bartosz Losiak and Canada’s Ben Saxton and Chaim Schalk and they square off on Friday.
Click here for all the results and the full schedule.