The ninth time was the charm for Sean Rosenthal and Rosie’s Raiders.
In the men’s final of the $225,000 AVP Championships, Rosenthal and Jake Gibb put on a clinic Sunday, demolishing John Mayer and Brad Keenan in a best-of-five match, 21-16, 21-16, and 21-18.
The women’s final before a capacity crowd at Santa Barbara’s West Beach also was one-sided, as Olympic silver medalists Jennifer Kessy and April Ross defeated Kerri Walsh and Nicole Branagh, 21-19 and 21-16.
It was the first time in nine Santa Barbara tournaments that Rosenthal was able to celebrate a victory with the Raiders, his personal fan club from Redondo Beach that travels the world to back their homeboy.
It was not lost on the players that they were able to play in a top-flight tournament and earn a big payday without leaving the country. The Association of Volleyball Professionals had gone bankrupt two years ago, but new owner Donald Sun revived it this summer with tournaments at Cincinnati and Santa Barbara.
Because they went undefeated throughout the three-day championships, Kessy and Ross shared a prize of $47,500. Rosenthal and Gibb earned $42,500. The runner-up teams banked $22,500.
The players hope the AVP can remain viable next year and into the future, so they do not have to spend months in Europe and Asia to make a living. “This purse was like winning a Grand Slam overseas,” Kessy said. “We want to play in our own country, in front of our families and friends.” There are other domestic tours, but Kessy said, “The AVP has the brand.”
Sun, who ventured into beach volleyball after spending 13 years in an Orange County tech business, declared that “the AVP has not lost its luster” despite being out of business since 2010. He said there will be four to six tournaments next year, and Santa Barbara would “definitely” stage one.
“You can’t beat the scene here,” Sun said, pointing to a view of the coastal mountain range from the temporary stadium built next to the harbor. “The City of Santa Barbara has worked very well with us.”
One of the most popular features of the tournament was “The Most Interesting Beer Garden in the World” (guess who sponsored it), built on a platform overlooking the stadium court.
The action on the dusty court Sunday lacked the drama of the semifinals, but it showcased the skill of some special players. Rosenthal was the star of the men’s competition. Leaping, diving, pirouetting — at one point Saturday, he made a blind kill down the line while facing away from the net — he displayed a full repertoire of shots.
“Sean makes our team go,” said Gibb, who did his part to set the tone in the first set of the final, twice blocking the 6’8” Keenan. At 36, the 6’7” Gibb is five years older than his counterpart. “I didn’t want this match to go five games,” he said.
He didn’t have to worry, as Keenan and Mayer, playing in their first tournament final as a team, never managed to get into a rhythm. All three sets ended with service faults by the pair. “We had to take risks,” Keenan said. “Nothing was working.”
Walsh, who won three Olympic gold medals with Misty May-Treanor, tried to pull herself and Branagh back into the women’s final, scoring on some of her signature blocks to tie the second game at 10-10. But a 5-0 run by Kessy and Ross, sparked by Ross’s serves, opened up a lead that could not be overcome.
The champions said it was significant to win a tournament in Santa Barbara for the first time. “They know the sport here,” Ross said. “They know it’s not a picnic. We work our butts off.” That said, Ross added that she was eager to relax in the beer garden while her husband, Keenan, went to work in the men’s final.