You’d think that Kerri Walsh Jennings has enough treasure to last a lifetime in three beautiful children and three Olympic gold medals. Think again. The 35-year-old volleyball star, known as “Six Feet of Sunshine,” is a fount of renewable energy. Not long after nabbing her third gold in London last year, Walsh Jennings set her sights on the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Her journey begins in earnest this weekend in Santa Barbara. Walsh Jennings has found a new partner in crime (bumps and kills) following the retirement of Misty May-Treanor. She is April Ross, who teamed with Jennifer Kessy to earn the silver medal in London. Ross will make her debut with Walsh Jennings on Friday, September 27, when the main draw of the AVP pro beach volleyball tournament at West Beach gets underway. The tournament will continue through Sunday.
“April has all the ingredients — work ethic, attitude, skill set, and intangible qualities,” Walsh Jennings said this week. “She has no limitations. She’s a big girl with a little-girl mentality.”
Kessy and Ross won last year’s AVP Santa Barbara crown — defeating an exhausted Walsh Jennings (then two months pregnant with her third child) and Nicole Branagh in the final — and they have been the most successful women’s team on the tour so far this year, but their breakup was planned well in advance and is apparently void of resentment. “Jen is going to slow down and plan a family,” Ross said. “Kerri and I wanted to get a little feel for each other before next year. We want to play in the last two Grand Slams [on the 2013 FIVB international beach tour] in Brazil and China.”
Walsh Jennings is picking up speed after the birth of her daughter, Scout, last April. She also has sons Joey, 4, and Sundance, 3. She won the Manhattan Beach tournament last month with Whitney Pavlik and looks to raise her game to another level with Ross. “With our skill level and our desire, we’re going to be great,” Walsh Jennings said. Ross, 31, is more cautious about their prospects. “People are expecting perfection, but it will take time,” she said. “We’re going to have to battle. Everybody will be trying to prove themselves against us.”
Adjustments will be necessary. For the first time in her career, the 6’3” Walsh Jennings will play on the right side of the court, ceding the left side to the 6’1” Ross. “It’s going to make a subtle difference, and I’m sure it’s going to frustrate the heck out of me at times,” Walsh Jennings said. “I want to incorporate new things and be the best player I can be.” She might soon become the winningest player. May-Treanor, a relentless competitor, retired as the all-time leader in women’s championships with 112 wins. She forged 104 of them with Walsh Jennings, who has 110 titles and counting.
THE MEN’S OUTLOOK: Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson will be shooting for their third and fourth consecutive titles this week. They won at Cincinnati and Atlantic City, and two weeks ago they took on Theo Brunner and Nick Lucena in the St. Petersburg (Florida) final when a vicious storm forced the cancellation of the match. It will be replayed Thursday at West Beach.
Known as Team LDS, Gibb (a graduate of Utah) and Patterson (BYU) have stolen the thunder from the powerful pairing of Phil Dalhausser and Sean Rosenthal. “I was thinking Phil and Rosie would dominate, but it didn’t happen,” said Todd Rogers, who won a slew of tournaments, including the 2008 Olympics, with Dalhausser. “Jake is solid, and Casey has been the X factor.”
Patterson has played with 16 different partners in AVP events. His 2012 sidekick was 7’1” Ryan Doherty, who was recruited by Rogers to replace Dalhausser this year. Rosenthal, who had a good seven-year run with Gibb — they won for the last time in Santa Barbara a year ago — ended their partnership to team up with Dalhausser. That brought Gibb and Patterson together.
Rogers, the “Professor” from San Marcos High and UCSB, has had an up-and-down tour with Doherty, a former Notre Dame baseball pitcher who has only three years experience in beach volleyball. “I haven’t played particularly well,” Doherty conceded last week. “It’s a long road. Hopefully it ends with me being a really good volleyball player.” Rogers admitted he was spoiled by the 6’9” Dalhausser, who has exceptional skills for a big man. “My body is holding up,” said Rogers, who turns 40 on September 30. “After the season is done, I’ll take a look at next year.”
Lucena and Brunner are the Cinderella team of 2013. Lucena has been around a while, but the 6’7” Brunner had played only sporadically since graduating from UCSB in 2008. They have had three straight top-four finishes. “I didn’t expect it,” Lucena said. “Theo’s been blocking really well.” Doherty said the former Gaucho “apparently is filled with helium.”
Brad Keenan, the husband of April Ross, reached last year’s Santa Barbara final with John Mayer. They’ll be back this week. Casey Jennings, who successfully wooed Kerri Walsh, will also be competing.
There will be a qualifiers’ tournament Thursday to fill spots in the main draw. One of the most promising young teams is Santa Barbara native Jeremy Casebeer and Andy McGuire, a former UCSB libero. They tied Rogers and Doherty for seventh place at St. Petersburg.
MORE ON THE WOMEN: Kessy will continue her career for the time being with Pavlik. It could be interesting if they meet up with Ross and Walsh Jennings. The surprise team has been Emily Day and Summer Ross, who won the Cincinnati tournament and were runners-up at Atlantic City. Summer (no relation to April Ross) is a 20-year-old from Pepperdine who won the first collegiate women’s sand volleyball championship last year with Caitlin Racich of Santa Barbara.
Former UCSB standout Brook Niles is slated to team up for the first time with Kim DiCello. Niles and Lucena are parents of a baby boy, Gunnar, born in April.
General admission to the AVP tournament at West Beach is free. VIP seating, with shade and drinks provided, is available for $40 a day. Visit AVP.com.
WHODUNNIT: Jill Gass and Frazer Hazlett of Santa Barbara’s B4T9 cycling team did it in the eighth annual Hoodoo 500 Ultra-marathon Bicycle Race held in St. George, Utah. Competing in the mixed 50+ two-person relay division, Gass, 57, and Hazlett, 47, scorched the roads in a record time of 29 hours, 16 minutes, smashing the old record by more than three hours. They averaged 17.7 mph while taking turns on a mountainous course that wound through three national parks and three national monuments. Keeping them safe and sound through wind, rain, and hail was a support crew led by Todd Mehl.