April Ross and Jen Kessy are getting to know each other from opposite sides of the net.
After seven years as beach volleyball teammates, the duo is now a rivalry, as should be expected from two of the best players in the United States, both vying for spots at the 2016 Rio Olympics. And Sunday afternoon’s women’s final at the AVP New Orleans Open served as their first match from new positions.
Ross, now teamed with Kerri Walsh Jennings as the tour’s No. 1 seeded women’s team, defeated No. 3 seeded Kessy and Emily Day in straight sets (21-16, 22-20) at the Laketown complex in Kenner.
“I was actually stoked that Jen made it back to the finals in this tournament,” Ross said. “I just know how she plays, and she’s aggressive and never lets up. So that was fun. Super fun.”
In an AVP final complete with sun, a surprise rainstorm, then more sun, Ross and Walsh Jennings dominated the first set and rallied to take the second set during the first tour stop of 2015. Partners since 2013, Walsh Jennings and Ross have won nine of their 10 tournament appearances, including all seven last season.
“I think we’re right where we need to be,” Walsh Jennings said of herself and Ross. “We had an amazing tournament. We let down a little in the finals, which was disappointing. (But) April is a great rally partner. And when one of us is down, the other is there to lift us up.”
Walsh Jennings dominated the first set, collecting 11 kills. After a downpour highlighted the start of the second set, she and Ross started sluggishly. Midway through, when Day posted an ace, followed by Ross’ missed on a spike to the right, the challengers led 11-7.
Yet Ross tallied several key digs, then spiked herself and Walsh Jennings back in the set. After Walsh Jennings’ unforced error led to a 15-18 deficit, she and Ross scored six of the next eight points to force extra time. That’s when Day hit long on a spike, and Ross’ spike down the middle sealed another tour win, giving the duo its first win against the newly formed competition.
“Kerri was like ‘OK, April. You have anything on the game plan (against Kessy), let us know,’” Ross said. “And I was like, ‘I’ve never made a game plan against Jen. I don’t know. You guys know.’”
A retirement and sabbatical. reshaped the top level of U.S. beach volleyball.
Walsh Jennings and Ross were competitors at the 2012 London Olympics. That’s where Walsh Jennings and now-retired partner Misty May-Treanor won a third gold medal in beach volleyball, defeating Ross and Kessy.
Then Kessy took a break from the sport to give birth to Aïla, her first child, and Ross and Walsh Jennings became partners.
Later, Kessy, returned to the sport and took on Day, one of the sport’s young talents.
“There’s going to be plenty more of those,” Day said of the matchup in Sunday’s women’s final.
“They’re a great team. They’re both very physical. But I think me and Jen can match up well against them. We just lost some focus there at the end, and should have had game two.”
Former LSU indoor volleyball player Angela Bensend and partner Geena Urango, seeded No. 10, reached the semifinals thanks to three upsets during earlier rounds, including a 13-21, 21-17, 15-13 win over No. 2 seeded Lauren Fendrick and Brooke Sweat in the quarterfinals. On Sunday, the duo lost in straight sets (21-19, 21-17) to Day and Kessy.