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Beach Volleyball: Pavlik partner shuffle continues

LONG BEACH — Whitney Pavlik is looking for a break. A sprain, dislocation, muscle pull or impending birth, not so much.

All of the above conditions sidelined women the former UC Irvine indoor standout was either playing with or scheduled to pair with last year on the professional beach volleyball circuit.

So, when this year's partner, Jennifer Fopma, tweaked a pinky finger in practice last week, Pavlik, who played with five different partners in 2013, was forced to hit the volleyball equivalent of the waiver wire to round up a partner for the Federation Internationale de Volleyball World Series of Beach Volleyball that began with pool play Wednesday at Marina Green Park.

"It was kind of that last-minute thing again that I kind of got pushed into last year," Pavlik said of nabbing Nicole Branagh to play this week. "Almost all my tournaments were: this person gets pregnant; this person gets hurt; or this person gets hurt, so now I'm playing with this person. I was really hoping I was done with that. It was just bad luck, but I'm really excited to play with Nicole."

The excitement didn't last long, as Pavlik and Branagh, seeded No. 31 among 32 teams, dropped their two pool-play matches Wednesday and need to win their lone remaining Pool B clash on Thursday to have a chance to be one of three teams that advance from the four-team pool into the 24-team single-elimination tournament that begins Friday.

Pavlik and Branagh were trounced, 21-14, 21-13, by Argentina's No. 15-seeded Ana Gallay and Georgina Klug. They then were bested, 27-25, 21-15, by No. 2-seeded Maria Antonelli and Julana Felisberta of Brazil.

Pavlik and Fopma were just beginning to hit their stride the last two tournaments, finishing third in the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals Milwaukee Open and ninth at the FIVB Grand Slam event in Gstaad, Switzerland, both earlier this month.

"I think we've really had to work hard on our chemistry," Pavlik said of she and Fopma. "And it wasn't as easy at the beginning as we thought it would be. We really had to work through it, but we made huge leaps and bounds the last two weeks. She puts up an amazing block and I love playing defense. We work really well off each other."

Pavlik and Fopma are 16-13 on the 2014 FIVB World Tour, but have won just one of their five matches in the 24-team single-elimination bracket. They won their pool in Gstaad.

Last year, Pavlik played with Kerri Walsh Jennings, April Ross, Jennifer Kessy, Emily Day and Annett Davis. Pavlik won the AVP Manhattan Beach Open for the third straight season in 2013 (with Walsh Jennings), was fourth with Ross at the FIVB World Championships and third along with Kessy at the FIVB event in South Africa.

"I had some good stuff last year, but I just wasn't sure who I was playing with and when," Pavlik said.

Pavlik, 30, believes Fopma will be back at her side soon. She also believes her best volleyball is ahead of her.

"I've heard that the peak age is 32, so I'm going with that one," Pavlik said. "I like that number.

"Gosh, I want to dig every ball. I don't want any balls to go down on me. I don't want to get blocked. I want to be a great hitter, so of course I could still get better at so many things. But having that one partner and having that chemistry is just going to be huge for me. And we are on the right track."

On a winning track Wednesday were the top-seeded American team of Ross, a Newport Harbor High product, and Walsh Jennings, who won two matches in pool play.

Ross, who along with Kessy lost to Walsh Jennings and then-partner Misty May Treanor (another Newport Harbor alumna) in the final at the 2012 Olympics in London, improved to 23-0 in pool play at FIVB events this season. Ross and Walsh Jennings, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, defeated No. 32-seeded Karin Lundqvist and Nina Grawender of Sweden, 21-11, 21-14, in the morning. The Americans, who have won three FIVB World Tour events and rank first on the season-prize-money list, then topped No. 17-seeded Marta Menegatti and Viktoria Orsi Toth of Italy, 21-17, 21-16 in an afternoon match.

Ross is playing with her left big toe taped up after she stepped on a rock in practice on Tuesday and ripped off the nail.

Costa Mesa resident Jake Gibb and partner Casey Patterson of Huntington Beach, the No. 12-seeded men's team, swept No. 21-seeded Christopher McHugh and Isaac Kapa from Australia, 22-20, 21-16, in their lone Pool E contest Thursday.

The men play two pool play matches and the women play one on Thursday, with action beginning at 8:30 a.m. The single-elimination portion of the tournament begins Friday, capped by the men's quarterfinals.

The women's quarterfinals, and the men's and women's semifinals are Saturday with the men's and women's final and third-place matches on Sunday.

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