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Beach Volleyball: Ross, Walsh Jennings finding rhythm

LONG BEACH — For three-time Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings, anything short of winning consistently is, well, inconsistency.

And while the Federation Internationale de Volleyball World Series of Beach Volleyball represents only the 10th FIVB event in which the women's career beach victories leader has been paired with Costa Mesa resident April Ross, consistency has recently become an issue.

After winning five of their first seven FIVB events together, Ross, a Newport Harbor High product who won a silver medal at the 2012 Olympics in London, and Walsh Jennings finished ninth in the last two events, in Switzerland and the Netherlands.

"That sucked," Walsh Jennings said of her two recent disappointing showings. "I hate it. It makes me sick to my stomach. Our first ninth place this year, we got beat. The team had a strategy and they executed it. They outplayed us in every way. That felt terrible. But the last [round of 16 loss], we had a million chances to win. I don't know what feels worse. Losing is just terrible, but we're learning so many important things that you can only learn through a loss, or a close match, and in competition … But I don't want [ninth place] to ever happen again."

It's impossible to quibble with the success rate of Ross and Walsh Jennings in FIVB pool play this season, after the top-seeded duo's 21-15, 21-18 victory over the No. 16-seeded Canadian team of Sarah Pavan and Heather Bansley made the Americans 24-0 in such matches in 2014.

Ross and Walsh Jennings, 38-4 overall in FIVB events and who also have won both of the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals tournaments so far in 2014, advance to the 24-team single-elimination playoffs that begin Friday at Marina Green Park.

Costa Mesa resident Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson of Huntington Beach won two matches Wednesday to sweep their pool and move into the 24-team men's playoffs that begin Friday.

Former UC Irvine indoor standout Whitney Pavlik and partner Nicole Branagh upset No. 18-seeded Larissa Franca and Talita Antunes of Brazil, 21-17, 18-21, 20-18, in their final pool-play match Wednesday. But Pavlik and Branagh, the No. 31 seeded entry that went 1-2 in pool play, did not advance.

Ross and Walsh Jennings, whose five FIVB wins are more than any other women's team competing in Long Beach, said they continue to be encouraged by their progress together, despite the recent lull.

"It's a huge learning curve still," Ross said. "We've gotten to know each other pretty well on the court, but we're still trying to find a rhythm that's consistent."

Said Walsh Jennings: "I think one of the frustrating things about our journey so far is just the inconsistency, because I think we're both used to being pretty consistent athletes. But with the newness and the new rhythm and the new team, you have to expect [inconsistency] … We're finding our consistency, [because we are] being forced to. It's challenging, but awesome."

Though still growing together on the court, both Ross and Walsh Jennings said their personal relationship has blossomed since they came together in September.

"I've learned so much about April and it's all confirmation on who I thought her to be," Walsh Jennings said. "She's a really great person, who is really, really thoughtful. She is a student of the game and I didn't realize how much she loves it. She's a geek for this game and I love that about her. I've really enjoyed getting to know her as a person. There is a lot of depth and love and heart."

Ross said the admiration is mutual.

"It has just been more confirmation of what I thought [about Kerri]," Ross said. "I never understood how she did it all, especially after having [her three] kids, and how she manages it all. It's like she is a super human, or super hero, it really is. I could never do what she does and I'm so impressed with it every day. And she looks out for our sport and the players in our sport so much and she doesn't have to. I know she feels like she has to, but it's really admirable."

No. 12-seeded Gibb and Patterson swept No. 28-seeded Maverick Hatch and Christian Redmann of Canada, 21-16, 21-15, in the morning Wednesday. Gibb and Patterson, who won their pool for only the second time in seven FIVB events this season, then rallied past No. 5-seeded Latvians Aleksandrs Samoilovs and Janis Smedins, 18-21, 21-16, 15-12, in a showdown for Pool E supremacy.

Gibb and Patterson, who have not advanced to an FIVB semifinal since finishing fourth in Long Beach in 2013, are 20-11 in FIVB events this season. They are now 2-5 against teams seeded No. 5 or better.

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