Beach volleyball: Ross, partner roll into final

LONG BEACH — Late July in Southern California and, go figure, not a cloud in the sky. But a revved-up stadium-court crowd approaching 5,000 and championship mentality created a perfect storm for top-seeded April Ross and Kerri Walsh Jennings at the Federation Internationale de Volleyball World Series of Volleyball on Saturday.

The Americans, stinging from two consecutive ninth-place finishes in their last two FIVB events and coming off a three-set scare in the round of 16 on Friday, created far more euphoria than suspense for the home crowd while easily sweeping quarterfinal and semifinal contests on Saturday.

Ross and Walsh Jennings will play for their fourth FIVB crown this season, their sixth since teaming up last September, in Sunday's 12:20 p.m. championship match against No. 5-seeded Agatha Bednarczuk and Barbara Seixas of Brazil at Marina Green Park.

"I think we executed better than we have in a while," said Walsh Jennings, a three-time Olympic gold medalist who is aiming for her career-record 119th beach title and the $70,000 winners' purse on Sunday.

The Americans dispatched No. 14-seeded Dominika Nestarcova and Natalia Dubovcova of the Slavik Republic, 21-14, 21-16, in the semifinal, which was televised live on NBC.

"The match felt very simple; it felt very clean," Walsh Jennings said. "Even when we were scrambling, I feel like we were in rhythm and that's what we've been working so hard for. We need to keep it up for the final."

The Americans both said that coming off a 21-16, 21-16 quarterfinal rout of No. 8-seeded Marleen Van Iersel and Madelein Meppelink from the Netherlands, their confidence level was considerable.

"I don't remember the [semifinal] match at all, but I remember the feeling of the match and it felt like we were in control," Walsh Jennings said. "I felt like we were in the driver's seat.

"[The quarterfinal win] set the right tone. Our talk before the [semifinal] was the same. Again, we wanted to be the hunters out there and we took that into everything we did. Because of our mind-set and our energy and being the hunters, I think that gave us momentum early on. In my mind, [the Slovakians, who pushed Ross and Walsh Jennings to three games before falling in the semifinals of the FIVB event in Norway in late June] had no chance."

Ross agreed.

"We knew we just had to execute the game plan and it would be lights out," said Ross, 32, a 2012 Olympic silver medalist who was eager to praise the play of her 35-year-old partner. "Kerri played amazing defense. I think that's one of the few matches we've played in playoffs [in which] we split-blocked the whole time. [Walsh Jennings] had a great read on them and scored points all match long, and that was key."

Another key to the Americans' supreme energy was the high-decibel level generated by the crowd, spurred on by public-address announcer Chris "Geeter" McGee.

"The atmosphere is so awesome," Walsh Jennings said. "It's huge and it's really helpful."

Ross said the energy at the lone United States stop on the FIVB World Tour is seldom, if ever matched.

"I think the only other place you are going to see rooting like that for the home team is in Austria, but that's not as loud as the USA," Ross said. "[The spectators] appreciate hustle and good volleyball. When you hustle that hard, they understand how hard it is to go through a rally in heat like this. It motivates you. You get the point so it's worth it, but it's even more worth it because the crowd gets so fired up. It's so fun."

Added Walsh Jennings: "It's so fun. And then you have Chris McGee on the mic, telling them, reminding them that it's an amazing play. He's the best in the business for that stuff; getting the crowd going and getting the players going. It's heaven out there ... I think today was a great day of playing volleyball."

The Americans led almost the entire day. In the quarterfinal, they last trailed, 8-7, in the first set and 3-2 in the second. After leading throughout the first set in the semifinal, they trailed last, 4-3, in the second game.

Walsh Jennings had 16 kills and three stuff blocks in the quarterfinal triumph, in which Ross had 14 kills and one ace serve.

In the semifinal, the 6-foot-1 Ross collected 12 kills and one ace, while the 6-3 Walsh Jennings had 10 kills and one stuff block.

Bednarczuk and Seixas defeated No. 4-seeded Liliana Fernandez and Elsa Baquerizo of Spain, 21-19, 21-16, in the other semifinal.

In the men's title match on Sunday, top-seeded Americans Phil Dalhausser and Sean Rosenthal meet the No. 2-seeded Polish duo of Mariusz Prudel and Grzegorz Fijalek at 2:20 p.m.

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