Beach volleyball: April Ross, Kerri Walsh Jennings return to throne

LONG BEACH — They're the best in the world, they are no longer "slumping," and the bad news for the competition is, it appears they are only going to get better.

Three-time Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings and Costa Mesa resident April Ross dispatched the No. 5-seeded duo from Brazil, 21-17, 21-17, to win the Federation Internationale de Volleyball World Series of Beach Volleyball at Marina Green Park on Sunday.

The triumph, in front of nearly 5,000 raucous spectators, halted a streak of two straight ninth-place finishes at FIVB events. It earned the top-seeded Americans a combined $70,000 of the $1 million overall prize purse, and it gave them four titles in eight FIVB events this season, to go with three crowns on the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals domestic tour.

It also, Walsh Jennings said, could represent a turning point in the partnership with the 2012 Olympic silver medalist that is still not quite a year old.

"We have grown in leaps and bounds," Walsh Jennings said of a recent shift that she and Ross believe is keyed by their coach, Marcio Sicoli. "And now our goal is to make today and this vibe and this tournament [hold up]. It's up to us to be bigger and better and use what God gave us. Sometimes, this year, we have tried to be too cute. We have tried to be too perfect. We wanted to come out and use every inch of us. We both have huge hearts. We wanted to lead with that and we did; as a mind-set shift this week, and it helped a lot."

Ross, a 6-foot-1 Newport Harbor High product, and the 6-3 Walsh Jennings erased a 5-4 deficit in the opening set and never trailed again against Agatha Bednarczuk and Barbara Seixas on Sunday. The Brazilians, who had split their previous two matches this season with the Americans, tried to continually serve Walsh Jennings.

The all-time women's career victories leader (now with 119 pro beach titles, including 50 FIVB crowns) responded with 21 kills in the match, more than double Ross' 10.

"Kerri had them figured out on defense," said Ross, who now has 16 FIVB titles and 36 pro beach championships. "She made some digs and put some balls away in transition and I thought she sided-out great as well."

Walsh Jennings said her play was a vast improvement over a 21-19, 21-17 loss to the Brazilian pair in the FIVB event in Shanghai, China in early May.

"[Bednarczuk and Seixas] picked on me and I didn't have any answers," Walsh Jennings said of the May setback. "I was in trouble."

Ross said she also struggled in the loss to loss in Shanghai.

"I didn't know where to set the ball," Ross said. "Today, I think we had a vision of what we needed to do; where we needed to set the ball and where we would have to pass the ball. And Kerri executed ridiculously well.

"We are so different than the last time we played them," Ross said. "Kerri has put in so much hard work on the right [side, after shifting from the left side] and [Sicoli] has worked with our rhythm. I can remember that [earlier loss to the Brazilians] very vividly and it felt completely different today."

The Americans, who have now won six titles in 11 FIVB tournaments together, outscored seven opponents, 308-243, in the tournament. They swept six matches, all under 40 minutes, while also rallying to survive a round-of-16 scare against Germans Laura Ludwig and Julia Sude (21-18, 18-21, 17-15) in a 52-minute thriller during which the No, 10-seeded duo served for the match.

"I'm so happy," Walsh Jennings said. "We came off of two really hard weeks. Ninth-place finishes took the wind out of our sails a little bit. We want to learn from every experience, every loss. What I'm so proud of is, we didn't just lose and [say] we're going to be better and we're going to learn. We reflected and regrouped. We came together and looked in the mirror and we changed things this week. We had a lot of trust in our changes. Our coach made everything really easy for us. We played really good teams and we were clearly the better team. The last two days, we played better against amazing teams and I appreciate that. The match against Germany fortified us. When a team has every answer for what you're bringing, it makes you stronger. You just have to survive it. We outlasted."

Now, just as Walsh Jennings, 35, managed with Newport Harbor product Misty May-Treanor, who retired after the London Olympics as then the women's all-time victories leader, she and another former Sailor, the 32-year-old Ross, figure to be wearing out the competition in the near future.

"Us at our best, we're really, really tough to beat," Walsh Jennings said. "Our best against anyone else's best … I'll put my money on us every time. We're only going to get better. Inconsistency is a part of the process. This [tournament] felt really good.

"We just want to keep building momentum," Walsh Jennings said. "We're shooting for Aug. 18, 2016 to win a gold medal [at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil]."

In the men's final Sunday, top-seeded Americans Phil Dalhausser and one-time Corona del Mar resident Sean Rosenthal defeated No. 2-seeded Grzegorz Fijalek and Mariusz Prudel of Poland, 22-24, 21-8, 15-11, to earn their third title in the last four FIVB events.

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