Kessy, Ross take momentum to Hermosa

Nicole Branagh and Elaine Youngs have been queens of the sand this season, with victories in six AVP Crocs Tour beach volleyball tournaments, but the only team that's disrupted their reign is back -- and they're the newly crowned world champions.

Jen Kessy and April Ross, who won the FIVB World Championships in July in Stavanger, Norway, return to the States for the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals' Hermosa Beach Open, which begins today. The tournament has 32-team main draws for both the men and the women.

Kessy and Ross beat Branagh and Youngs at AVP stops in Houston and Ocean City, Md., before traveling overseas. While there, they also won the World Series 13 Grand Chelem in Marseille, France.

"We came back to the hotel and all the Americans and all our friends were in the lobby waiting for us," Kessy said of their championship celebration. "It was one of the coolest things I've been a part of."

Kessy and Ross, who were seeded first at Stavanger, beat Brazilians Juliana Felisberta Silva and Larissa Franca, 30-28, 23-21, in the championship match July 4. They finished fifth and ninth in Switzerland and Moscow before winning in Marseille.

As if winning the world championship weren't distracting enough, Ross has become engaged to AVP player Brad Keenan. "It was hard to process all of it at once because we won world champs, which was huge, and he proposed the week after that," she said.

Kessy and Ross finished third at the A1 Beach Volleyball Grand Slam in Klagenfurt, Austria, losing to Branagh and Youngs in the semifinals.

Ross said she and Kessy are using this week to readjust to the AVP ball, which is different from the one used in international competition.

Also returning to AVP play are Olympic men's gold medalists Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers. Despite failing to win an AVP championship since May, they just won two FIVB tournaments in two weeks.

Two-time Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh returns after having a baby in May. She'll play with fellow new mother Rachel Wacholder.

Walsh and Wacholder are seeded third, behind top-seeded Branagh and Youngs and second-seeded Kessy and Ross. Dalhausser and Rogers are seeded first for the men, and Sean Scott and John Hyden are seeded second.

Play starts today at 9 a.m. north of the Hermosa Beach Pier.

Opponents

Kessy and Ross face Gabriela Roney and Lenka Urbanova, who qualified for the tournament Thursday, in the first round. Branagh and Youngs play qualifiers Juliana Evens and Kim McGiven, and Walsh and Wacholder face Dana Fiume and Shayna Munson.

Dalhausser and Rogers play Mike Szymanski and John Wankner, seeded 49th in Thursday's qualifying rounds.

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william.brink@latimes.com

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