Lauren Fendrick found out how big a star Kerri Walsh Jennings is in beach volleyball the hard way last year.
Fendrick was in the semifinals of the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals Championships at Huntington Beach, rolling, close to finishing off an upset. She rose up to the net and blocked Walsh Jennings, underdog shoving favorite back into the sand.
The first thing Fendrick heard was a little girl crying. The next was a man booing. Exactly three people cheered for her — husband, Mom, and Mom's friend.
Walsh Jennings is the star of this tour, without a real close second. With partner April Ross, her team can sweep the AVP season on Sunday with their seventh-consecutive tournament victory.
The three-time Olympic gold medalist has the sponsorship ads near the courts, the No. 1 seeding in the 2016 Olympics all but locked up, as well as the media and community responsibilities that go with being one of the most successful American female athletes ever.
For the most part, fans of the AVP are fans of Walsh Jennings.
On Sunday's finals of this year's championships in Huntington Beach, Fendrick could be in a similar situation. Along with new partner Brooke Sweat, the tow have finished second in all five of the AVP tournaments they've competed in this season. In all five tournaments, they've lost in the finals to Walsh Jennings and Ross.
On Saturday, the team lost a close match in the quarterfinals, 21-18, 24-26, to Heather Hughes and Whitney Pavlik. It's the first time this season the team lost before the finals, but because it's a double-elimination tournament, Fendrick and Sweat will play Sunday morning in another chance for a semifinal berth.
Walsh Jennings and Ross did advance. As in every tournament this season, another finals matchup looms.
"I like the pressure," Fendrick said. "I think that it makes us better.... It makes it so we can't get complacent. But it has to be focused on what you're doing, because you can't just hope that someone else is doing bad."
Volleyball coaches say that it takes about 300 days of playing together for a two-person team to really figure each other out. Partners have to know exactly where the other is going to be on the court, and exactly where the ball is going to go. It's not like getting a new wide receiver in football — it's like getting a new spouse.
Fendrick and Sweat started playing together in January. Previously, the 28-year old Sweat had five partners in 33 career AVP matches. Fendrick, 32, had 19 in 82 matches.
"You spend so much time together, it does become a lot like a relationship," Fendrick said. "It's great when you get along with that person, because when you don't, it's kind of miserable. It can work — there are plenty of people who don't like their partner, they don't hang out, and they do well — but I feel really lucky that we get along so well."
Even when Fendrick and Sweat have lost to Walsh Jennings and Ross in the finals, they weren't really losing. Two teams will represent the United States in the Olympics. If Fendrick and Sweat keep up their pace on Sunday in Huntington, they'll be in good position to earn that second Olympic spot.
Fans might be invested in the favorites, Walsh Jennings, but Fendrick and Sweat are banking on the improbability of the Olympics. If they qualify, anything can happen for the relatively new teammates.
"If we sit here and think about what other teams are doing and the points game and all that, we're going to go crazy, and it's not going to help our game," Sweat said. "If we just go out and play our game like we have this year, obviously that's worked. So we just have to stay steady, mentally, with it."
On both the men's and women's side of the double-elimination tournament, two teams have already qualified for the semifinals. The other two spots will be determined Sunday morning from the loser's bracket. For the women, the two qualifying teams are No. 6 Hughes/Pavlik and No. 1 Walsh Jennings/Ross. For the men, those teams are No. 1 Jake Gibb/Casey Patterson and No. 3 Tri Bourne/John Hyden.