The sand at the Huntington Beach Open is so familiar to April Ross that she could probably identify it by touch. But it carried a new sensation when she walked off it Sunday.
Ross became a four-time champion of her hometown event after she teamed with Alix Klineman for a thrilling 18-21, 21-12, 17-15 victory against Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes for their fourth straight win on the AVP Tour, dating to the end of last season.
It was as gratifying an Open win as any for Ross, in front of a boisterous Stadium Court crowd with friends and family that included an aunt and uncle from San Francisco.
“It feels like the first time, especially against a team like that, with Alix and all the hard work we’ve put in,” Ross said. “It’s just a different feeling and it’s amazing to win Huntington.”
The repeat theme continued on the men’s side as Jake Gibb became a three-time winner when he partnered with Taylor Crabb to defeat Chase Budinger and Casey Patterson 27-25, 21-14. But Ross can say she’s won with four different partners over nearly a decade, and Sunday kicked off the 2019 tour.
“To win this first one is huge,” Klineman said. “It’s a lot of confidence. It’s a lot of affirmation that we’ve been working on the right things. By no means are we going to relax now. We have a lot of hard work ahead of us.”
It took every grain of Ross’ veteran caginess and the 6-foot-4 Klineman’s net-front presence to pull out an epic third set in which they served up match point six times before they took a 16-15 lead on Klineman’s block. They won on a hit out-of-bounds.
Ross had 23 kills and 25 digs and Klineman had 18 kills. Jen Kessy, their coach and Ross’ former partner, made an adjustment after the first-set loss.
“We served ‘Mel’ relentlessly,” Ross said. “We didn’t serve Sarah one ball. We got back to in-between games and Jen was like, ‘We’ve got to try her at least once.’ ”
Pavan and Humana Paredes were the third team in AVP history to advance to the final seeded 14th or lower. They won two of the previous three meetings against Ross and Klineman and were poised for their first Open win.
“I honestly thought we had it, fighting back from 14-11 [in the third set],” the 6-6 Pavan said. “We had all the momentum in our favor. We had a chance for match and it didn’t go our way. But we kept fighting. It was just a couple of unfortunate plays there at the end. Against a team like that, we have to take advantage of those opportunities.”
Crabb and Gibb were top-seeded but had to grind into the final after a loss Friday. That included a draining 72-minute match against No. 2 Nick Lucena and Phil Dalhausser in the quarterfinals.
“I want to be in the NBA where they give you the Kobe [Bryant] contract for five years after you’ve done something,” Gibb said. “It’s not the case in what we do, so you have to prove yourself every year.”
Gibb credited Crabb, a dig specialist who recorded 12 digs and 14 kills.
“He’s so talented with his wrists and his hops,” Gibb said. “I think he took over the game there, defensively and at the service line.”
While Gibb beat his former partner Patterson, Crabb had to beat his older brother, Trevor, in the semifinals, for the second time in the tournament. Their parents were in the stands and Taylor said “they just stay quiet. They don’t really cheer for anyone.”
For Taylor, the victory happened less than 24 hours after his alma mater, Long Beach State, won the indoor NCAA title. He cherished the sand triumph more, given their arduous path.
“I think this one is up there with our wins,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in the loser’s bracket on Friday and won the tournament, so it’s nice to know we have that in ourselves.”