U.S. beach teams proved once again over the weekend that they’re right at home atop the podium on the international stage. Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers continued to dismantle the competition with their third gold-medal win in only four events. Angie Akers and Tyra Turner played the same kind of incredible volleyball we saw out of them in Fort Lauderdale to open the season, bringing home the silver, their first medal of the year. And Jen Kessy and April Ross completed the “sweep” by winning bronze, also their third medal out of the first four tournaments; the other two being gold.
There’s no question, the United States is representing when it comes to medals won on the FIVB Tour. In fact, out of the 24 medals that have been awarded since the season started in April, seven of them, nearly 30 percent, have come home to our shores. And the most telling stat: five out of those seven were constructed of gold. The only country with a more significant medal haul is, of course, arch rival Brazil with 11 (nearly 46 percent). In fact, two Brazilian teams, Juliana Felisberta Silva and Larissa Franca and Emanuel Rego and Alison Cerutti, have managed to duplicate Dalhausser/Rogers and Kessy/Ross’ raw numbers, producing six medals just on their own, but like the Olympics, when the pressure is at its highest, the one location on the podium that matters most is still dominated by the U.S.
What’s a tad suspicious is the play by the rest of our representatives; especially on the men’s side. I don’t know if you recall, but Dalhausser and Rogers didn’t use to be the only American team battling for championships overseas. Teams like Gibb and Rosenthal have five podium finishes to their names, including two victories, and yet, in 2010, their best result is a ninth; a place in the final tournament standings they used to walk to. But now, after two 17ths in a row, where do they find themselves? Approaching a spot in the draw they haven’t sniffed in years: the qualifier. Alongside fellow countrymen Matt Fuerbringer and Nick Lucena, who currently rank fourth among U.S. teams currently competing on the FIVB, and have one ninth, one 13th and one 17th to their credit this season.
Note: The FIVB is by no-means a true “world tour.” The organization limits the number of tournament entrants per country to four (except for the host nation), in an attempt to spread opportunities to lesser volleyball-inclined nations. Each country can place three teams automatically in the main draw, as long as each squad has enough entry points to rank within the top 24. The fourth-ranked team per country must qualify, regardless of their overall entry points, and play in a “country-quota” mini-tournament one day prior to the qualifier if more than four teams from that country register for the event. Basically, this means a team could play up to three country-quota matches and three qualifier matches before ever competing in a game with financial compensation on the line. How they’ve managed to maintain a system as ludicrous as this and insisted on still calling it a “world tour” is beyond me. Imagine, if you will, tennis or golf limiting their tournament entry list to four players per country… It’s difficult to even rationalize.
The third men’s team competing overseas is Casey Jennings and Brad Keenan. They’ve opened up the year with two ninths, one 13th and one 17th. Keep in mind, the former team of Fuerbringer/Jennings finished outside the top ten only once during three successive seasons on the FIVB, from 2007-09. Bottom line: something is definitely not right with our representatives outside of Dalhausser and Rogers. And since I wasn’t actually in Poland, breaking down what happened on court, I’m forced to once again to test my cell service and trust the word of one of the athletes in question. Fortunately, Jake Gibb was more than candid.
“We’re just playing pathetic right now,” Gibb admitted while scurrying through the airport trying to catch his connecting flight in Frankfurt. “We don’t deserve the right to represent the U.S. if we continue to play like this and finish the way we’re finishing.”
In a way, I was a little taken back. At no time did I expect that type of honesty to leave Gibb’s mouth. Was there a reason? Is one of them hurt? “Both of us are healthy and able to compete, but for whatever reason, we’re just not groveling for wins right now,” Gibb continued before taking a short moment to reevaluate. “We’re not far off. We’re close. If we win that match in Rome against Brazil [Cunha/Barboza] in pool play, we win our pool, come out with a bye and it’s a totally different tournament for us, and we’re probably not having this conversation now. But we end up losing that match in three, come out second in pool, catch a Norwegian team that’s on fire with their serves in the play-in match and suck on a 17th,” Gibb said, before concluding with: “I’m not okay with the way we’re finishing. It kills me. We aren’t playing over here, just satisfied to be in the draw, we’re playing to win championships for the U.S. Fortunately Todd and Phil are taking care of business right now, but there’s no reason we shouldn’t be there rounding out the podium.”
I didn’t have a chance to speak with either Jennings/Keenan or Fuerbringer/Lucena, but I’m sure they feel exactly the same way. Bottom line: our teams are way too good to be collectively finishing outside the top ten.
On the women’s side, things aren’t quite as dire for teams outside the duo leading the attack: 2009 World Champions Kessy and Ross. Although, I’d be remiss not to discuss the ninth and two fourth-place finishes for Nicole Branagh and Misty May-Treanor; in addition to their withdrawal from Seoul, Korea, due to fatigue. Did anybody expect these types of results from May-Treanor, regardless of her partner? My guess is absolutely not. Their ninth-place finish in Brasilia to open up the international season was Misty’s first ninth since 2002. In fact, since that second season with Kerri Walsh in ‘02, May-Treanor has 45 podium finishes that include 34 gold medals. I’d be surprised if she even remembers what ninth place tastes like? Either way, she does now, and I’m sure she’s not okay with its flavor. Look for some new improvements in Branagh/May-Treanor’s game this weekend in Huntington. They’re both winners, and once they figure out what the best game plan is to suit their team, I don’t expect to see them finishing off the podium any longer.
The third women’s team representing the U.S. is Seoul silver medalists Angie Akers and Tyra Turner. After skipping Brasilia to open up the year, Akers and Turner have placed fifth (Shanghai), ninth (Rome) and second (Seoul) to round out a fresh start to 2010. I discussed the level of inconsistency that plagues their game in my Women’s Top Ten Preseason Rankings and now that we have five tournaments (AVP & FIVB) to judge my assessment, I feel like I could not have been more accurate. Their current AVP ranking is seventh and that includes a finals appearance in Fort Lauderdale. How are they ranked so low? Simple: they took a 13th in Santa Barbara. Akers and Turner should never take a 13th on the AVP, ever. Their current rank on the FIVB is eighth and that also includes a finals appearance. One minute they’re on and incredibly difficult to stop, the next minute they’re off and losing to teams they should beat in their sleep. Whether they will ever figure out how to stabilize the irregularity of their match-play is a question only they can answer, but if and when they do, they could be looking at quite a few more finals and possibly their first championship title as a team.
The fourth and fifth U.S. teams to compete overseas are Lauren Fendrick and Ashley Ivy and Brooke Hanson and Lisa Rutledge. Fendrick and Ivy have one 13th (Seoul), one 17th (Brasilia) and one country-quota loss to Hanson/Rutledge (Rome) on their international resume this season. Hanson and Rutledge, on the other hand, have one fifth (Brasilia), one 17th (Seoul) and two qualifier losses (Shanghai & Rome), where they failed to earn spots in the main draw. Other than the fifth by Hanson/Rutledge in Brasilia, both squads have produced rather forgettable results, but they’re both relatively new to the FIVB Tour and the teams they’re facing each weekend are generally not only veteran travelers but also used to the venues they’re competing in. Look for both team’s results to improve as the season progresses and they become more familiar with routines necessary to circumnavigate the globe and compete successfully.
Last but not least, I need to mention the ball they’re currently using on the FIVB. Trust me when I say it’s certainly nothing like the Wilson. Our athletes are flying week-after-week to locations they oftentimes have difficulty even pronouncing and yet, we expect them to play their best beach volleyball regardless of flight delays, jet lag, shanty accommodations, hunger and the fact they have to use a completely different ball once they arrive at the tournament site for their first match. Now, it used to be a Mikasa that was similar in structure and style to the Wilson AVP ball, but now it’s not even close. In fact, it feels like a plastic indoor ball you can buy at Target for $14.99, and it’s not easy to pepper with, let alone play a professional match. Either way, it just further proves that Dalhausser and Rogers can win with anything, and makes their consistent gold medal performances even that much more impressive.
The next FIVB stop, also the second grand slam of the season, will take place in Moscow, Russia from June 8-13. Look for an additional extended recap immediately following as I put together my pitch to raise funds in an effort to visit Klagenfurt, Austria during the last week of July to provide live, in-depth coverage of the AVP’s elite as they compete at the second most prolific beach volleyball tournament in the world behind the coveted Manhattan Beach Open.
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