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Beach • Andrew Beyer • 05/26/15

Though the matches were excellent, there was more to the beach volleyball extravaganza in New Orleans than merely competition

Ball boys and girls at the AVP New Orleans Open.

The return of pro beach volleyball to the Crescent City is a story of something old and something new. The AVP New Orleans Open held in the Laketown district of Kenner, Louisiana, reunited a faithful crowd of local volleyball enthusiasts with the best beach volleyball players in the world for the first time since 1999.

This year’s double-gender event was the first of its kind in New Orleans—the AVP men last competed here in 1999 and the women last visited in 1995 as part of the now-defunct Women’s Professional Volleyball Association tour.

The results of the 2015 AVP New Orleans Open went mostly along seeding lines. In both the men’s and women’s 16-team fields, the top-seeded team—Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson in the men’s division and Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross in the women’s—took home the first-place prize without dropping a match in the tournament (which featured an Olympic crossover format, aka a double-elimination bracket until the semifinals).

Walsh Jennings and Ross, both Olympic medalists, defeated fellow Olympian Jen Kessy and her new partner Emily Day in a thrilling women’s final that featured a 10-minute downpour. Gibb and Patterson easily handled second-seeded Phil Dalhausser and Sean Rosenthal, who will be the top seed in the upcoming FIVB Moscow Grand Slam, in the AVP NOLA men’s final.

There was a mad rush after each final as the competitors raced through award ceremonies, media obligations, and the crowd as they rushed to catch flights ultimately destined for Russia. All four teams in the New Orleans Open finals had already qualified for the Moscow event’s main draw, as have the American duos of John Hyden and Tri Bourne and Lauren Fendrick and Brooke Sweat. Five additional U.S. teams traveled to Russia where they will enter the tournament in the country quota or the qualifier.

In all, these pros will be traveling for World Tour events for seven weeks before returning to New York City in late July for another AVP event. Their FIVB stint features only one U.S. event—the St. Petersburg Grand Slam, June 16-20—after which they head right back to Europe for the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships in the Netherlands.

In such a whirlwind, it is easy for athletes and fans to get caught up in the competition. But for these athletes and those who are inspired by them, there is so much more to being a professional athlete than just the time spent on the court training and competing.

For all, there is a test and display of character which underlies the hearts of these champion performers. With the emergence of beach volleyball as an NCAA sport for women and the huge surge of organized juniors’ training and competitive opportunities across the country, the chance to interact with these world-class athletes and role models is an opportunity that the local young players in attendance in New Orleans took full advantage of. In return, they were treated to incredible displays of both athletic and personal inspiration.

Local amateur and youth athletes participated in the New Orleans event in many ways. Many of the ball retrievers were members of local club volleyball teams. A clinic held by AVP First allowed local youth to be coached by 2000 Olympic gold medalist Dain Blanton. Blanton’s free clinic brought many disadvantaged young people out to the beach for the first time and started teaching them the fundamentals of the game.

For the aspiring young elites, who are already competing regularly and may be hoping to earn a sand volleyball scholarship, Blanton returned Saturday afternoon along with some local collegiate coaches to teach the intricacies of the advanced game to these up-and-comers. With four universities in Louisiana already offering sand volleyball scholarships, the enthusiasm of the locals is understandable and pretty well seeded in a state with very little in the way of natural beaches.

In fact, most outdoor play here takes place at man-made facilities, like the 22-court Coconut Beach Sand Sports Complex, next to the event site in Kenner. Coconut Beach hosted the qualifier for the New Orleans Open, the AVP First clinics, and the AVP Next tournament. A large crowd of amateur players from the complex’s various leagues and tournaments joined those from White Sands (in nearby Metairie, Louisiana), Mango’s (in Baton Rouge), and Laguna Beach ( in Denham Springs, Louisiana) in spectating at the various elements of the event. The Wannabes, who hail from the Mango’s complex and have their own brand of apparel that was seen on players and AVP staff throughout the weekend, were clearly the most fanatical of all the groups. Boisterous but not obnoxious, they cheered along with a packed house for their favorites and for all.

The local community was treated to more than just high-level performances from the AVP athletes. Before the main draw of the tournament began, April Ross, Jen Kessy, and Emily Day visited the Children’s Hospital of New Orleans where they brightened the lives of several children and their families. One young patient even knew all about the three athletes and their playing histories. This is the inspiration that warms the soul but also forges the heart of a champion.

These displays from beach volleyball athletes remind us of the value of character and show athletes and role models in all industries and areas of life what it means to inspire others. With only seven AVP tour stops this year, the opportunities to experience this touch are currently few and far between, but with leaders like these, the future of beach volleyball is certainly headed in the right direction.

Andrew Beyer is the head coach at St. Scholastica Academy in Covington, Louisiana, and coaches at NOLA Volleyball Club. He also works as a color analyst for FOX Sports covering the Louisiana High School State Championships. In the summers, he organizes junior beach tournaments and trains beach players, coaches, and officials. In addition, Beyer is a veteran referee, both indoors and on the sand, and has officiated a boys’ junior national championship and several FIVB World Tour events.

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