Recently, Jen Kessy spoke on her volleyball experience over her decade-plus-long career. I had the best time learning from her, and I wanted more.
Specifically regarding her partnership with April Ross. Jen had the most success of her career alongside April, a name we all know and will be rooting for in the upcoming Olympics. So I wanted to pick Jen’s brain a little on her partnership, chemistry, and friendship with April.
At the beginning of Jen’s beach career, she was only one foot in. She played indoor volleyball during the winters and bounced around the AVP with different partners. Jen made the full-time switch to beach in 2004 after a couple of years playing both. “In the years before April,” Jen says, “I played with superstars like Holly McPeak, Barb Fontana, Nancy Mason, and Rachel Scott. They were the ultimate professionals, and I learned a ton from them. But until I got with April, I didn’t let myself change into who I needed to be.”
“Right before April and I got together,” Jen continues, “I was with Rachel Scott. After our first season together, she sat me down and very honestly told me I wasn’t working hard enough, and I wasn’t ready to go for the Olympics. She pissed me off even though she was right. But what she didn’t know was her words would light a fire and make me work all the harder to prove her wrong.”
So Jen ventured out, looking for a new partner and with an entirely new outlook. “Barbra Fontana told me to always start from the top when looking for a new partner,” she says. “The top was Misty and Kerri; next was EY and Nicole Branaugh. My messages didn’t quite break up those teams, so I went to the next best – April.” With her two National Championships at USC, Jen knew she was a winner. But April was committed to someone else – a former partner of Jen’s, Nancy Mason. Jen still tried, but April is loyal and didn’t budge.
A couple of months later, a turn of events changed everything. One week before the first AVP of the season, Nancy Mason told April she needed surgery and wouldn’t be able to play until she was healed. Unsure what to do, April sucked up her pride and called Jen, the person she had denied five times already. Jen, sensing the opportunity and also setting her bruised ego aside, said yes. Practice that day was against a great team, so it would be a good test. “We practiced against Misty and Kerri – and we won. Which was wild. Nobody beat that team. Not even in practice.”
While Misty and Kerri sat for an inordinately long time discussing their loss, April and Jen stared at each other on the sideline and wondered what just happened. “April and I vibed. We both felt it. So we made some hard phone calls to both of our partners and joined forces.”
Thus began one of the greatest duos in American history. “From the offset, our chemistry was right. We had mutual friends and had a blast on and off the court. Sometimes being so good off the court doesn’t translate into greatness on the court. But it did for us. And when you have that fun off the court, it’s the most beautiful combination you can find.
“We’re both down for adventures and dancing; we’d have costume parties on the road, go sightseeing, read in cute coffee shops in every city we visited. We really lived the life, soaking up every minute of the honor of being a professional volleyball player.
“Of course, some of that could have been to our detriment. Maybe we went out too much. Maybe I let my love of volleyball cloud the fact that I needed to treat it as more of a job to get better. Maybe we could have won a lot more tournaments if we weren’t like that. But damn, those years were so fun.”
Though they had a blast together off the court, April brought out the best in Jen as a player. Coach Jeff Conover, whom they hired after missing out on qualifying for the 2008 Olympics, also helped tremendously. “I am admittedly not very coachable, and that’s what needed to change. The only way I learn something is if I do it on my own. But Jeff was so good for us, and April and I need the same kind of communication and coaching styles.”
Their game elevated almost instantly. The duo had fun throwing in quick sets all over the court. They were unconventional and hard to predict. Jen got in better shape and started taking the game more seriously alongside April. They bettered each other in that way. April helped Jen become a more serious competitor; Jen helped April see the fun in traveling the world and playing a game for money.
While April enjoyed the fun times off the court, she’s more than willing to totally invest in volleyball – head down, grinding, eye on the prize day in and out. Jen has always needed balance between everyday life and volleyball, so the off-court sightseeing and shenanigans were a welcome distraction for her.
Jen also wanted to have kids, something she did in 2014. Jen didn’t imagine returning to the game when she had her daughter. Little did she know – she’d play two more seasons with a new partner. And even less predictable was the two years she spent coaching April and her new partner Alix. Though Jen won’t be traveling to Tokyo with the A-Team (due to Jen’s scheduled family move to the East Coast and the A-Team’s decision to hire a local coach), she helped that powerhouse team become what they are.
Coach Jen’s previous experience with April and getting to know Alix quickly helped solidify their partnership and chemistry lightning fast. April and Alix won their first international tournament together, and they’ve been cleaning up ever since. And while Jen won’t be in the stands in Tokyo, charting, scouting, and coaching, she’ll be on the couch with her 4- and 6-year old cheering like hell for her friends.