Cut Shots: Summer Storm
By Tom Feuer:
Four years ago, a then 20-year-old Summer Ross, and her partner Emily Day, were playing on center court at the FIVB Asics World Series event in Long Beach against the second best team in the world at that time, Brasilians Taiana Lima and Talita Antunes. It was a rock ‘em, sock’ em affair. Every game went to overtime with the packed partisan U.S. crowd going nuts. In the third game the Americans had their South American counterparts on the ropes, at match point a couple of times, before falling 16-14 in a skirmish that DiG Magazine ranked as one of the ten best matches in history.
Despite the loss, Ross’ potential and future seemed limitless. There were those in the sport that thought she could be the answer to the riddle of who would be the U.S.’ second best team behind Kerri Walsh Jennings and her partner du jour in the road leading to the Olympic Summer Games in Rio.
Only it did not turn out that way. Day and Ross did play well on the AVP Tour that summer, defeating Walsh Jennings and her partner at the time, Whitney Pavlik no less than three times, including a blowout win in the finals at Cincinnati. A second place finish in a watered down FIVB tournament in Phuket that same year, 2013, followed and all seemed on course.
However, 2014, was a different story. Summer’s mom passed away and it understandably appeared to affect her play on the sand. AVP results inferior to those of the year before followed, and a fifth in Stavanger on the FIVB tour was surrounded by other less than stellar results.
Then in the lead up to the Olympics, Ross switched up and played with Lane Carico in hopes of unlocking the door to that second American spot in Rio behind KWJ and her new partner April Ross (no relation). But while Summer and Lane played well domestically, it was a completely different ball game internationally and the spot they coveted went to Lauren Fendrick…and Brooke Sweat.
Which catches us up to the present. With expectations low, Sweat began the year recovering from a debilitating shoulder injury that affected her for all of 2016. She was now feeling better. Ross and Sweat decided to team up. Sweat had a number of FIVB points so that they would not have to play in country quota or qualifier matches in most of the bigger tournaments.
In a shocker, the undersized Sweat and Ross tandem playing for the first time as a team went to Fort Lauderdale in February for a fully loaded FIVB tournament, and as the 13th seed finished a spectacular fourth with one of those losses coming to the Brasilian powerhouses Antunes and Larissa Franca. Was it a fluke? Some times new teams perform well because no one has a chance to scout them. Undoubtedly, they would be an easy out in frigid Moscow for an FIVB three star event which concluded last weekend.
Only it did not turn out that way. They defeated Sarah Hughes and Kelly Claes, the super collegiate team that some have anointed as the second coming. They won without breaking a “sweat” (had to get in at least one of those), 21-16, 21-15. Next up they faced the Olympic champions, Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst. They took a scalpel to the Germans surgically winning in two, 21-13 in the second. After going through the entire German armada (they defeated two other teams from the European country) they found themselves in their first FIVB final against Larissa and Talita. But although they lost, the volleyball world is on notice. The scrambling Sweat and the all-arounder Ross are FOR REAL!
Now they go back to the AVP tour with a newfound respect and it will be interesting to see how they play in New York City where they will have a target on their backs.
Which brings us to the state of affairs of professional beach volleyball on the USA women’s side. To say there has been a lot of intrigue is to put it mildly. The tectonic plates are shifting and it is hard to believe that today’s partnerships will last beyond this season.
Let’s start with April Ross. Clearly still at the peak of her powers, she won the AVP in Austin with Pavlik, willing that team to a three set victory over Emily Stockman and Kim DiCello. Two weeks later she was playing with Fendrick in Moscow where they finished an underwhelming ninth. Now, they go to the Big Apple as favorites but what of their chances on the FIVB tour? And what of the persistent rumors that Ross is eyeballing the young Hughes, despite the fact that April would see more time at the net.
Meanwhile, KWJ and Nicole Branagh, the two 38-year-old wily veterans will make their first appearance together in 2017, at the end of June in the Porec Major, one of the very few FIVB five star events this season. You certainly cannot accuse them of ducking anyone.
Branagh last played a “full” season (nine events) in 2015 but acquitted herself admirably winning with Jenny Kropp in the AVP Chicago. She has played with KWJ a total of six times, with two firsts and two seconds. Both of the wins were on the FIVB circuit, one in 2008 and one in 2010. That was a long time ago. Nicole hits one of the heavier balls in the world but is likely to see the majority of the serves and will presumably be scrambling on defense (or at least split blocking) behind KWJ’s big block. They are unlikely to get a high seed in Porec which means they will likely have one of the big bopping Brasilian teams or Ludwig/Walkenhorst in their pool. However, if I have learned anything it is never underestimate the heart of a champion and I think KWJ and Branagh are both aware that there are a lot of critics out there.
Hughes and Claes may end up continuing to play together but I think they will end up like the Crabb’s. In order to fulfill their individual potential they will need to split up as a team. Hughes is by far the more marketable of the two, but Claes has big upside as well.
Kevin Wong mentioned on NBC’s air that his favorite year outside of the Olympics is the one that comes afterwards. And now you can see why!
Tom Feuer has been a close observer of the sport since 1976. He currently works as the Director of Arizona State’s Cronkite Sports Bureau in Santa Monica, CA and is a Professor of Practice. Prior to that, he was the Executive Producer for Fox Sports West and Prime Ticket in Los Angeles and has won three National Emmy Awards for his work in television.