Long Beach, Calif., August 25, 2015 - For a country that has delivered 60 percent of the gold medals in Olympic Beach Volleyball competition, the United States heads toward the Rio 2016 Summer Games still trying to find a foothold in the game it invented.
Sure, the talent pool is deep. But questions about the teams abound following the ASICS World Series of Beach Volleyball, the fourth of five Grand Slam events on the 2015 FIVB World Tour calendar.
American teams won the silver in both the men’s and women’s events, but the teams that produced the medals are still well behind in the chase for Olympic qualifying points.
“We have four, five strong American teams so I don’t think we’re the American team to beat,” Nick Lucena said after he and Phil Dalhausser fell in a tense final to Brazil’s Bruno Oscar Schmidt and Alison Cerutti in the final. “But we’re going to try and be up there every tournament. It’s encouraging, it’s a little disappointing we lost.”
Lucena and Dalhausser were playing their first FIVB event together and only their third event overall since they rejoined forces last month.
They are basically starting to scratch and rank as the No. 5 American team behind Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson (No. 7 overall), John Hyden and Tri Bourne (15) and even Ryan Doherty and John Mayer (29), who have chosen to concentrate on the domestic tour the rest of the summer.
But Gibb and Patterson struggled to the 25th-place finish at Long Beach. Doherty and Mayer finished fifth after being eliminated by Dalhausser and Lucena while Bourne and Hyden scored a ninth with a step forward with a pool-play win over Alison and Bruno.
“To do it against that team is pretty big because they’re the No. 1 team in the world,” Hyden said. “That helps our confidence to stay in the game and hopefully we take our play this week into next week and not make the small errors.”
Rosenthal and Brunner, who finished 17th, were also playing in the first FIVB event together and are still trying to smooth things out. They’ve even switched sides, with Rosenthal taking over on the left.
“I think the side switch is going to be really good for us,” Brunner said. “That was my first time ever playing on the right and I think it’s going to be really good. I’ve just got to iron out my blocking, get my block defense a little better which I think will be easy for us. I’m super optimistic going forward.”
But they know it’s not going to be easy.
“We’ve got a long way to go and it’s got to start now,” Rosenthal said. “Or never.”
The USA women’s team that placed second, April Ross and Kerri Walsh Jennings, would have been among the favorites until Walsh Jennings suffered a shoulder injury that has relegated the duo to the No. 21 spot on the FIVB points list. That places them behind American teams Lauren Fendrick and Brooke Sweat (No. 15) and Emily Day and Jen Kessy (No. 18).
Walsh Jennings may be back, but she’s also holding back. She serves only underhanded and will swing for shots only with her left arm.
“I’m not going to swing (right-handed) for the rest of the year,” Walsh Jennings said. “And that’s period. After the season, I’ll assess what I need to do.”
Not that anything can dampen the enthusiasm of the player who has won the last three Olympic gold medals.
“Big picture, I know we can be the best in the world. We played like it all week long and then we just played against the best in the world and we know their level and we have bigger and better in us. We can be so much higher, so much higher than I’ve ever played in my life. So I’m just excited.”
Day and Kessy placed ninth in Long Beach but so did the new team of Jennifer Fopma and Brittany Hochevar, two veterans who could make a move in the push for Rio.
“We have a lot of improving to do and that’s encouraging, too, that we can get better,” Fopma said. “I’m super pumped. I feel like we have good chemistry on the court, we’re both at the same point in our careers, We’re both in our low 30s, so we’re making this one big push.”
“I’ve played with some young players over the last couple years and there’s just something to be said when you share the same goals with someone in the same timing,” Hochevar said. “You share that sense of urgency but it’s not a panic. It’s ‘We’re going to make a run now.’ It’s not ‘Oh, we’ll have time to figure this out.’”