SALT LAKE CITY — Kerri Walsh Jennings, a former Olympic gold medalist and the biggest name on the AVP Pro Beach Volleyball Tour, loved most everything about her first tournament in Salt Lake last summer at Liberty Park.
“It was a great time,’’ she said. “It was really well organized, the fans had a great time, the people showed up and they were loud and enthusiastic. From a players' perspective, we loved it.’’
The only negative was the finish, as Walsh Jennings and partner Whitney Pavlik came in a disappointing fifth place.
This year, Walsh Jennings is back with a new partner, April Ross, and after a year of mixed success, she’s hoping for a better result this year.
The AVP Salt Lake City Open officially gets underway Friday morning at Liberty Park after preliminary matches were held on Thursday. Walsh Jennings and Ross will play on center court at 10 a.m. against a qualifying team from Thursday. A win there would advance them to a 9:10 a.m. match on Saturday, followed by a match at 3:30 with another win.
So far this year, the Walsh Jennings-Ross team has fared well in AVP events, winning both tournaments at St. Petersburg and Milwaukee. Before that, they had some shaky performances in international competition.
“In the big picture I’m pretty happy with the success April and I have had,’’ she said. “It’s been an up and down season as far as finishes — we’ve either done really well or we take home ninth place which is really frustrating, because we both want to be on top of our games."
“But we understand it’s a process and we’re playing the top teams in the world,” she added. "We’re relatively new so we’re taking it one tournament at a time and enjoying the process. Every challenge and setback we’ve faced, we’ve worked really hard through those challenges to make us better.’’
Ross, a former Olympic silver medalist, was on the winning women’s team last year, pairing with Jennifer Kessy to take the title. The No. 1-seeded pair lost in the second round but worked their way back through the double-elimination bracket, defeating Walsh Jennings-Pavlik along the way to the title.
Of last year’s tournament, Walsh Jennings remembers the disappointment, but otherwise has good memories.
“We had a great time in Salt Lake, even though we thought we underperformed,’’ she said. “It was really well-run and it the organization was great all the little things that make our experience great, they took care of all those things. We had a great time, and my goal is to improve on the finish I had last year.
The partnership with Pavlik was only temporary, and Walsh Jennings teamed up with Ross in September. “It was a long time coming and it’s been a great start,’’ Walsh Jennings said of her partnership with Ross.
Walsh Jennings is especially looking forward to competing again in Salt Lake because she and her husband, Casey Jennings, a former BYU volleyball player who is competing, will have a lot of family on hand. They live in California, and many of their relatives will come from Nevada to watch.
“We’re excited to be here because we’ll have family here as well, so that will be great to see some relatives,’’ she said.
The Jennings also will have their three young children on hand, which is always enjoyable she said.
“We try to travel together and our family is doing great,’’ she said. “We’ve had a great summer traveling throughout the country and around the world.’’
Other top teams to watch on the women’s side include No. 2 seeds Lauren Fredrick and Brooke Sweat, No. 3 seeds Emily Day and Summer Ross and No. 4 seeds Lane Carico and Kim DiCello.
In the men’s bracket, the team of Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson will be the team to watch. Gibb hails from Bountiful and Patterson is a former BYU volleyball player. They are the No. 2 seed and finished a disappointing third place last year. However, after that finish, they went on to win the next four AVP events and were the top-ranked men's team.
Gibb and Patterson feel they will have a home-court advantage with all of their famiy and friends in the area.
“We fill half the stands just with our families,’’ Gibb said. “I come from a family of 11 and Casey’s wife, Lexi, she comes from a family of 11 as well. With extended family, nephews, nieces we really do fill this place.’’
Gibb and Patterson will play their first match at 3:25 p.m. Friday.
The No. 1 seeded men’s team is the duo of John Hyden and Tri Bourne, who won the tournament at Milwaukee last month. The defending champions from last year, Phil Dalhausser and Sean Rosenthal, had to withdraw due to an injury to Dalhausser.
The finals will be played Sunday with the women going at 1:30 p.m. and the men at 3 p.m.