Alix Klineman

April Ross, Alix Klineman
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April Ross, Alix Klineman complete perfect, abbreviated AVP season

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April Ross and Alix Klineman consolidated their position as the U.S.’ top beach volleyball team, completing a sweep of the three-tournament AVP Champions Cup on Sunday.

Ross, a two-time Olympic medalist, and Klineman won the finale, the Porsche Cup. They won all 12 matches over the last three weekends, including the last 14 sets in a row, capped with a 21-18, 21-17 win over Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil in Sunday’s final.

“It feels like we’re midseason in a normal year,” Ross said on Amazon Prime. “I can’t believe it’s over.”

The AVP Champions Cup marked the first three top-level beach volleyball tournaments since March, and a replacement for a typical AVP season due to the coronavirus pandemic. The setting: on the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center parking lot without fans and with many health and safety measures.

AVP is not part of Olympic qualifying. It’s unknown when those top-level international tournaments will resume, but Ross and Klineman, ranked No. 2 in the world, are just about assured of one of the two U.S. Olympic spots.

According to BVBinfo.com, they’re 10-0 combined against the other top U.S. teams — Claes and Sponcil and triple Olympic champion Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat, who are likely battling for the last U.S. Olympic spot.

Walsh Jennings and Sweat, who do not play on the AVP tour, have a lead for the last spot more than halfway through qualifying, which runs into June.

Earlier in the men’s final, Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb kept 2008 Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena from sweeping the Champions Cup. Bourne and Crabb prevailed 21-17, 15-21, 15-12 for their first AVP title since teaming in 2018.

Bourne, who went nearly two years between tournaments from 2016-18 due to an autoimmune disease, and Crabb redeemed after straight-set losses to Dalhausser and Lucena the previous two weekends. Crabb guaranteed a title on Instagram days before the tournament.

“Those guys are the best in the world, and they make you look bad at times, but we’re relentless,” Bourne said on Amazon Prime. “You’re going to have to play the best volleyball in the world to beat us every time.”

Bourne and Crabb, Dalhausser and Lucena and Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb (Trevor’s younger brother) are battling for two available U.S. Olympic spots in Tokyo.

MORE: Team Slaes looks to end Kerri Walsh Jennings’ Olympic career

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April Ross, Alix Klineman win AVP beach volleyball’s socially distanced return

April Ross, Alix Klineman
Robert Beck/AVP
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Olympic medal favorites April Ross and Alix Klineman won the first AVP beach volleyball tournament since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, taking the AVP Champions Cup in Long Beach, Calif., on Saturday and Sunday.

Ross and Klineman, ranked No. 2 in the world, rallied past American Sara Hughes and Canadian Brandie Wilkerson in Sunday’s final 24-22, 21-19. Ross and Klineman were down 20-16 in the first set.

They lifted a trophy during a time they thought they would be heading to Tokyo for the Olympics, which have been postponed to open July 23, 2021.

“It’s not what anybody hoped for, but I think we’re making the most of it,” Klineman told Dain Blanton NBC. “We took the time off to enjoy that time but also to get stronger and healthier. We’re just really grateful that we even have opportunities to play right now.”

Ross, an Olympic silver and bronze medalist, and Klineman beat reigning world champions Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes of Canada 14-21, 21-15, 15-12 in the semifinals earlier Sunday. Those are the two favorites for Olympic gold in Tokyo next summer.

Ross and Klineman paired in 2017 after Ross and triple Olympic champion Kerri Walsh Jennings split with Walsh Jennings’ decision not to sign an AVP contract. Ross and Klineman won their first international tournament together in 2018. They also racked up eight AVP titles in 13 starts over the last three years.

Ross and Klineman have a comfortable lead in U.S. Olympic qualifying more than halfway through the period. Walsh Jennings and her new partner, Rio Olympian Brooke Sweat, are trying to hold off Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil for the second and final spot. AVP tournaments do not count toward Olympic qualifying.

Earlier Sunday, 2008 Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena beat three-time Olympian Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb 21-19, 13-21, 15-13 in the men’s final.

Dalhausser and Lucena, Gibb and Crabb and Tri Bourne and Crabb’s older brother, Trevor, will battle next year for two U.S. Olympic men’s spots. Dalhausser and Lucena rank third more than halfway through qualifying, but they still have one more tournament to count, while the other teams can only count a result in place of a worse previous result.

Dalhausser and Lucena, both 40, would both break the record of oldest Olympic beach volleyball player in history, according to Olympedia.org. As would the 44-year-old Gibb. And Walsh Jennings, 41.

The AVP Champions Cup is a three-weekend series of three tournaments replacing the normal AVP season. Every tournament takes place in the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center parking lot without fans and with many health and safety measures.

Every player competing began undergoing weekly coronavirus tests three weeks ago. No players tested positive as of Thursday, the day before play began with qualifying. Each player also gets their temperature taken upon arrival at the tournament site.

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MORE: Claes, Sponcil bid to end Kerri Walsh Jennings’ Olympic career

Will Kerri Walsh Jennings qualify for Tokyo? Olympic beach volleyball questions linger during break

Kerri Walsh Jennings, Brooke Sweat
FIVB World Tour
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The race for beach volleyball spots was among the most compelling across U.S. Olympic qualifying when the coronavirus pandemic halted competition.

Kerri Walsh Jennings, the three-time gold medalist, and new partner Brooke Sweat held a small lead for the second and final women’s berth. Three men’s teams, including 2008 Olympic gold medalist Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena, were tightly battling for two spots.

It shaped up to be a pivotal spring. Now, uncertainty. Not only when will tournaments resume, but also how will the Olympic qualification process be amended.

Under the original rankings system, a team counted its top 12 finishes in tournaments from Sept. 1, 2018 to June 14, 2020. Nearly all of the top teams reached the 12-tournament minimum, meaning they were competing in 2020 to improve on their lowest results.

The International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) has not announced what changes will be made now that the Olympics are postponed until 2021. Obstacles are plenty once sports resume, starting with rescheduling tournaments and/or determining a 2021 schedule.

“Is it going to be fewer events to qualify, or is it going to be more events to qualify?” NBC Olympics analyst Kevin Wong said. “There’s still a lot of question marks about that.”

Wong believes that Walsh Jennings might gain the most from the extra year. Even though, at 41, she is older than any previous Olympic beach volleyball player.

“In general, the delay helps the more mature athletes, the older athletes, and it hurts the younger athletes,” Wong said. “Older athletes, they know their bodies better. They’ve played more. There’s more muscle memory there and more in the data banks. So, they’re going to be able to refine.”

April Ross and Alix Klineman, the 2019 World silver medalists, had a nearly insurmountable cushion for the first of two U.S. Olympic spots when sports were halted.

Walsh Jennings and Sweat were in second place, 320 points ahead of Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil. Claes, 24, and Sponcil, 23, are closer in age to Walsh Jennings’ three children than the legend herself.

Top teams average more than 550 points per tournament. Claes and Sponcil benefit in that their 11th- and 12th-best scores (400 points each) are lower than those of Walsh Jennings and Sweat (480 points each). If and when Claes and Sponcil put up strong results in future tournaments, they would gain more points by throwing out lower scores.

“Sarah and Kelly, each tournament they’re learning new things,” Wong said. “This [canceling tournaments] is the kind of the thing where you’re taking away their biggest opportunities to grow and get better.”

The U.S. men’s standings:

Taylor Crabb/Jake Gibb — 6,680 points
Trevor Crabb/Tri Bourne — 6,360 points
Phil Dalhausser/Nick Lucena — 5,840 points (in 11 events)

The Crabbs are brothers who formerly played together. Gibb, 44, is three years older than the oldest Olympic beach volleyball player in history. Bourne, after just missing the Rio Olympics, went nearly two years between events due to an autoimmune disease.

Dalhausser, who earned gold with Todd Rogers in 2008, has been the top American for the last decade-plus. He mulled retirement in 2018. Dalhausser said last year that he planned to make 2020 his last international season.

Plans change.

“More than ever, this is a time where motivation becomes a thing,” Wong said.

If Dalhausser and Lucena move forward, they will likely pass Crabb and Bourne for second place once they play their 12th event in Olympic qualifying. Dalhausser and Lucena average 530 points per event. Adding another one of those would put them into second place by 10 points.

The Olympic favorites established themselves the last two seasons. Norwegians Anders Mol and Christian Sorum on the men’s side. Ross and Klineman and Canadians Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes for the women.

“But I think this delay brings more uncertainty,” Wong said. “There was a pretty proven pecking order on the women’s side, and now you have a lot of time to think. I also think, though, that [Ross and Klineman] were a little banged up early in this year. I think, if this has more fortuitous timing for anyone, it would be them.”

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