Walsh Jennings still believes in new partnership despite early exit at Long Beach

Kerri Walsh Jennings had at least one reason to celebrate Friday during the World Series of Beach Volleyball in Long Beach. She and her partner, Nicole Branagh, defeated Kelley Larsen and Betsi Flint. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

As a three-time Olympic gold medalist, it’s safe to say that Kerri Walsh Jennings isn’t used to losing.

But for her and new teammate Nicole Branagh, 2017 has been a year filled with frustration and disappointment. The duo, who started playing together less than two months ago, lost their first three matches of the year, and have advanced to the round of 16 just once so far this season, at last week’s tournament in Gstaad, Switzerland.

This week’s World Series of Beach Volleyball in Long Beach was another disappointment.

Walsh Jennings, one of the biggest stars and most successful players in beach volleyball history, expected to win at least a few matches in the tournament, as did Branagh. Instead, they were eliminated in pool play.

“It stinks. It’s horrible. It’s a horrible feeling,” Branagh said of their early exit.

The Manhattan Beach-based tandem dug a hole too deep to climb out of on opening day, suffering losses to April Ross and Lauren Fendrick, then to USC teammates Sara Hughes and Kelly Claes. In both matches, Walsh Jennings and Branagh were in position to win but couldn’t close.

After the loss to Ross and Fendrick, Walsh Jennings said that she and Branagh lacked a “spark” despite their consistent play.

“I don’t know any other word, but it was just a boring match,” she said. “There weren’t a lot of plays being made.”

Walsh Jennings and Ross once formed the world’s top team but are now playing with different partners, and that might have been a factor in the level of play. Walsh Jennings and Ross split before this season when they couldn’t settle on a singular direction for their team.

“I think both sides were tentative and I know both sides were nervous,” Walsh Jennings said. “It was the first time we played each other and it was the first match of the tournament and that’s always weird.”

Part of that hesitancy stems from just how new the Walsh Jennings-Branagh partnership is.

Though the two played together for a few matches in 2010 while Misty May Treanor, Walsh Jennings’ partner at the time, debated if she would compete for the 2012 London Olympics, they both acknowledged that their on-court chemistry must continue to improve before they can start winning tournaments.

“You’re not gonna win if you’re three-quarters complete,” Walsh Jennings said. “We’re still working on filling in that last quarter, whatever it is. It’s not just one thing, it’s something you have to develop as a new team against good teams.”

Walsh Jennings and Branagh were able to come away with one win in the tournament. They defeated Kelley Larsen and Betsi Flint in two games on Friday morning.

Walsh Jennings said a more free-flowing approach allowed her and Branagh to take advantage of Larsen and Flint’s tentative play, and gave them some momentum ahead of next week’s FIBV World Tour event in Poland.

Walsh Jennings and Branagh have eyes set on competing at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, and they stressed their commitment to each other as teammates.

Regardless of how they have performed recently, they said their more than 25 years of combined experience helps keep the results in perspective. Rather than sulk, they are focusing on the possibilities.

“I feel like we just know how much potential is in us. And that’s a really exciting thing in life,” Walsh Jennings said. “People look at us on paper; we’re 38, we each have a couple of kids, and people like to write us off. But as far as I’m concerned I feel like there’s infinite growth in me.

“I think Nicole feels the same individually, and then collectively it’s just insane when you’re aligned and you believe in yourself and believe in each other. That’s some powerful stuff.”

Follow Tyler Blint-Welsh on Twitter @tylergabriel_

Comments are closed.