The Toughest Challenges for Kerri Walsh Jennings, April Ross in Rio

Blake Dorfman@blakedorfmanFeatured ColumnistAugust 5, 2016

The Toughest Challenges for Kerri Walsh Jennings, April Ross in Rio

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    As soon as the gold-medal match at the London Olympics ended, Kerri Walsh Jennings went up and hugged opponent April Ross. During that hug, she whispered the goal for the next four years:

    “At the net, she said, ‘Let’s go win gold in Rio,’” Ross told John Branch of the New York Times.

    After winning three consecutive Olympic gold medals, rising to international stardom and historically dominating the sport for nearly a decade with partner Misty May-Treanor, 37-year-old Walsh Jennings has found continued success with Ross. Ross, 34, is a powerful 6'1" athlete who has both size and quickness as she patrols the court defensively behind Walsh Jennings.

    As noted in the New York Times article and in a Bleacher Report interview with coach Marcio Sicoli, the comparisons between Ross and May-Treanor are tired ones:

    "The game has changed," said Sicoli. "It's a new Olympic cycle and the question is what they bring to each other to get another gold medal for the USA in Rio."

    Ranked third in the world, there is also much more parity at the top than before. To see how even the competition is, take a look at the results, provided by BVBinfo.com, from last year's Federation Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB) World Championships in The Hague relative to the seedings heading into the tournament. It's March Madness played out on sand.

    Here is a preview of some of the most threatening opponents, followed by a prediction of the outcome.

Larissa and Talita: Brazil

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    The top seed in the Olympic tournament will be playing on its home sand, and the crowds are going to be raucous.

    Talita, a 5'11" 33-year-old, patrols the net and holds her own against Walsh Jennings. She displayed that clearly in the last meeting between the two teams, which the Brazilians won rather handily to reach the top of the podium at the FIVB Gstaad Major in early July. Despite giving up a few inches, Talita tallied four scoring blocks (Walsh Jennings had none) as she and Larissa won 21-18, 21-14. Having been named the FIVB top blocker in 2013 and top hitter in 2013, 2014 and 2015, Talita is as potent an offensive weapon as anyone in the world.

    Larissa is a 5'9" veteran who has a ridiculous resume, including being named the FIVB's best setter eight times, which you can bet makes her teammate happy. When she is served, Larissa can also provide a crafty attack despite being undersized. She is a five-time FIVB champion, and the missing jewel in her crown is no doubt Olympic gold, which has been around Walsh Jennings' neck since Athens in 2004.

Agatha and Barbara: Brazil

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    That's the 2015 FIVB World Championship trophy they're kissing. 

    Agatha and Barbara may be seeded second behind their compatriots, but it would by no means be an upset for them to win gold in Rio. What's lacking is extensive experience atop the podium, as the duo has four FIVB event wins together and none with other partners. They have just two top-three finishes in seven events this year, while Walsh Jennings and Ross have seven in eight events played.

    The 6'0" Agatha, 33, handles duties up at the net while Barbara, 29, plays defense and attacks from all angles with her left hand. The team has not faced Walsh Jennings and Ross in 2016, but it did win its only meeting against top-seeded Larissa and Talita in the semifinals of the FIVB stop in Hamburg this June.  

Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst: Germany

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    With the top three seeds taking the last few weeks off, it was the German team of Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst that marched to gold at last week's FIVB tour stop in Klagenfurt, Australia. The Germans have won an impressive five of the 11 tournaments they've played this year and are atop the FIVB rankings for 2016 (Olympic qualification and seeding began in 2015). Before Klagenfurt, the team defeated Larissa and Talita in a three-set match to win the Poland Grand Slam in mid-June.

    Ludwig is 5'10" and 30 years old, handling the defense behind the block of Walkenhorst, a 25-year-old 6-footer. The duo broke through back in 2014 with a win at the FIVB stop in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. In July in Gstaad, Switzerland, they gave Walsh Jennings and Ross a major battle in a three-set semifinal, falling 21-18, 21-23, 11-15 in a match that lasted nearly an hour. They have as much momentum as any team in the tournament. 

Heather Bansley and Sarah Pavan: Canada

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    Heather Bansley and Sarah Pavan are a unique matchup because of the size difference between them. Pavan, a former indoor star at the University of Nebraska, towers over the field at 6'5", and the picture above shows just how much of the court her block can take away when she gets her long arms up and her big hands open. Bansley, meanwhile, is a 5'7" defender in charge of picking up anything that gets past her partner's block.

    The Canadians have yet to wan an FIVB event, but they have reached the podium six times in the last two years. They defeated Ludwig and Walkenhorst rather handily, 21-17, 21-15, in Croatia in June and narrowly lost to Walsh Jennings and Ross in the third set of an event in Long Beach, California, last year.

Louise Bawden and Taliqua Clancy: Australia

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    Sicoli specifically mentioned the Aussies when discussing the challengers that Walsh Jennings and Ross might face in Rio. 

    "We can’t forget the Australian team, which combines some powerful serves and finesse in their games," he said.

    Louise Bawden is a 34-year-old veteran who has never won an FIVB tour event but has found the most success of her career with Taliqua Clancy, 24, placing in the top five eight times over the past two seasons. 

    In June in Rio, the Canadians were oh-so-close to an upset of Agatha and Barbara, going to extra points in the first two sets before falling 23-21, 24-26, 8-15.

Prediction: Larissa and Talita Defeat Walsh Jennings and Ross for Gold

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    Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images

    With beach volleyball a mainstream sport for Brazil, the crowds and atmosphere will certainly favor teams from the host nation.

    While Ross and Walsh Jennings prevailed at the FIVB event in Rio earlier this season, the Olympic stage is as big as it gets for the sport, and Larissa is due after winning an amazing 59 FIVB events in 139 appearances since her debut in 2002. Having won the last two matches against the Americans, they have confidence on their side.

    With such a stacked top end of this Olympic field, a silver medal for Walsh Jennings and Ross will be a great achievement, although not the one they've been hoping for.