SALT LAKE CITY - Strange as it sounds, professional beach volleyball may have found a new home in Northern Utah.
At least that's what the Association of Volleyball Professionals is hoping after a wildly successful weekend, in which tour organizers constructed a world-class facility within Salt Lake City's Liberty Park and welcomed nearly 10,000 spectators to watch dozens of matches over the course of the three-day tournament.
It didn't hurt that beach volleyball royalty like Olympic gold medalists Kerri Walsh, Todd Rogers and Phil Dalhausser; not to mention local favorites Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson played throughout the weekend. Despite the big names, tour organizers believe that, considering the concentration of university and high school volleyball teams in the area, professional beach volleyball will be well received throughout the state.
Many of the AVP players themselves were skeptical about a tour stop in Utah, but those concerns were laid to rest as ideal weather and an energetic atmosphere that at times, looked more like spring break in South Beach, introduced the pro tour to Utah fans.
"I really didn't know what to expect," Dalhausser said after winning the men's championship on Sunday afternoon. "The fans here are great. After every match I felt like I signed 50 autographs. I bet you we come back here for a long time."
In their first AVP event together, top-seeded Dalhausser and his partner Sean Rosenthal eliminated Ryan Doherty and Dalhausser's Olympic gold medal partner Todd Richards, 21-12, 19-21, and 15-10 in Sunday's main event, netting a $15,000 purse in the process.
Dalhausser commented on what it was like to be on the opposite side of the net from his former partner and the pressure of being the number one seed.
"It's actually kind of fun cause we kind of talk through the net a little bit," Dalhausser said smiling. "But I felt like Todd and I played really well. It's tough to have a target on your back because you know you're going to get the best match from your opponent every single time."
Doherty and Rogers (third seed) made it to the finals after eliminating the two-seed, Bountiful native Jake Gibb and his partner, and former Brigham Young University standout, Casey Patterson.
Hoses and super-soakers cooled off the crowd throughout the muggy afternoon at Liberty Park, starting with the women's final in which top-seeded Jennifer Kessy and partner April Ross took on the five-seed team of Lauren Fendrick and Brittany Hochevar.
Kessy and Ross looked good through most of the first set, but Fendrick and Hochevar stormed back with four unanswered points to steal a 22-20 win of what would be a three-set match.
"It felt like we played great for the entire first set," Kessy, an Olympic silver medalist, said. "Then the last four points we blew."
Kessy and Ross had lost a match in the second round of the tournament, but eventually found their way back to the finals via the contender bracket. After losing the first set in the finals match, they re-focused and countered with a 21-18 win in the second set.
In the final set (to 15), the top-seeded duo took a 9-5 lead before Fendrick and Hochevar scored three consecutive points to get back within one. The two teams battled back and forth until Kessy and Ross finally iced a 15-13 win in their 47th AVP appearance together.
After the match, Ross echoed other player's sentiments about playing a pro-tour stop in Utah.
"This atmosphere just can't be beat," Ross said. "We had no idea what to expect coming to Salt Lake. The first time I saw the site though, I was blown away. It was above and beyond what I expected."
AVP and Staker Parson Companies kicked off the weekend by donating 1,800 tons of tournament-quality sand and professional net systems to refurbish three courts in Liberty Park for local recreational players.
Tour organizers hope that the investment will help continue fostering a thriving beach volleyball community, even if the nearest beach is 700 miles away.
"Salt Lake City is a place where we want to be for many years to come," said Donald Sun, the AVP's Managing Partner. "Outside of some of the beach communities in Southern California, I don't know of an area that is as passionate about volleyball as the people are here. We feel that by donating these improved sand courts along with Staker Parson Companies, we can benefit the volleyball community while also emphasizing our commitment to being a long-term partner with this great city."