If you didn't venture down to Spa Beach in downtown St. Petersburg over the past three days for the AVP St. Petersburg Open, well, you missed a postcard setting. With all due respect to Vinoy Park, I am hereby nominating Spa Beach Park as the place to stage outdoor events in the Tampa Bay region.
After holding the first AVP St. Pete Open event last year on Vinoy Park, the tournament brass decided to move the location closer to downtown to take advantage of the hotels, shops and restaurants along Beach Drive. It worked as the opening tournament for the Association of Volleyball Professionals had a noticeably larger attendance each day.
"It's given us a way to be closer to the action of a great city and has allowed people in the area to see what is going on and join in," said three-time Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings, who won Sunday's women's final with partner April Ross.
The tournament began at Clearwater Beach, where the open qualifier featured 16 women's teams and 51 men's teams battling to become one of the four from each gender's bracket to advance to the 16-team main draw bracket. Several local players competed in the qualifier, but the only Floridians to advance were Aurora Davis (Groveland), Kelly Schumacher (Miami Beach) and Dana Camacho (Deerfield).
"I thought it was a great way for area players to gain more experience trying to compete on the pro circuit or hopefully looking to get on the tour," said Star Steele, who played at Tampa Catholic and now competes for the Naval Academy women's indoor volleyball team.
The three-day event in St. Petersburg highlighted the expertise of the best of the best in the game as the teams competed in a double-elimination bracket. Players raved about the set-up, including the soft sand trucked in for four courts strategically place on the park and the backdrop of the St. Petersburg skyline, the Vinoy Resort buildings, the Pier and the harbor surrounding the park.
"It's an awesome venue," said Manhattan Beach resident Avery Drost, who finished tied for seventh with Ty Tramblie after the duo became a crowd favorite following their qualifying entrance. "It's been a great place to start the season and the fans have been amazing."
Over the three days, the scene on Spa Beach resembled an up-scale version of Postcard Inn on St. Pete Beach with a plethora of bikinis and board shorts parked court-side with their lounge chairs while listening to the high energy music of AVP Tour resident mixmaster, DJ Roueche.
Sunday's finals — televised live on CBS Sports Network — saw Jennings and Walsh beat Lauren Fendrick and Brooke Sweat on the stadium court for the women's final and Brad Keenan and John Mayer teaming up to defeat top-seeds Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson in a thrilling 2-1 men's final.
After the players travel overseas to compete on the international tour for a month, the AVP Tour continues in Milwaukee from July 3-6. For more information, visit www.avp.com.