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Divorce Court: Switching partners is part of the game in beach volleyball

United States beach volleyball player Nicholas Lucena dives for a return in the quarterfinal match against Brazil at the Olympic Stadium during the 2016 Summer Olympics Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
United States beach volleyball player Nicholas Lucena dives for a return in the quarterfinal match against Brazil at the Olympic Stadium during the 2016 Summer Olympics Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Kansas City Star

Breaking up is hard to do — but often advantageous on the shifting sands of beach volleyball courts.

More than half of the men’s and women’s teams competing in the FIVB Major Series tournament in Fort Lauderdale that climaxes with medal matches Saturday and Sunday are new partnerships.

“It’s a lot like dating,” said U.S. star Casey Patterson, who recently paired with Theo Brunner after four years with Jake Gibb. “It sounds super cheesy, but chemistry in the relationship is so important during stressful times in matches.”

In a post-Olympic year, it is typical for players on the pro circuit to reassess and reconfigure as they strive to put together the ideal duo for the next four-year campaign. In the wake of a successful but unpredictable Olympics at Rio’s lively Copacabana venue, the sport is in the midst of upheaval and experimentation among partners who are aiming for the world championships in Vienna this summer and the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

Marleen Van Iersel of the Netherlands recruited indoor player Manon Nummerdor-Flier after the Olympics. They beat Brazil’s Larissa and Talita in pool play but were eliminated Friday.

“It’s like a second marriage,” Van Iersel said. “Some of the splits can be rather emotional. I’ve heard of fights but never been in one.”

Heated arguments could devolve into occasional fisticuffs on the men’s domestic tour in the past.

“The women preferred to leave a phone message and avoid confrontation, while the guys might get pissed off in the players’ tent, then get over it by the next day,” said Tim Simmons, who has gotten to know players during his years in press operations for the AVP and FIVB tours. “Usually a split is very civil. The players have to make some difficult business decisions based on points and naturally they will gravitate toward higher-seeded players.”

When Patterson and Gibb ended their longtime partnership after a poor showing in Rio (they lost to Austrian and Spanish teams in pool play) and Patterson’s move away from their training base in Huntington Beach, California, there was no animosity. Brunner was not as fortunate; he was dumped by Cooper City’s Nick Lucena late in 2015 when Lucena joined Phil Dalhausser.

Patterson and Brunner began the tournament with an upset of Olympic gold medalists Alison Cerutti and Bruno Oscar Schmidt of Brazil.

“When Nick dropped Theo for Phil, Theo got screwed for the Olympics and that’s made him hungry,” Patterson said. “The switching can get ugly, especially at the lower levels when you’re clawing and climbing up the ladder. It’s way gnarlier on the women’s side, where they’ve gained depth. I’m buddies with everyone and don’t hold onto hard feelings.”

The women call it “divorce court” but try to keep the melodrama to a minimum when an ex-partner is on the other side of the net. One partnership that isn’t changing is the four-year alliance of Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross, who fell short of Walsh Jennings’ goal of winning a fourth Olympic gold in Rio but still finished on the podium with bronze and will play in the quarterfinals Saturday against Agatha and Duda of Brazil.

“Casey and I felt like a great ride had come to completion,” Gibb said. “You build a relationship and it’s tough to move on, but we said, ‘Hey, man, nothing but love.’”

Gibb, at 41 one of the veterans on tour, sought out Taylor Crabb, 25, who had played indoor at Long Beach State and two years on the beach with brother Trevor.

“Taylor said, ‘OK, old man, jump on my back,’ ” Gibb said. “He’s young and covers a lot of court. I’ve been with guys who were a great fit on paper but didn’t work for me. There’s an intangible energy between the two of us.”

Crabb said the conversation with his brother about dissolving their partnership lasted a perfunctory two minutes. He was “thrilled” to accept Gibb’s invitation and Trevor wound up with Sean Rosenthal, “which is a perfect pickup for him,” Crabb said.

“Jake has a brilliant mind for the game and does a great job communicating,” Crabb said. “I take a lot of pride in running down a shot and digging in the sand, so we match up well.”

Blockers and defenders are looking to complement each other in skill, size and personality. Patterson is the fiery “Mr. Boom” while Brunner is calm and collected.

“I’m free and creative like an artist and show my emotions,” Patterson said. “Theo is the same dude winning or losing. You can’t be a blamer.”

Brunner said he prefers Patterson’s sunny, supportive demeanor after playing with partners who “would explode if you did anything wrong.”

“Casey’s got my back, and I’m very honest because I’ve had the rug pulled out from under me before,” Brunner said. “The vibe and the harmony is good. Sometimes opposites attract.”

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