ST. PETERSBURG — As she rested in the large canopy tent serving as the players' lounge an hour before the women's final at last year's AVP St. Petersburg Open, Summer Ross noticed the canvas walls starting to shake violently.
She peeked outside. Above, the bright blue sky that greeted her when she arrived at Vinoy Park had turned nearly black. Rain pelted her forehead.
Lightning cracked a few hundred yards behind the stadium court, where the men's final between Jake Gibb/Casey Patterson and Theodore Brunner/Nick Lucena was in the second set. The tent lurched, ready to lift off any moment.
As the venue was evacuated, Ross and her partner, Emily Day, jumped in a shuttle bus heading to their hotel. Their final against top-seeded Jennifer Kessy and April Ross would be cancelled, both teams splitting first place.
"We don't usually get storms like that in California," Day, of Hermosa Beach, said. "We got out of harm's way just in time. It came in fast."
Welcome to summer in Florida.
This weekend, the AVP Tour will make an appearance for the second straight year in St. Petersburg (Spa Beach Park). Summer Ross and Day enter as the women's No. 1 seed. Last season, St. Petersburg was the culmination of a whirlwind three-week stretch in which the two transformed from relative unknowns to America's most dangerous young pairing. It started in Cincinnati, where the duo defeated three-time Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings and her partner, Whitney Pavlik, for their first AVP Tour title. A week later, they made it to the final at Atlantic City.
In St. Petersburg, seeded seventh, Day and Ross went undefeated to reach the championship.
"We were really bummed we didn't get to play the finals," Ross said. "We're really looking forward to challenging again. We feel we have unfinished business."
Ross, 21, has drawn comparisons to Walsh Jennings, mostly because both are 6 feet 2 and their blistering kills can leave dents in opponents. With Walsh Jennings and longtime partner Misty May-Treanor no longer competing together — May-Treanor retired after a third straight Olympic gold medal at London in 2012 — there is an opening for America's next great pairing.
Ross and Day, 26, are hoping to fill the void.
"I'm honored that anybody would consider me the next Kerri," said Ross, who played indoor volleyball at Washington before transferring to Pepperdine in 2012 and winning the first-ever AVCA Collegiate Sand Volleyball National Pairs Championship with Caitlin Racich. "I'm not sure about it because she's so good. … Emily and I are the youngsters. I think we have to step up and become the leaders for the next wave of great beach players."
Ross and Day didn't become partners until midway through 2013. With a full offseason to train together, they think 2014 could be the year they cement themselves as the top American team.
"Our long-term goal is the 2016 Olympics in Rio, so it's all kind of geared toward that," said Day, the AVP Tour's Most Improved Player in 2013. "I think a solid goal for us on tour is to be competing in the finals every weekend. We want to put ourselves in position to win. We have to prove ourselves both domestically and internationally."
The first step comes this weekend in hopefully storm-free St. Petersburg.