Beach Volleyball: Hughes taking flight

t's not exactly a summer internship, but Sara Hughes is definitely pursuing her professional future until she returns to USC for her senior year next fall.

Still, it's safe to say her results in both college and professional beach volleyball the last seven weeks indicate that she'll likely be bypassing the sport's mailroom.

Hughes, a Costa Mesa resident, has taken the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals beach tour by storm along with partner and USC classmate Kelly Claes. In two AVP events this summer, Hughes and Claes have finished second (last week at the San Francisco Open) and third (at the New York City Open in mid-June).

Hughes and Claes, who helped USC claim the inaugural NCAA beach volleyball championship on May 8, battled gamely against Olympians Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross in San Francisco, serving notice that the AVP's most dominant tandem has some new rivals to keep at bay.

Hughes and Claes lost to Ross, a Costa Mesa resident and 2012 Olympic silver medalist who played at Newport Harbor High and USC, and Walsh Jennings, a three-time Olympic gold medalist with then-partner and Newport Harbor product Misty May-Treanor, 21-17, 21-13, in the nationally televised final on Sunday.

But the day before, Hughes and Claes pushed the team that has won 11 straight AVP events in which they have played together, and 14 of 15 on the AVP Tour since they became a tandem late in 2014, to three sets before succumbing, 17-21, 21-18, 17-15, in a 54-minute winner's bracket quarterfinal. The opening-set win by Hughes and Claes snapped a 66-set AVP winning streak for Ross and Walsh Jennings, dating back two years.

"It feels awesome," Hughes said of her team's recent AVP run. "Getting third in New York was such an awesome experience, and making it to the final in San Francisco was even cooler. Playing in the final is completely different. For us it was the next step. The stadium was full, the music was loud, and the crowd got louder and louder. It was so exciting. Being my first AVP final, it was a little nerve-wracking, but when the whistle blew to start the match, the nervousness gave way to being focused on playing just another match."

Even getting to face Ross and Walsh Jennings checked off the season goal for Hughes and Claes, who did not face the legendary pair in two AVP appearances in 2015 (third in New York and ninth at Manhattan Beach).

"Last year, honestly, my goal was to get out of the qualifier [a rite of passage for up-and-coming teams attempting to crack the main draw]," said Hughes, who was the Orange County indoor player of the year at Mater Dei High, but chose to specialize in beach volleyball at USC. Since donning Cardinal and Gold, she has claimed two American Volleyball Coaches Assn. pairs titles (with Newport Harbor product Kirby Burnham as a freshman in 2014, and Claes in 2015) and also won two national team titles (one AVCA crown before it became an NCAA-sanctioned sport this year).

"When we finished third at New York last year, I think a lot of people said 'Where did these girls come from?,' Hughes, who turned 21 in February, said. "Coming into this year, our goal was to play April and Kerri [to whom they lost, 21-18, 21-19, in the semifinals in New York]. After New York, our goal was to come into San Francisco and place in the top three. In the middle of the [San Francisco] tournament, Kelly and I said 'Let's make the final.'"

Hughes and Claes have theoretically captured a combined $27,000 in AVP prize money in just four events. But since both wish to retain their NCAA eligibility and graduate next May – Hughes with a business degree — they have not taken any winnings beyond those allowed to pay for their tournament expenses (airfare, lodging and food).

But, clearly, their assault on the more-established AVP players has elevated Hughes and Claes beyond mere newbie status.

"It's kind of crazy how it's all happening so fast," Hughes said. "When I was 8 years old, I started training on the beach and I remember my very first day thinking 'I want to do this for the rest of my life.' From that young age, I knew I wanted to win an Olympic gold medal in beach volleyball."

Hughes lived near and admired May-Treanor, who would sometimes pull Hughes into drills when both trained at Huntington Beach.

"I've been very fortunate to have a close relationship with Misty," said Hughes, who shared that she received a text from May-Treanor that wished her luck while competing in San Francisco. "She lived close by and we had some of the same family friends. I remember going to her welcome-back party after she won gold in Athens [the 2004 Olympic Games]. She let me take a picture with the gold medal around my neck. I idolized her. And then she coached me as a volunteer assistant at USC when I was a freshman."

Hughes, who shagged balls at AVP events growing up, said she has also developed a relationship with Ross, who would invite her to train with her in Corona del Mar when Hughes was in high school.

The AVP experience is over, however, for Hughes and Claes this season, as they will miss the Manhattan Beach Open (July 14-17) to play in the World University Championships in Estonia. And the USC standouts will have begun classes when the AVP ends its season with the Chicago Open (Sept. 1-4).

But, unlike her fellow incoming seniors, Hughes said she has no anxiety about her immediate career path after graduation.

"I know going into my senior year, I've talked with classmates and a lot of people are asking about what others want to do [after college]," Hughes said. "I've heard some people say they want to do something in marketing, or they don't really know. I know I want to play beach volleyball."

And not just play, but win.

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