A noisy reminder of their strong alliance and potential world dominance dangles from their necks. At the bottom of a gold chain lie small circular discs etched with the words “Tokyo 2020” and “Redbear,” the former a reference to their intended Olympic destination and the latter their informal nickname.
Kelly Claes wears the necklace during every match. Her partner, Sara Hughes, wears it everywhere except for matches — because as a zigzagging defender, it tends to smack her in the face.
“Every time I hear it jingle, I think about it,” Claes said of the necklaces her mother gave the pair last year. “And it’s always jingling.”
No young duo in women’s beach volleyball is creating as much of a din as Claes and Hughes. The USC standouts graduated Thursday, having recently led the Trojans to a fourth consecutive national team championship. They were practically unbeatable, winning 103 consecutive collegiate matches during one stretch, and showed their enticing possibilities as professionals by pushing the star tandem of Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross to a taut third set at an AVP event in San Francisco in 2016.
Claes and Hughes have continued to rule the sand at Hermosa Beach this week, sweeping their way to Saturday’s semifinals at the USA Volleyball Collegiate Beach Championships. They are scheduled to leave Sunday for a FIVB tournament in Rio de Janeiro as part of their quest to amass points for favorable seedings in the international tournaments that are part of the Olympic qualification system.
The recent split of Walsh Jennings and Ross has created a potential opening for one of the Americans’ likely two spots in the next Olympics. The question facing Claes and Hughes is whether they will try to land that spot as a duo or separate to compete with more experienced partners.
“Historically, young pairs have had to split up,” said Ali Wood Lamberson, a former international player and current USC assistant coach, “but that doesn’t mean that these guys will have to.”
Claes and Hughes separated in February at an FIVB event in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with Hughes tying for ninth place alongside Lauren Fendrick and Claes finishing in a tie for 17th while playing with Kelly Reeves. Hughes said the temporary split was prompted by an international points system that might have shut them out of the tournament had they decided to compete together.
“We talked about it, and we said, ‘We’re doing this for the betterment of our partnership, and we’ll come back together afterward,’ ” Hughes said. “And that’s exactly what we did.”
The Orange County natives have been almost inseparable since Hughes approached Claes at a high school beach volleyball camp after one of Hughes’ coaches suggested that she partner with “this tall girl who could block and hit the ball.” Claes, who is 6 feet 1 to Hughes’ 5-10 1/2, was immediately receptive to the idea.
“This little blond girl comes up to me and is like, ‘Do you want to play in the tournament with me?’ ” Claes recalled with a smile. “I had seen her at a few practices, and she looked good, she looked competitive, and I was like, ‘Sure, let’s try it.’ ”
Their skills have perfectly dovetailed: Hughes’ speed and relentless pursuit of every ball combines with Claes’ whip of an arm and a hybrid float and topspin serve.
Hughes, 22, has been playing beach volleyball since she was 8, learning the nuances of the game from legendary coach Bill Lovelace. She starred at Santa Ana Mater Dei High and trained with Misty May-Treanor, a childhood idol who had Hughes scurrying around the sand chasing her serves.
Claes, 21, grew up playing the indoor game, committing to Long Beach State as a sophomore at El Dorado High in Fullerton. But her budding partnership with Hughes convinced Claes that she would prefer to help grow the fledgling sport of college beach volleyball at USC.
“She forced me to do it, 100%,” cracked Claes, who helped the Trojans win the first two NCAA championships in the sport after capturing American Volleyball Coaches Assn. titles in 2014 and 2015. “I’m really happy I took a lot of time to think it through, and I really felt like it was the right pick for me.”
The redheaded Claes and the towheaded Hughes were nicknamed “Cardinal and Gold” by their teammates in a playful reference to their school colors. Their parents dubbed them “Redbear,” combining Claes’ hair color with Hughes’ childhood nickname of “Sara Bear.”
The duo didn’t compete together as freshmen in college because Claes was initially a year behind Hughes before joining the Trojans in the spring of 2014 after graduating a semester early from high school. They were 44-3 while playing together as sophomores and 48-0 as juniors.
Their arrival moment came the summer before their senior year. Competing as amateurs, they took the opening set from Ross and Walsh Jennings in the third round of the winner’s bracket at the AVP San Francisco. After dropping the second set, Claes and Hughes nearly won the match before Ross and Walsh Jennings prevailed 17-15 in the third set.
“They’re great,” Ross, another former USC star, said last week between matches at the AVP Huntington Beach Open. “I think they’re the real deal.”
Hughes said fans were unusually quiet because they didn’t know what to make of the upstarts pushing the Olympians.
“I really think everyone was just, like, in shock,” Claes said. “We were very excited, but I was kind of a little in shock too, just to see that, OK, we’re kind of here.”
Whenever they need a reminder of where they’ve been and where they hope to go, all they need to do is glance down at their necklaces.