Technically, its borders do not reach the sand. But thanks to the achievements of Misty May-Treanor and April Ross, who both grew up there, Costa Mesa has become known as the epicenter of women’s beach volleyball in the United States.
May-Treanor retired from international competition after claiming her third consecutive gold medal at the 2012 Olympics in London, and Ross, who won silver in London and has won a world championship, will likely contend for Olympic gold in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
And, based on the growing legend of 18-year-old Sara Hughes, the city’s reputation for spawning the American Queen of the Beach should continue to be nothing less than a “shore” thing.
Hughes, named the nation’s top female indoor volleyball recruit recently by Volleyball Magazine, is also widely considered the country’s top teenage prospect on the beach.
A recent graduate of Mater Dei High, Hughes, the younger sister of UC Irvine men’s volleyball star Connor Hughes, who was named MVP of the Final Four while helping the Anteaters earn their second straight NCAA title last spring, has eschewed the indoor game to focus on sand volleyball at USC.
Unlike most American players, Sara Hughes’ first pass occurred on the sand, and she learned the two-player game training every summer with Huntington Beach-based coach Bill Lovelace from the age of 8 to 15.
Though her success indoors as a setter and right-side hitter was indeed impressive — she was named Orange County Player of the Year as a senior by the Orange County Register, was a three-time All-CIF Southern Section performer, and she helped Long Beach Mizuno Rockstar club team win gold at the Junior Olympics — it was Hughes’ love for the beach game that made her decide to spend her competitive days at the beach.
“I wanted to play both indoor and beach [in college],” said Hughes, who along with first-time partner Kelly Claes (out of El Dorado High) finished third at the Federation Internationale de Volleyball U19 World Championships in Portugal in July. “I always loved indoor, but part of me loved beach volleyball a little bit more.”
And beach volleyball clearly loves her back. She has won nearly every AAU national age-group title since she was 10, was named Best of the Beach a handful of times, and has dominated for nearly a decade on the California Beach Volleyball Assn. summer circuit.
Competing with her partner of eight years, Justine Wong-Orantes, Hughes finished ninth at the U19 World Championships in 2012 (in Croatia) and 2011 (in Cypress), when she was 17 and 16, respectively.
Known as a relentless competitor, the 5-10 Hughes was a blocker when paired with Wong-Orantes. But after teaming with the 6-1 Claes, Hughes has shifted to defender, where she figures to be the rest of her career.
“It has definitely been a big adjustment, Hughes said of the shift to defender. “I was so used to blocking, but once I got behind the block of Claes and began to concentrate on defense, I fell in love with it. When I’m on the court, I never want to lose a point or let a ball drop.”
Hughes also appears to have a love affair with the camera. Her long blonde hair, effervescent smile and fitness helped her become a model for one volleyball clothing and equipment manufacturer. Her image in those ads has appeared on the back cover of several volleyball magazines, as well as a larger-than-life display banner at the recent FIVB World Series of Volleyball in Long Beach.
But Hughes is more likely to be recognized at a beach volleyball event for her play than her modeling.
She is aware of the Costa Mesa lineage in the sport [current men’s standout Jake Gibb also resides there, former men’s beach standout Matt Fuerbringer was a star athlete at Estancia High, and former men’s beach stalwart Mike Lambert lived just a jump serve away from Hughes before moving recently] and is proud to be considered the next in the line of female beach stars.
“The house Misty grew up in is actually just a couple blocks away from me,” Hughes said. “Growing up playing in Huntington Beach, I got to see Misty and Kerri [Walsh Jennings] practice down there all the time. Misty was one of my favorite players to watch and sometimes she would let us help her with her drills.”
Hughes has struck up a friendship with Ross, who like May-Treanor starred at Newport Harbor High, but unlike May-Treanor still resides in Costa Mesa.
“I was lucky enough to travel to an FIVB event in Thailand and I really connected with [Ross] there,” Hughes said. “She is such a nice person and we always stay in contact. Sometimes, I’ve been able to practice with her, too. And one of the greatest experiences was sitting with her and signing autographs at one of the USA tournaments. [Ross] signed the cover of the magazine she was on, and I was on the back cover, so I signed that.”
Hughes, who clearly has more front covers in her future, is competing this weekend at Sandjam, an exhibition beach event in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, that began Thursday.