Baby Boomer

James Rulison
By the time they were 13, Justine Wong-Orantes and partner Sara Hughes had accumulated 17 gold medals.

In 2008, Justine Wong-Orantes made headlines by winning a AAA tournament at the age of 12 with partner Summer Ross and thus becoming the youngest known player to ever earn their AAA CBVA rating. Today, she’s preparing for her freshman season with Nebraska where she will play libero. You’ll probably also recognize Wong-Orantes’ partner Sara Hughes as the athlete featured in the new Mikasa ads. Hughes will be attending USC in the fall where she will play sand volleyball exclusively.

This article covers Wong-Orantes record-breaking tournament win from 2008.

Justine Wong-Orantes had just won one of her many youth beach titles earlier this year on a Saturday. Her mom, Winnie, suggested she play in another tournament the next day in Playa del Rey, Calif.

But the then 12-year-old was hesitant.

“I had just played in a tournament and was tired and didn’t feel in the mood to wake up and go play again,” said Wong-Orantes.

Winnie Wong told her daughter that fellow beach star Summer Ross (who at age 15, recently tied for ninth at the FIVB Junior World Championships in England), already said she wanted to play.

“I went and played with her for the fun of it,” said Wong-Orantes.

It turns out the decision Wong-Orantes made to play in that Playa del Rey event was one of the record-breaking variety.

The duo won the California Beach Volleyball Association (CBVA) women’s AAA division (against players generally ranging in age from their 20s to their 40s) that Sunday, making Wong-Orantes what is believed to be the youngest player to ever earn a CBVA AAA beach ranking (at the age of 12).

The CBVA’s Kathy Hubbell thinks former UCLA standout Chrissie Zartman may have been the previous record-holder at 15 (Zartman, born in 1983, earned hers in 1997 at Corona Del Mar). Hubbell said there is no way to search CBVA for the youngest AAA player ever.

“But I can’t imagine anyone could have been younger [than Wong-Orantes],” wrote Hubbell in an email.

Wong-Orantes and Ross are believed to be the youngest team to ever earn a AAA rating. Wong-Orantes is also believed to be the youngest ever to earn a AA rating (last year with Jane Croson). AAA is the CBVA’s highest possible rating.

“My mom convinced me to play in that tournament,” Wong-Orantes, who considers her defense the best part of her game, said. “I didn’t really want to go out there at first. I wasn’t expecting to win. When I did, it was like, ‘[Wow]. I did.’

“Gosh, it means a lot to me. That’s been my goal since I found out about getting rated. I didn’t think I would get it and I did.”

That record-breaking victory continued a streak of longstanding success on the beach for Wong-Orantes, who turned 13 on October 6. She has won a bevy of youth beach volleyball medals dating back to the age of eight. Wong-Orantes, whose nickname is “Wild Thing,” and regular partner Sara Hughes (an eighth-grader out of Saints Simon and Jude School in Huntington Beach, Calif.), have won 17 gold, two silver, and three bronze medals since teaming up together in 2004. The duo once won 70 straight matches in age-group play over a period of three seasons (2006-2008).

Sport veteran Bill Lovelace, who coaches both Wong-Orantes and Hughes on the beach, isn’t surprised in the least bit about the success this rising youth star has achieved.

“It’s her drive and her work ethic,” said Lovelace. “If there is a clinic or a game or a tournament, she’ll play in it or she’ll be there. She’ll get there and play in adult leagues, co-ed leagues, club… She’s attended I don’t know how many champs and clinics. She is always there. If you need a player you can always call Justine. She’s unbelievable. She’s good because of her work ethic. I’ve been around a long time and I’ve never seen anything like what she has accomplished.”

Hughes is happy to be playing with a partner like Wong-Orantes.

“Justine is a really nice person and a great volleyball player. I love to play with her,” said the 13-year-old Hughes. “She’s a good all-around player. I’m more an offensive player. She’s more the defensive player.”

Playing in the women’s AAA events means Wong-Orantes is competing against players much older than she is—sometimes old enough to be her mother.

“It’s fun to play older people,” said Wong-Orantes. “Sometimes they get mad at us or they compliment us and ask us how old we are. ‘Yeah. We’re 12.’ Playing against older people makes me want to do better.”

Competing against older players has exposed Wong-Orantes to some colorful vocabulary at times.

“One girl after pool play came up to us and said, ‘You [expletive deleted] rock,” laughed Wong-Orantes, who for the record did not speak the full profanity.

“Some of the ladies are funny,” said Winnie Wong, who said her daughter has defeated opponents as old as their late 40s. “They say things that are not really appropriate and then say, ‘Oh, sorry. You are only 12.’ People don’t want to get beat by a 12-year-old.”

Winnie Wong has noticed a difference in her daughter’s play when she is competing against older players.

“She has more inspiration when she is playing older people,” said Wong. “She plays harder. She really turns it on.”

Lovelace is impressed with how Wong-Orantes handles herself given the usual age difference and height difference she encounters.

“She’s 5’3 ½” at 12,” said Lovelace. “At her size, her ability to handle other players who are bigger in size and stronger is amazing.”

Lovelace has seen Wong-Orantes come a long way since the age of eight.

“The first tournament when she was eight she said, “Bill, I’m nervous. I don’t know what to do,’” recalled Lovelace. “I told her to just play like she does in practice and go out and have fun. She took third in that tournament and didn’t lose again for another year and a half.”

Wong-Orantes, an eighth-grader at McAuliffe Junior High in Los Alamitos (where she has a 3.75 grade point average) and a longtime member of the Mizuno Long Beach club program, has been around the game since a young age. Her mother played at Sacramento State, while her father, Robbie Orantes, played at Long Beach City College and on the beach and is currently a youth volleyball coach.

But Wong-Orantes is quick to point out her triumphs on the beach are not the result of a one-person show.

“I have a good partner [Hughes],” said Wong-Orantes, who is also a soccer player. “Sara is so much fun. We’re on the same club team and we’re both setters. I’m so used to playing with her.”

Wong-Orantes, who would like to play on the AVP tour and the Olympics one day and admires two-time Olympic gold medalist Misty May-Treanor for her positive attitude, enjoys the constant presence of victory I her life, but is almost apologetic for doing it so often.

“It’s fun to have all these medals,” she said. “Sometimes I feel bad though because we kind of always win. Everybody expects us to win.”

Lovelace expects Wong-Orantes to continue to visit the winner’s circle for years to come.

“She is, pound for pound, the Sugar Ray Leonard of beach volleyball,” said Lovelace, who compares Wong-Orantes to former youth standouts Chrissie Zartman (UCLA and AVP) and Tracy Lindquist (AVP). “She is the bright future of volleyball.”

Originally published in November 2008

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