GULF SHORES, Ala. – On a breezy, beautiful afternoon, with the sun beaming down from above and medals hanging from their necks, master and apprentice were finally equals.
The University of Southern California’s top pair of senior Kirby Burnham and freshman Sara Hughes defeated Karissa Cook and Brittany Tiegs of the University of Hawai’i 21-15, 21-13 in the championship match of the 2014 AVCA Sand Volleyball Pairs Championship.
“We were high on adrenaline,” an elated Hughes said. “We wanted to power through and dominate.”
“That was a rough one,” Tiegs admitted. “They played awesome though. They played out of their freaking minds, and we didn’t.”
“Hats off to Kirby and Sara,” Cook said. “They played their hearts out, and they executed a game plan really well and shut us down.”
Burnham, the aforementioned “master,” repeated as national champion after winning with fellow USC All-American Stevi Robinson last year, while the “apprentice,” Hughes, got her first taste of a national title on Sunday.
“It feels really good to be a back-to-back national champion, especially in an exciting sport like this,” Burham said with a smile.
“Kirby was so important, especially playing behind her because I’ve never had such a big block before,” Hughes said. “She helped me so much in establishing my defense and being a role model. Being here at the championships before, she knew what to do. We did it together, and we’re so excited.”
“Sara is an amazing beach player and has so much experience,” Burnham said. “She helped me a lot throughout this entire season.”
From the outside, pairing a freshman and senior as a program’s top pair may seem outlandish, but for Trojan coach Anna Collier, it is part of her master strategy for building USC’s sand volleyball program.
“A lot of people didn’t agree with me on [the pairing],” Collier explained. “They were like ‘are you crazy? You can’t put a freshman on a number one team.’ But I needed to get this rolling. I need to have this senior, who is a national champion, teach this freshman.”
Three seasons into the sport, it appears that Collier, who was named the 2014 AVCA National Coach of the Year earlier that day, may be on to something.
“As Sara grows, she can then be the senior and teach another freshman,” Collier said. “I believe you always have to have great experience in your lowerclassmen because if you don’t get them that experience, who’s going to do it? The seniors are leaving. I always want somebody who’s a freshman or sophomore to have that experience.”
After this weekend Hughes has plenty of experience moving forward. Falling in the semifinals of the team competition on Saturday, the Women of Troy cruised through Sunday’s pairs competition, never dropping a set.
“We really wanted to come in and play strong,” Collier said. “We were number one in the country for most of the year, and we wanted to show that in some place we are number one.”
In the first round of pairs play, Burnham and Hughes defeated No. 13-seeded Kelli Dallmann and Mckenzie Phelps of Grand Canyon 21-15, 21-11. The Trojans’ top pair then topped 12-seed Katie Spieler and Nikki Taylor of Hawai’i 21-19, 21-12 in the quarterfinals and Loyola Marymount’s No. 9 Litara Keil and Betsi Metter 21-19, 21-15 to advance to the finals.
Collier said this year’s pairs championship was important because it will help to establish USC as a premier sand volleyball school.
“SC’s building a strong program, and we’re using only sand players,” Collier said. “Maybe we don’t have the parity throughout the entire team yet, but we do definitely have some dominant players. It’s really fortunate for us that we have that so we can bring home at least one national championship.”
“Sara’s got to keep it going,” Burnham grinned.
“USC always wants to be on top,” Hughes said. “We have that target on our back, but we’re going to keep pushing through and get that national championship.”
“If we can keep building this with the seniors and the freshmen then we could be that team to beat in the future,” Collier said.