KENNER, Louisiana — Even Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes had to have been confounded by their up-and-down, live-on-the-edge, second-half slog through the AVP New Orleans Open.
They couldn’t have started stronger, winning their first two matches in straight sets by allowing just 49 points total.
But late Saturday night, the top-seeded pair played the hometown favorites, fourth-seeded Taryn Kloth and Kristen Nuss, and got destroyed in the first set 21-10 before coming back to win 31-29, 15-12.
In Sunday’s semifinals, they lost the first set to Betsi Flint — with whom Cheng won this tournament in 2022 — and Julia Scoles 21-8.
Then Cheng and Hughes won the next two sets, 21-19, 16-14.
Finally, in the championship match, they hit on all cylinders and defeated Canadian Olympians Brandie Wilkerson and Melissa Humana-Paredes 21-9 — yes, 21-9 — 21-18, hoisted the trophies, sprayed some beer and moved on.
“I’m just really proud of how we played,” said Cheng, the Tokyo Olympian. “We had a lot of tough battles. We lost some sets and I love our response. It’s something we’ve been talking about a lot and I’m really proud of that response. I think it’s really encouraging because we both see a lot of things we can work on.”
Equally encouraged were the top-seeded pair of Tri Bourne and Chaim Schalk, who defeated third-seeded Billy Allen and Troy Field in the men’s final 25-27, 21-12, 15-10.
Both winning pairs took home $14,000 for the weekend; the runners-up $8,500.
Cheng-Hughes grind through
Unlike Saturday, when a vicious storm blew through and wreaked havoc at Coconut Beach and caused a five-hour delay and all sorts of problems (read our story and see the video and photos here), Sunday was a lovely sunny day, with temperatures setting in the low 70s, although the wind was strong and a factor throughout, especially on the outer court.
Action started at 8 a.m. as a loaded women’s field was pared to four semifinalists. Third-seeded Flint and Scoles ousted fifth-seeded Terese Cannon and Sarah Sponcil and 12th-seeded Toni Rodriguez and Savvy Simo and routed 14th-seeded Kim Hildreth and Teegan Van Gunst.
Flint and Scoles then bounced Canadian Olympian Sarah Pavan (who played in Tokyo with Humana-Paredes) and Emily Stockman in a tough three (18-21, 21-19, 15-13) and Kloth and Nuss eliminated their former LSU teammate Rodriguez and Simo 19-21, 21-15, 15-9.
As Cheng and Hughes won their semifinal over Flint and Scoles (who followed Cheng and Hughes at USC), Wilkerson and Humana-Paredes survived a 16-21, 21-15, 15-13 battle with Kloth and Nuss, which did nothing to help attendance for the final.
Cheng and Hughes were the most celebrated pair in college history as partners at USC. After they turned pro in 2017 they were partners for a little more than a year.
Cheng, coached by her husband Jordan, partnered with Sponcil in the Tokyo Olympics. Then she paired with Flint before reuniting with Hughes last October, not long after Hughes won the AVP Manhattan Beach open in August with Kelley Kolinske.
They played four tournaments last season and bolted right to the podium. They won AVP Huntington Beach in November, later in the month went to Australia won the back-to-back Volleyball World tournaments in Torquay (beating Flint and Scoles in the second) before taking gold in the Beach Pro Tour Finals in Doha in January, a straight-sets victory over Brazil’s Duda Lisboa and Ana Patricia Silva that came with a whopping $150,000 payoff.
Cheng and Hughes clearly established themselves as the team to beat and that has continued into this season.
After tough finishes in tournaments in Doha and Mexico, they cashed in again, this time beating Duda-Silva in three in the Volleyball World Elite16 in Tepic, Mexico, a month ago.
“I’m proud of the girls,” Jordan Cheng said. “I think the last two matches we lost 21-10, 21-8, so we weren’t playing our best volleyball, but they find ways to win. That’s a special trait. I’m really impressed by their ability to dig in deep and have confidence in themselves
“They’ve worked really hard to build trust and have conversations. Obviously they played together in college and a year together pro, but both have grew up quite a bit and it’s really fun to watch them play together now.”
Now they head to Brazil for the Volleyball World Elite16 in Uberlandia April 26-30.
“I’m so happy,” Hughes said. “This is our first AVP together in a while and to come out with a win against some of the best teams in the world is huge for us.
“I think we keep getting better every day and our we want to be a new team every tournament and doing something different for the most part. I’m just so happy to be back playing with Kelly and playing next to her. I’m excited to see what’s to come.”
Cheng has an idea as the sprint to Paris 2024 is underway.
“I think the potential for this team is really high,” Cheng said. “We’re going to keep working hard together and take on the world.”
Bourne-Schalk claim first gold together
Bourne, the Tokyo Olympian, and Schalk, a 2016 Canadian Olympian, got together in December.
“It’s been super fun,” said Bourne, who partnered with Trevor Crabb the past five years. “It’s a different style of play for me and that’s always fun.”
They have played three Volleyball World events this year with a fifth-place finish two weeks ago in Itapema, Brazil, to show for it.
In the semifinals Sunday, Bourne and Schalk beat second-seeded Tim Brewster and Kyle Friend 17-21, 21-19, 15-12. In the final, Allen and Field had six set points before winning the first 27-25, but it was all Bourne-Schalk after that.
In the other semifinal, Allen and Field — also a new pair — beat sixth-seeded Cody Caldwell and Chase Frishman 21-18, 21-14.
Unlike the women’s field that was loaded with Olympians, the men’s side was not nearly as top heavy (there was a Volleyball World Challenge in Saquarema, Brazil, this past weekend), which was not lost on Bourne.
“It’s a different vibe when the other top teams are not here,” Bourne said. “There’s more pressure if you allow it to get to you. We had to grind it out. We had to dig deep to pull it out because all the pressure was on us to win it. Even though the top guys weren’t here, it was a challenge.”
Schalk and I were likely the only two people at Coconut Beach to have ever been in his hometown of Red Deer, Alberta. He’s lived in Southern California for a decade.
“I’m very happy. First AVP with Tri and we’ve been building all offseason and this is our fourth tournament, and every one is better than the last,” Schalk said. “It’s exciting.”
There were times throughout the weekend when the pair was dominant.
“You could see it and I’ve seen it all year, little spurts where we’re pretty consistent and tough to stop,” Schalk said. “Our block defense is pretty dynamic, as well. Our whole goal is to get more consistency on the side out and we were quite good at that this weekend.
“You can see the work is paying off and that’s what’s important.”
Bourne and Schalk also head to Brazil.
The next AVP is the Huntington Beach Open May 19-21.