KENNER, Louisiana — Olympian Kelly Cheng and new partner Betsi Flint made a statement Sunday afternoon at the AVP Pro Series New Orleans Open by dismantling hometown favorites Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth 21-15, 21-15. 

Top-seeded Cheng and Flint capped a weekend in which they seemed to get stronger and stronger as the hours went by. They opened with a three-set win Friday over 16th-seeded Brook Bauer and Katie Horton and later that day hardly looked sharp as they battled to a two-set win over eighth-seeded Jessica Gaffney and Molly Turner. 

“I think we were a little nervous on Friday,” Cheng said. 

“I think we’re still learning more  about each other,” Flint said. “There was the honeymoon phase and now we’re learning how we are in practice and competing. It’s fun to have some adversity early on and then have it flow today.”

Saturday, they went three in beating fifth-seeded Megan Kraft and Emily Stockman, and then Sunday beat sixth-seeded Emily Day and Hailey Harward in the semifinals 21-13, 24-22.

Now they’ll head to Latvia, for the Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour Jurmala Elite 16, where they’re seeded third. Also in the main draw are fourth-seeded Sara Hughes and Kelley Kolinske. 

Cheng, 26, is the former USC great who played in the Tokyo Olympics with Sarah Sponcil. This was her second AVP victory, the other coming at AVP Chicago in 2017 while playing with Sara Hughes. She partnered with Flint, 29, the product of Loyola Marymount who was an LMU coach last fall. This was her sixth AVP victory, first since 2019 when she won AVP Hermosa Beach with Emily Day.

“We’re still learning how to connect together on the court,” Flint continued. “We do things differently, we re-set differently, so we’re just figuring out how to do it together. I felt like it clicked a little bit yesterday and today.”

Now they’re going to be on the road for 25 days, leaving Latvia for the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships in Rome June 10-19.

Kelly Cheng, left, and Betsi Flint celebrate their victory/Rick Atwood photo

Earlier Sunday, Kraft, who just finished her sophomore year at USC and has two NCAA titles to show for it, and Emily Stockman beat Zana Muno and Canadian Olympian Brandie Wilkerson 21-15, 21-12. That put them into a semifinal match with Kloth and Nuss, and TKN, as they’re called, won 26-24, 21-14.

In the other semifinal, Cheng and Flint beat Day and Harward, another USC champion. They did not have to play their contenders-bracket match because Savvy Simo and Toni Rodriguez had to forfeit after Rodriguez sustained a knee injury Saturday night.

The second-seeded LSU kids, Kloth and Nuss, did not get an entry to the World Championships, but they did, out of the blue, get a spot in the Latvia qualifier. They got the word on Saturday afternoon and it promises to be another chapter for Nuss and Kloth, who have had a remarkable seven weeks. 

“The biggest takeaway is learning how to adapt,” Kloth said.

They traveled internationally for the first time when they got a late bid to the Volleyball World Pro Beach Tour Futures tournament in Coolangatta, Australia, March 30-April 3 and not only got through the qualifier, but won it all. 

Two weeks later, they went to the Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour Itapema Challenge and made it through the qualifier and pool play and took ninth place.

The journey continued with a victory in the AVP Pro Series Austin when they beat Cheng and Flint in the semifinals and then Canadian Olympians Melissa Humana-Paredes and Sarah Pavan for gold.

And as if that wasn’t enough, just last weekend they won gold again, this time in the Volleyball World Kusadasi, Turkey, Challenge, beating Australian Olympic silver medalists Mariafe Artacho and Taliqua Clancy.

So it wasn’t a surprise that a spot opened up in Latvia, although Kloth admitted having to balance staying the moment for this tournament and thinking ahead and making travel plans required some focus.

“And again, we’re so grateful but it’s kind of crazy,” Kloth said. “We were saying, ‘Are we gonna find a flight, can we make it there?’ ”

“It’s been wild,” Nuss said. “Everything is a learning experience and we’re just going to roll with everything. We don’t have any expectations, we don’t know what things are supposed to be like and it’s kind of fun to see what happens and learn.”

Finishing second, of course, was not the goal, but Cheng and Flint were not to be denied. They took home $14,000 for the win, while TKN split $8,500.

“I think I came to the technical timeout in the second set and said to Drew (coach Drew Hamilton), ‘That’s pretty impressive.’ They were impressive, clean, service pressure, and I don’t know that they made too many mistakes.”

Betsi Flint hits into the block of Taryn Kloth/Rick Atwood photo

They are one of three USA pairs in the qualifier. Sponcil and Terese Cannon are the second seed in the qualifier, Corinne Quiggle and Sarah Schermerhorn are No. 6, and TKN are No. 15 of 16. Kloth and Nuss beat Quiggle and Schermerhorn on Friday 19-21, 21-19, 15-8. 

It’s all part of an incredible journey for the pair just a year out of LSU.

“I don’t think anything like this has happened before, honestly,” Hamilton said. “And for them to start traveling internationally multiple times in a short period and deal with time changes and it’s all new to them. What they’ve been able to do is indescribable.”

Nuss and Kloth, whose first big trip was Australia, handle their own travel arrangements. 

“They’re much more than just elite volleyball players,” Hamilton said. “They’re legit people.”

And pretty good players.

“They’re a solid team. This is a huge show of what the NCAA is doing for the United States,” Cheng said. “It’s incredible and I think we’re going to keep getting amazing players out of the States and I think the U.S. is going to demolish everybody else in the world because of the NCAA and it’s awesome.”

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