Exactly how good are Sara Hughes and Kelly Claes?

Are they our next Olympians for 2020?

Kelly Claes and Sara Hughes win the pairs competition at the Pac-12 Championships.

Sara Hughes and Kelly Claes, who will be seniors at USC and haven’t lost a match in college since midway through their sophomore seasons, are building quite a beach volleyball resume.

The AVCA and DiG Magazine All-Americans won NorCECA gold in Canada, lost in the championship match at AVP San Francisco and placed third at AVP New York.

And then this past Sunday they won the the FISU World University Games in Estonia with a 21-16, 21-13 win over Madison and McKenna Witt, their Arizona and Pac-12 rivals.

The 5-foot-10 Hughes, from Costa Mesa, Calif., and the 6-2 Claes, from Fullerton, went 48-0 in NCAA beach last spring, clinching the inaugural championship in Gulf Shores, Ala., with a signature dominant victory. What’s more, they’ve won 73 consecutive college matches.

Exactly how good are they?

Do they have what it takes to represent the U.S. at Tokyo in 2020? We asked three volleyball experts:

Dain Blanton (2000 Sydney Olympic gold medalist, USC beach assistant coach, NBC volleyball analyst);

Holly McPeak (three time beach Olympian, bronze medalist, Pac-12 volleyball analyst, 2009 Hall of Fame inductee, the first woman to surpass $1 million in winnings);

Dr. Gary Sato (former head coach of the USA and Japanese national indoor teams, head coach of the 2007 beach volleyball at the Pan Am Games).

VBM: Exactly how good are Sarah Hughes/Kelly Claes today? How do they compare today with their college peers, and AVP field? What do they need to get to the next level?

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2000 gold medalist Dain Blanton and USC assistant beach coach

Blanton: They’ve made tremendous improvement from last year, their sophomore year to their junior year

They are head and shoulders above their peers. A lot of it is training. It’s not like they’re dominant physically, there are other girls that are 6-2 like Kelly, and 5-10 like Sarah. It’s work ethic and it’s mental preparation. The biggest thing that drives them is that they constantly want to get better. Even if they’re beating their competition, they know there is bigger competition out there. They want to go to the top. They want to play against the best players in the world. I think they have a wild card to get into (FIVB Klagenfurt, July 26-30), it will be great to see them adjust to that type of competition. They’ll take their lumps when they get out on the international circuit.

I think they’re the second best team in the United States right now.

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Holly McPeak, three time Olympian and television analyst

McPeak: Sara and Kelly are one of those special teams that doesn’t come around very often. They have a good solid beach foundation from getting started at an early age, they both love the game and are students of the game, and they both want to be the best they can be!

These are all huge assets when trying to climb the ranks in any sport. Kelly and Sara are both gifted athletes, improving their skills and pushing their level when it’s hard to be challenged at the collegiate level. Do not get me wrong, there are some strong college teams but not every dual presents a challenge for Sara and Kelly.

I honestly think that after April Ross and Kerri Walsh they are the next best American team. I would love them representing the USA on the FIVB tour immediately. A lot of our American players have had years of chances and zero or very few podium finishes. Claes/Hughes’ upside is huge and think with experience they can get on the podium sooner rather than later. It’s exciting! We have unfortunately had a void there lately after April/Kerri.

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Gary Sato, shown here at the opening ceremonies in Seoul, 1988, with siblings Liane and Eric

Sato: I think their record speaks for itself. National pairs champions as sophomores, 73 consecutive wins, second- and third-place finishes on the AVP, and NorCECA gold.

They have benefited and taken full advantage of the tremendous growth of women’s beach volleyball at the junior and collegiate level. Not only in the availability of sanctioned high visibility opportunities to compete but the quality of coaching has dramatically improved. Next level? They are already on track to go through the next quad’s qualification process should they decide to do that after finishing USC if not simultaneously as it presents itself.

VBM: How good can they be? Do they have the tools and mental make-up to become top players/Olympians/medal contenders?

Blanton: Will they be contenders in 2020? Absolutely. there’s a huge learning curve at that level. Can they dominate like Kerri and April? Kerri and Misty were special. It’s hard to put anyone up to that standard. In San Francisco, I think they lost because they lacked experience. They needed to make some adjustments that a third pair of eyes would have seen. They’re right there, they are raising the standard of everyone else, especially in college. They have the really strong work ethic, combined with the eagerness to learn, is a really vital combination. I don’t know that their peers really have that. It’s fun to watch elite athletes. They have good chemistry as well.

McPeak: I do think they have what it takes to be future Olympians as long as they continue to do what they are doing. They are champions, but modest, they are young, but confident, they are relatively new at the pro level, but very hungry!

I am excited to see what they will do in the sport going forward!

There are some other strong young players too. I think the Witt twins, who are so new to the sport, have a bright future and I am seeing kids at the junior level who are amazing athletes and understand the game at such a young age.

Sato: I believe they are hungry to improve and willing to do the work day in and day out. Super attitudes and work ethic combined with their competitive chemistry and communication-tough to beat. Both possess the intangibles I’ve witnessed in a lot of the great players. Room to improve? Experience and physical maturation will only make them better.


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