VIENNA, Austria — Their three-set loss Monday after starting 2-0 in the FIVB World Beach Volleyball Championships not withstanding, Kelly Claes and Sara Hughes continue to make quite a splash on the international scene.
Veteran Canadian Sarah Pavan smiled simply at the mention of the kids who are not even three months removed from the University of Southern California.
“I love them,” said the 6-foot-5 Pavan, who is 30. “You know, looking at them, they kind of remind me when I was young in indoors. I was always the young one playing and competing against the women who were so much older than me. And I loved it. You had nothing to lose and everything to prove and you’re only getting better. I see that in them.
“They’ve taken the world by storm. They’ve had some great results early and they’re only going to get better. I think that’s so exciting for them as young athletes and for the sport as well.”
Claes and Hughes were part of a large American contingent in action Monday on an island in the Danube River.
April Ross and Lauren Fendrick improved to 3-0 with a 21-16, 21-13 rout of Australians Louise Bawden and Taliqua Clancy.
Among the American men, Jake Gibb and Taylor Crabb rolled over Paraguay’s Roger Battilana and Gregorio Godoy 21-13, 21-14.
Also, Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena got past Guatemalans Andy Leonardo and Luis Garcia 21-18, 21-18; John Hyden and Ryan Doherty made short work of Poland’s Mariusz Prudel and Kacper Kujawiak 21-14, 21-15; and Casey Patterson and Theo Brunner cruised past South Africans Jamaine Naidoo and Leo Williams 21-18, 21-12.
Pool play continues Tuesday for the two American women’s teams who had Monday off, as Nicole Branagh and Emily Day face Katharina Holzer and Teresa Strauss of Austria and Summer Ross and Brooke Sweat take on Valtyna Davidova and Ievgeniia Shchypkova of the Ukraine.
Gibb and Crabb, seeded 18th, are back at it when they play seventh-seeded Poland’s Piotr Losiak and Bartosz Losiak, which is why Gibb said simply after the rout of the team from Paraguay, “we’re just getting ready for the match tomorrow against Poland to win our pool.”
Claes and Hughes, seeded 16th, opened the tournament with straight-set victories over 33rd-seeded Canadians Taylor Pischke and Jamie Broder and then 40th-seeded Rwandans Denyse Muatsimpurundu and Charlotte Nzayisenga, lost Monday to ninth-seeded Brazilians Maria Antonelli and Carolina Salgado 18-21, 21-16, 15-8.
Claes, 21, and Hughes, 22, bolted ahead in the first set, but had to hang on to win. The older, more experienced, savvy Brazilians then basically took it to the youngsters the rest of the way.
“They’re a great team and we’d never faced them before,” Hughes said. “The first game we came out really strong. The second game, not so much, and the third game, not at all.”
Claes had a really tough match.
“I think we kind of lost our rhythm,” she said. “We were not passing the way we usually do, not setting the way we usually do, and we couldn’t get our rhythm back. We’re always learning and we’re trying to make those adjustments and we didn’t make those adjustments in that match.”
Helping do so is new full-time coach Jose Loiola, who first coached Hughes when she was 14 and teamed with Justine Wong-Orantes, later an All-American libero at Nebraska now with the USA national team.
“Even though they’re young, they have a good mindset. They know exactly what they want and they have a lot of joy for the game,” Loiola said. “When they play, everybody loves their energy level, their happiness, what they bring into the game. Those are things about them I love.”
The pair is glad to have someone help them navigate a new volleyball world.
“It’s great,” Hughes said. “We haven’t had a coach all season. He’s out there warming us up, we’re watching film and breaking things down a lot more. He’s a really positive person and it’s really great having him on our side and on our team.”
Loiola coached the pair when they took bronze in last summer’s FIVB U21 World Championships in Cyprus and this summer they got together before AVP Seattle, when the pair finished ninth. He’s been with them in Europe since the recent FIVB Poland tournament, when they finished 17th.
“We’re finally able to get a little consistency in training and everything else,” Loiola said.
“We’ve worked with Jose in the past and we’ve really liked working with him in the beginning of the summer when we were home ,” Claes said. “We decided to go with him and we absolutely love him. We love his passion, we love his enthusiasm. He was an amazing player (with 55 pro victories) and he’s an amazing coach and we’re really lucky and thankful that we got him on our team.”
For his part, the 47-year-old Loiola wants the youngsters to control better what happens on their side of the net, which they couldn’t do Monday.
“We lost it not because the other team was better but they made little mistakes,” Loiola said. “They’re young and they’re going to make those mistakes right now. I would rather they make them right now rather than in the playoffs.”
He said they were off to talk and make more adjustments.
“This is a completely different level than playing in college,” said Loiola, well aware of how Claes and Hughes more or less owned NCAA beach volleyball the past four years. “College gave them a great foundation, because they learned how to be teammates and all that. But this is a little bit different. You can’t allow another team an inch, you can’t open the door and that’s exactly what they did.”
That wasn’t lost on Hughes.
“They’re a great team and it was fun being able to experience center court,” Hughes said. “Obviously we never like to lose, but, hey, we’re happy to be here. We took second in our pool and that’s something to be proud of. We’re going to keep battling and keep going.”
Experience will be the key, Loiola said.
“They have the physicality,” the coach said. “Kelly and Sara are great athletes, but when you combine physicality with a little bit more of a mentality and mindset, well, we’re not even scratching the surface right now.”
Sometimes it’s hard to remember that every team they’ve played in the AVP and FIVB this season is older. Hughes said that sometimes when the pro players are gathered they might get teased about being the kids, but there is no doubt that they belong.
“Oh, yeah, 100 percent we belong. We belong out here and I hope everyone sees that and respects that.”
Next they play Wednesday in the main draw’s round of 32.
“We’re here to win, regardless of whether we’re a young team just out of college,” Hughes said. “We’re here to win it and take home the gold.”
One of the favorites has to be 14-seeded April Ross and Fendrick, who are playing very well. They became the first team in the tourney to win their pool and await the main draw.
“Winning our pool puts us in the best possible position,” Ross said. “We want to put ourselves in the best possible position to go the farthest in this tournament.”
Ross, named the best server in the world in 2011, 2012, and 2015, scored several aggressive topspin aces, demonstrating that her broken toe has largely mended.
“Mostly I focus on a confident toss and a good hand on the ball,” Ross said. “And then I pick a spot on the court, but it’s not as pinpoint as when I float serve. I let the toss develop, and go with what my toss gives me.”
Doherty and Hyden bounced back from the tough loss to Dalhausser and Lucena by beating the Poles, a fun team to watch that utliizes a variety of speeds and locations in an attempt to neutralize the Doherty block, but Doherty was able to impact their offense with huge blocking.
“That’s been my Achilles’ heel,” Doherty said. “Something teams try to do to me pretty often. Thankfully I work with Johnny, he’s real smart with how to train by staying a little more balanced, a little lower while they’re moving the set around, and that way I don’t feel quite as slow getting to the ball.
“They still beat me to some spots here and there, but I think I was able to affect their offense to where they weren’t siding out too smoothly.
Hyden is the master of putting away tough transition sets, and Monday was no exception, as he was nearly flawless going from defense to offense.
“My mindset is getting my feet to the ball,” Hyden said. “Ryan’s running down balls 20 feet away, or off the court, and he’s just trying to get it close to the net somewhere. Wherever on the net it is, as long as I’m getting my feet there, I can put the ball away. We did a great job on transition in that game.”
Thanks to BVBinfo.com for all the results. You can see all the men’s matches by clicking here and all the women’s matches by clicking here. And for the official FIVB website schedule and results, click here.