FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. –- Kelly Claes has already experienced beach volleyball at the highest level of the FIVB World Tour and when she found out she couldn’t participate in the Fort Lauderdale Major with USC teammate Sara Hughes, she sought a different partner.

Hughes had already teamed with Olympian Lauren Fendrick. So Claes reached out to former UCLA indoors national-champion Kelly Reeves.

To her surprise, Reeves hesitated.

“We talked a little before and I said, ‘You want to play?’ And she said, ‘I’m not really sure,’ ” Claes recalled. “And I called her up and told her we’re playing.”

Why the hesitation? For one thing, Reeves had played one match on the FIVB World Tour, losing in qualifying with Ali McColloch in the 2016 Cincinnati Open.

“I don’t know,” Reeves said when asked to explain her reluctance. “I’ve never really been through the FIVB. With the different protocol, it’s tough. But we added up our points and saw we could get in, so let’s do it. Playing with Kelly Claes is pretty awesome.”

It was pretty awesome for both on Tuesday, when they hit the qualification rounds and won twice in convincing fashion to reach the main draw of the SWATCH Major Series event, the opening tournament on the 2017 World Tour calendar.

USC senior Kelly Claes attacks for match point against Poland’s Aleksandra Wachowicz/Stephen Burns photo

They’ll begin Pool C play on Wednesday against third-seeded Chantal Laboureur and Julia Sude of Germany, a team that barely missed out on playing in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics but did qualify for the World Tour Finals in Toronto in October.

Will they be intimidated by a pool that includes Brazilians Josi/Lili and Italians Marta Menegatti/Rebecca Perry? Hardly. After all, in their first main-draw experience in last year’s Klagenfurt Major, Claes and Hughes upended two Olympic teams, Laura Ludwig/Kira Walkenhorst of Germany and Jamie Broder/Kristina Valjas in their first two matches. Ludwig and Walkenhorst, of course, didn’t lose again until after they captured the gold medal in Rio.

“I don’t think we really knew what to expect coming in,” the 21-year-old Claes said of Fort Lauderdale. “With the new partnership, we haven’t trained that much together. We wanted to come out and kind of make a statement for ourselves as an aggressive team and I think we did that today and that’s going to be our game plan throughout this whole tournament.”

They sliced through Poland’s Agnieszka Pregowska/Aleksandra Wachowicz in the morning, 21-10, 21-12, then took only 26 minutes to get past Canada’s Camille Saxton/Julie Gordon, 21-18, 21-17, in the afternoon.

Two Kellys, two wins, too cool.

“We knew the first match was going to be tough, single elimination, but we just got our rhythm and we executed well from the start,” said Reeves, who is 24. “Game two, same thing. We prepared, took it for what it was, we kind of had to ride the coaster a little bit. We knew there was a lot of weight on it but we did a really good job of communicating and taking it one play at a time. Just embracing the opportunity was awesome.”

Now they’re in with 32 of the top teams in the world. Just another challenge as they try to extend their stay in South Florida beyond Thursday, when pool play decides who advances.

“You definitely feel like a professional when you’re here,” Reeves said. “This is the elite of the elite and it’s really cool to be a part of it. You grow up watching this stuff and now we’re in it. It’s exciting and we’re here on a mission.”


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