Exuberance takes over as Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes celebrate their victory/Mark Rigney photo

HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. – The goals are simple for Sara Hughes and Kelly Cheng.

Protect your home beach, improve each day and stay mentally tough. That’s what they did Sunday when they survived an epic semifinal before capturing the 2023 AVP Pro Series Huntington Beach Open.

It was the fourth AVP victory for the duo as their second-generation partnership never looked better.

Kelly Cheng jumps into the arms of Sara Hughes/Allen Szto Photography

It took a 21-18, 21-18 victory over Betsi Flint and Julia Scoles in the championship match, rallying from deficits in the second match of the day for Hughes and Cheng to complete an unbeaten run through the tournament.

“Our progress is unbelievable,” Hughes said. “We want to be a new team every time we step on the sand so we’re working so hard at practice, in the weight room, getting stronger. We just want to be on top of the world.”

Hughes, from neighboring Costa Mesa, and Cheng, from just up the road in Placentia, brought their family and friends and put on a show. The pair set the benchmark for college beach volleyball at USC, played pro together, split up, and then got back together late last season and there’s been little stopping them.

It’s their second consecutive victory in Huntington, though last year’s event was played two miles down Pacific Coast Highway in a relatively low-key weekend. Sunday’s event was at the Huntington Beach Pier, where spectators who didn’t want to battle for seats in the grandstands lined the railings to get a peek.

“It is the most special feeling in the world. It’s truly my home beach,” Hughes said. “I was 8 years old and I said I want to do this for the rest of my life. Being at the pier is completely different and I’m so happy Kelly and I won it together.”

After sneaking through the first set against Flint and Scoles, the top seeds promptly went down, 12-4 to start the second. Yet they found a way to chip away as Hughes’ defense and transition hitting made the difference.

“It’s so cool to win here,” Cheng said. “So many family and friends here, it’s so special getting to compete and perform in front of them. They all get to watch on TV but it’s so different in person. Getting to do it so close to home, I’ve got so many people here, it’s just really special.”

Sara Hughes/Mark Rigney photo

Unfortunately, the ESPN+ broadcast left the air after the men’s final, so you had to be on the beach to be a witness to the bulk of the women’s final. Needless to say, that lit up phones, texts and social media directed at the AVP. The glitch was discovered and ESPN — at fault, the AVP told us — resumed coverage well into the second set.

Both teams had serious battles in the semifinals. Fourth-seeded Flint and Scoles outlasted second-seeded Taryn Kloth and Kristen Nuss, 23-25, 21-19, 15-12 to reach the final.

At the same time, Hughes and Cheng were battling fifth-seeded Sarah Sponcil and Terese Cannon for an epic 21-19, 17-21, 23-21 victory.

“The semifinal was crazy. That’s just the definition of good volleyball right there,” Hughes said. “We fought off five match points, so it’s a testament to our team’s staying mentally tough and pulling out a huge win in the semifinal and then winning in two here.”

Flint and Scoles, looking for their first AVP victory together, couldn’t hide their disappointment as they walked off the court.

“We just have to take care of our side of the net,” Scoles said. “They made some opportunities on plays that we didn’t. They’re a great team and it was an honor and a privilege to be in the finals but we’re hungry and we’re going to come back next tournament better and ready to fight.”

Cheng and Hughes split the $14,000 winner’s prize, with Flint and Scoles sharing $8,500.

Next up for Hughes and Cheng is a European vacation, where they resume the international schedule in Ostrava, Czech Republic, later this month as qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics heats up.

Kelly Cheng, left, and Sara Hughes/Rick Atwood photo
Terese Cannon/Sarah Sponcil (5) def. Melissa Humana-Paredes/Brandie Wilkerson (3) 13-21, 22-20, 15-12 (1:00)
Betsi Flint/Julia Scoles (4) def. Madelyne Anderson/Molly Turner (16, Q6) 21-18, 21-18 (0:44)
Kelly Cheng/Sara Hughes (1) def. Cannon/Sponcil (5) 21-19, 17-21, 23-21 (1:04)
Flint/Scoles (4) def. Taryn Kloth/Kristen Nuss (2) 23-25, 21-19, 15-12 (0:59)
Cheng/Hughes (1) def.Flint/Scoles (4) 21-18, 21-18 (0:45) 
Sarah Sponcil in the semifinals/Rick Atwood photo


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