NCAA beach: Claes/Hughes interview, FSU and Stetson win titles

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USC's Sara Hughes scrambles to get underneath the ball Saturday against UCLA/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Three of the five NCAA beach conferences are decided.

Fourth-ranked Florida State won the Coastal Collegiate Sports Association championship on Sunday, while Stetson won the Atlantic Sun. Pepperdine won the Big West on Saturday. More on FSU and Stetson follow.

Still up next weekend are the Pac-12 and Big West conference tournaments, all looking to be in the second NCAA Beach Championship May 5-7 in Gulf Shores, Ala.

Top-ranked USC will also be on the beach the locals call the “Redneck Riviera” to defend its title. Saturday, the Trojans beat No. 2 UCLA on a day when USC recognized its seniors. That included the greatest doubles pair the college game has ever known, Sara Hughes and Kelly Claes.

Hughes, a 5-foot-10 product of Costa Mesa, Calif, and Mater Dei High School, and the 6-2 Claes, from Fullerton and El Dorado High School, earlier this season saw their winning streak of 103 matches come to an end. They hadn’t lost in more than two years.

Since then, the pair has won five in a row, their record this season is 35-1, and their team, 30-0 this season, has won 60 in a row. That includes the Trojans 4-1 win over UCLA that broke a 24-match winning streak for the Bruins.

We caught up with Hughes and Claes on Saturday at Merle Norman Stadium, where Hughes admitted that “Senior Day is so bittersweet. I think now that we’re on the courts with our team it gets pretty emotional — but not in a bad way, in a good way. It’s like the end, but it’s also just the beginning for us. It’s really exciting, and we’re happy to be with our team, and ready to play UCLA, and bring it to them.”

Soon after the NCAA Championship the pair will turn pro.

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USC honored its graduating seniors and families on Saturday, from left, Sara Hughes, Kelly Claes, Nicolette Martin, Allie Wheeler, and Sophie Bukovec/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

VBM: What will you miss most?

Claes: I think the whole team aspect of the sport. We’re not going to have that afterwards, so just being with these girls, and being able to experience the national championship with them last year, and really hoping to get it again this year. I remember the moments with the team, and that’s what I’ll miss most.

VBM: At USC, all of the infrastructure was given to you, and you’re going into a situation where you will have to build all of that yourself. How will that go for you?

Hughes: I think that’s a big change, but it’s a change we’re ready for. We haven’t been ignorant of that, we talk to our coaches about that, they’ve started tutoring us already, that life after SC is going to get a little bit tougher. Right now we have a strength trainer, we have practices, we have nutritionists, so things like that are going to change, but those are steps we’re going to need to take, and I’m excited to try it out and figure it out on my own.

VBM: What are your plans for going pro?

Claes: We still have to find a coach and set up a practice schedule. We’re going to try and play as many FIVB’s as we can. It just depends upon points. If we can’t get into FIVB, there’s the AVP, so if we don’t get into one, we’ll play in the other. We’re just going to cruise and see what we can do and get out there and kick some butt.

VBM: What’s your take on AVP player contracts?

Hughes: Right now we’re just focused on our USC season and finishing that out strong. That’s our primary focus right now.

VBM: Are you excited about more organizations offering more prize money and more opportunities for beach?

Claes: Yeah, for sure. I’m always excited for beach players to have different opportunities. But like Sara said, we’re looking toward this (motions to college beach scene), kind of looking towards the future, but really want to finish the season up strong, and then we’ll look into whatever we need to.

VBM: Are you looking towards any specific tournaments?

Hughes: We’re just looking forward to whatever tournaments that we can play, whether that’s FIVB or AVP. This summer is a big stepping stone for us because we haven’t been able to play a full (pro) season and we’re really excited to compete and say that we’re real professional beach volleyball players, not amateur.   

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Back-to-back for FSU: The Seminoles beat FIU 3-0 on a rainy Sunday in Emerson, Ga., Victoria Paranagua and Vanessa Freire clinched the final point and were named top pair of the tournament. 

“This is a big confidence boost,” said Florida State coach Brooke Niles, whose team won its 11th dual in a row. “The last three weeks we have been playing really good volleyball. We are just ready to compete.”

Florida State got out to an early lead as the Noles won the first set on four of the five courts. Junior Hailey Luke and freshman Eva Torruella beat Anabela Sataric and Estefanie Bethancourt 21-12, 21-6 on court 5.

 On court three, senior Sierra Sanchez and sophomore Macy Jerger were able to give the Seminoles a 2-0 lead, beating Helene Thelle and Natalia Giron 21-19, 21-9 behind the blocking of Sanchez.

“It has been an awesome year,” Sanchez said. “There has been so many changes to our lineup and so many different things happening. We were finally able to come together. Macy and I were able to come together as a pair and it was amazing to get better through this tournament. I think getting through that last match was a testament to the whole team and how hard we work.”

 Juniors Victoria Paranagua and Vanessa Freire clinched it, beating Katie Friesen and Taija Thomas 21-16, 21-19.

Stetson takes ASUN: The Hatters swept Florida Gulf Coast twice Sunday, the first time to advance to the Atlantic Sun final and the second to win it.

In the final, Stetson’s No. 5 pair of Sunniva Helland-Hansen and Carly Perales beat FGCU’s Caroline Jordan and Kaitlan Krivdo 21-17, 21-14. FGCU tied it when its No. 4 of Madi Wilcox and Leigh Pudwill beat Stetson’s Tiffany Creamer and Rachel Noble 24-22, 24-22.

At No. 2, Stetson went up 2-1 as Kristin Lind and Darby Dunn beat Giovanna Borgiotti and Ashley Glickert 21-18, 21-12. They clinched at No. 3 as Emily Carroll and Kaylee Anderson beat Karissa Rhoades and Katherine Puisis 21-16, 21-19.

It marks the third time Stetson has won the ASUN title.

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