When Sara Hughes rolled a jumbo shot down the line over Jen Fopma’s head on match point of the game that would determine who went home and who moved on to the semifinals, the grins that had been building on Hughes face and that of her partner Kelly Claes exploded. Shaking and astounded at their own unexpected advance into the semifinals of the AVP New York City Open, the girls embraced, shook hands with their opponentsFopma and April Rossand went to their bench where a line of eager volunteers and fans awaited autographs.

Claes, 19, and Hughes, 20, entered the AVP New York City Open through the qualifier on Thursday. Emerging easily from that bracket, they entered the main draw as the tournament’s lowest seed and faced top-seeded Fopma and Ross in the first round, losing 21-15, 21-13.

Ross and Fopma partnered up for the New York tournament due to a Ross usual partner, Kerri Walsh Jennings, sustaining a shoulder injury last week at the Gstaad Grand Slam.

Hughes and Claes then battled back through the contender’s bracket, and three victories later, when the youngsters met Fopma and Ross again, they had rediscovered the rhythm that helped lead them to a 44-3 sophomore NCAA sand volleyball season record and the team and pairs titles at the 2015 AVCA Collegiate Sand Championships only three months ago.

Dain Blanton, who served as a volunteer coach at USC and agreed to serve as Claes and Hughes coach in New York, was proud of his team but not surprised.

Im just really happy to be a part of their experience because I have been there, said the Olympic gold medalist who claimed his first AVP title at the 1997 Miller Lite Hermosa Beach Grand Slam. There’s nothing like the first time when youre in a tournament and youre doing well. And of all places to do it in New York with this backdrop. He gestured over to One World Trade Center, looming above Pier 25 and 26 where the AVP New York City Open is being played.

You look up in between points and you see the big tower, he continued. It doesnt get any bigger than this backdrop.

Claes and Hughes, though comfortable as partners now after playing in two FIVB age-group World Championships (2013 U19 in Porto and the 2014 U21 in Cyprus) and competing together at USC, come from very different volleyball backgrounds. Both of Hughes older siblings played indoor at the top level in college, with her brother Connor winning two national championships at UC Irvine. Hughes started playing and training on the beach when she was 8 years old under the tutelage of the Bill Lovelace, a longtime beach coach who died earlier this year due to complications of Parkinson’s disease.

Claes, on the other hand, picked up the beach game partway through high school and after already verbally committing to play indoor at Long Beach State. Following a bronze-medal performance with Hughes in Portugal in 2013, Hughes convinced Claes to change her commitment to USC and to end her indoor career in favor of the beach. Claes then graduated early from high school in order to play her first sand season at USC in 2014.

That year, Hughes won her first collegiate pairs title with Kirby Burnham, while Claes competed at the No. 2 spot with Alexa Strange.

They are so eager to learn, said Blanton of Claes and Hughes. Theyre special in that way. Not all athletes with talent are coachable and can learn on the fly. It’s just like typing in a code to a computer and they go and do it.

April Ross and Jen Fopma lost to Nicole Branagh and Jenny Kropp in the winners bracket quarterfinals earlier in the day to set up the rematch with Hughes and Claes. But this time, a different team took the sand across the net from Fopma and Ross.

The first time we played them we struggled with passing April’s serve, so we really tried to focus on just taking care of that first contact, said Claes. Also the first time we played them we werent as aggressive as we usually play, so we just said, we have nothing to lose so let’s go out there and swing.

Thanks to aggressive serving, Hughes impossibly consistent setting and tenacious defense, and Claes razor sharp shots and thunderous swings, the youngest team in the tournament took the victory 21-19, 21-15, handing April Ross her second loss on the domestic tour this season. Before the AVP NYC tournament, Ross had won eight AVP titles in a row with Walsh Jennings and last lost a match on tour in the semifinals of the 2013 Huntington Beach AVP Championships.

Claes and Hughes are already guaranteed $7,000 in prize money, most of which they wont be able to accept due to NCAA compliance rules, but they are gaining valuable experience and confidence. Theyll continue to play in AVP, NORCECA, and age-group FIVB events in hopes of building a points cushion so by the time they graduate in 2017, theyll be able to move right into senior FIVB main draws.

Tomorrow, the pair of young stars will play Emily Day and Jen Kessy in the morning’s first women’s semifinal at 10 a.m. on stadium court. Theyre big-time underdogs when matched up against Kessy, the Olympic silver medalist, and Day, who as a team finished second in New Orleans, but they maintain their nothing to lose philosophy, and theyll leave it all out on the court tomorrow morning.

On the opposite side of the bracket is the team of Branagh and Kropp who entered the tournament as the No. 4 seed in their first time playing together since the 2012 FIVB Gstaad Grand Slam. Branagh’s partnership with Amanda Dowdy dissolved after the AVP New Orleans event, and Kropp’s original partner for the 2015 season, Whitney Pavlik, is out for the rest of the year with a shoulder injury, so the Branagh and Kropp partnered up after testing out their chemistry in a few practices.

We have been playing very well this tournament, said Branagh. A few kinks here and there but we communicate very well and fix it as we go.

Against Ross and Fopma, the duo took advantage of their opponents’ new partnership status, serving tough and mixing up their blocking strategy throughout the match. The result was a solid 21-16, 21-19 final scoreline in which Branagh and Kropp sat in the driver’s seat pretty much throughout.

I really like Nicole’s intensity, said Kropp. Obviously she’s a great player, that goes without being said, but she’s really intense and I like her energy she brings to the court. I know she wants to win every single point and she fights hard every single point. It’s a really good feeling to be out there on the court with her.

The ever-competitive Branagh said her game plan heading into tomorrow’s semifinal match versus the tournament No. 3 seed Kim DiCello and Kendra Van Zwieten is simple. To win.

Also looking for a win will be the four men’s teams that remain in contention for the AVP NYC title. The absence of Theo Brunner and Nick Lucena, John Hyden and Tri Bourne, and Sean Rosenthal and Phil Dalhausser opened the men’s field up significantly, however, the No. 1 seed and clear favorite Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson, who have won five of the last six AVP events, are still competing for the first-place finish and will take on Trevor Crabb and Ty Tramblie at 9 a.m ET tomorrow. Crabb took a third in Atlantic City last year with Billy Allen, and Tramblie’s career best finish is a fifth, of which he has two in his career. So with a win tomorrow morning, both men would celebrate new career-high finishes.

Ryan Doherty and John Mayer, the tournament No. 2 seeds, roared to the semifinal match through the winners bracket, with their closest match of the weekend coming against Trevor Crabb’s younger brother Taylor and Spencer McLachlin in the first round. That match went to 24-22 in the tie-breaking third set before Doherty and Mayer secured the victory. Tomorrow at 8 a.m. ET, they will play the dark horse of the men’s tournament Avery Drost and Billy Kolinske.

In their first tournament together, Drost and Kolinske, both 28, have surpassed their previous career highs and upset the tournament No. 3 seed Todd Roger and Stafford Slick and the No. 4 seed Billy Allen and Brad Keenan.


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