Like many USC students, seniors Kelly Claes and Sara Hughes spent much of their summer at the beach.
Their time in the sand, however, wasn’t quite as relaxing as their classmates. The most dominant college beach pair the sport has known played the AVP stops in New York and San Francisco, on the continental NorCECA tour in North Bay, Canada, and Boqueron, Puerto Rico, and the international FIVB tour in Klagenfurt, Austria, and the World Series of Beach Volleyball in Long Beach.
Along the way they gave Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross all they could handle and knocked off the eventual Olympic champions, Germans Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst.
We caught up with them at the WSOBV, the last event they played before getting back to campus, where they are riding a 73-match winning streak as a pair for USC, including winning the inaugural NCAA Beach Championships this past May,
“Playing AVP was a blast!” Claes exclaimed. “New York and San Francisco are awesome events.”
Hughes/Claes came out of the qualifier to finish third in New York, dropping a close 21-18, 21-19 match to Olympians Kerri Walsh-Jennings and April Ross in the semifinals.
“Our goal was to play Kerri and April,” Hughes said. “We wanted to test ourselves against them. We were with them and let it slip away.”
The following weekend, Hughes/Claes made it to the final in San Francisco and path again included facing Walsh-Jennings/Ross. The first matchup was in the semifinals of the winner’s bracket, eventually losing to the bronze medalists 17-21, 21-18, 17-15.
What was the difference in this match?
“This one,” Claes said, patting Hughes on the butt., “made some plays.”
Hughes and Claes stormed back through the contender’s bracket to reach the finals, but when they plays Walsh Jennings/Ross again they were dispatched in straight sets 21-17, 21-13.
“The AVP is awesome,” Claes said. “What a great vibe. We love to test ourselves against the best in the country.” Hughes added, “The experience and training level is so much higher here than on the college circuit.”
Next they competed at two NorCECA (North America, CEntral America, and CAribbean) continental tour events at North Bay, Canada, and Boqueron, Puerto Rico in August and won both.
“NorCECA has a completely different feel,” Claes said. “The players seem younger, closer to our age.”
Finally, Hughes/Claes competed on the FIVB world tour in Klagenfurt, Austria, and Long Beach. Hughes found the world tour fascinating.
“It was intimidating, playing against the world’s best.”
“It was amazing to see how all the top players train and prepare for matches,” Claes said. “They are all so good and so physical.”
Even more than that, they loved Klagenfurt.
“Klagenfurt has to be the most beautiful venue I’ve ever seen. It was breathtaking,” Hughes said.
“Sometimes” Claes chimed in, “the crowd was so awesome that we would stop and just watch them.”
They finished 17th, but pulled off a huge upset, taking down the Olympic gold-medalists Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst 21-18, 21-19. The Germans haven’t lost since.
How did they defeat the world’s best team?
“Honestly, I have no idea,” Hughes said with a laugh. “I was just trying to stay in the moment and calm my nerves.”
Hughes/Claes ended up winning their pool with 2-1 record, defeating two Olympic teams. They lost in their second round of playoffs, falling to the No. 18 seed Nina Betschart/Tanja Huberli of Switzerland, who ultimately finished third.
What did they learn from that experience?
“When you get a transition opportunity at this level, you have to come in hard and swing aggressively,” Hughes said. “You don’t get many opportunities at this level, so you have to put them away.”
From there, the pair had an opportunity to play at home in the FIVB Grand Slam/World Series of Beach Volleyball in Long Beach.
They had a bit of a rough go in pool play, dropping close matches to No. 4 Eduarda Lisboa/Elize Maia (Brazil) 21-18, 18-21, 13-15 and No. 13 Katrin Holtwick/Ilka Semmler (Germany) 22-24, 19-21 before rebounding to defeat No. 20 Gabriela Filippo/Michelle Valiente (Paraguay) 21-11, 21-14 to advance to playoffs.
They exacted their revenge for their Klagenfurt loss in a 21-19, 27-25 win over Betschart/Huberli, setting up a match against one of the world’s top teams, No. 2 Larissa Franca/Talita Antunes of Brazil.
Hughes/Claes stayed with the Brazilias in the first set, losing 21-18, and were treated to a free volleyball lesson in the second set, as it was all Brazil, 21-10.
“Against the top teams in the world, you have to get them out of system with tough serving,” Claes said. “Otherwise, you don’t stand a chance. Their sideout game is just too good.”
“Going into it, we knew that they were the top team in the world. We’re going to play our best volleyball, we’re going to have fun with it. The first game we had a good battle with them, but the second game they pretty much walked all over us, to be truthful about it.
“Coming off the game, I couldn’t be upset about it, because we took what we needed to do and put it into our game. Yes, we didn’t play as well the second set, but we played together and for each other, and each of us were doing good things.”
“Honestly, they played perfectly that second game. We spoke to our coach afterwards, and he said that he had never seen them play such perfect volleyball before. They were getting things up that most teams wouldn’t get up.”
“Now we know what it takes to compete with the best team in the world, and what we have to do to make our shots that much better so they won’t get it, or serve a little tougher to get
All in all not a bad summer for a couple of college kids.
“We’re excited to get back out there,” Hughes, looking forward to 2017 after their USC careers end. “It’s so much fun competing at that level. We’ve learned a lot and have a lot of things to work on this year.”
Claes acknowledges that they are just getting started at that level.
“We know that it’s a process. We know that we will take our lumps out here, and that we need to grow. It’s not going to happen overnight.”
On the other hand, they were happy to be getting back to school.
“It feels so amazing. Being at USC feels like home for me,” Hughes said. “Getting to hang out with the team, getting to seeing all of my teammates, getting back with our coaches, and the training facility is unreal. It’s a relief to be back.
“Getting into the routine where you wake up, get breakfast, you go to class, you lift, you go to practice, you go back to class, you do homework. It’s just getting in that everyday routine is fun for me.I just can’t wait to get back to full-time practice Monday through Saturday.”
Their team will be going for back-to-back NCAA titles and they’ll be going for four in a row, after winning the AVCA pairs championships their first two years.
“The energy of having an entire team working towards a goal is so empowering,” Claes said. “There’s really nothing like it.”