HERMOSA BEACH, California — Sara Hughes and Kelley Kolinske agreed to meet for coffee, because that’s what people do when getting together to discuss matters both important and trivial. Only Hughes doesn’t drink coffee, so when Kolinske asked if she had any recommendations, she flipped the question right back on her future partner.
“Just trying to avoid the fact that I don’t know any coffee shops,” Hughes said, laughing. Kolinske recommended a local spot in the South Bay, The Boy and The Bear, because, according to the reviews, anyway, that’s where normal people meet when getting together for coffee to discuss matters both important and trivial.
When Hughes ordered a tea she barely drank, she confessed to Kolinske that she doesn’t really drink coffee, to which a relieved and amused Kolinske replied that she doesn’t either.
“So we went to a coffee shop and didn’t order any coffee,” Hughes said, and thus the first of many similarities, both whimsical and otherwise, was stumbled upon. Just how much their views and goals and mindsets aligned came as a something of a surprise to both of them, which in and of itself, is a bit of a surprise. They’ve been playing against each other for a decade now; Kolinske — then Kelley Larsen — was a senior at Pepperdine when Hughes enrolled at USC. They’ve played each other 14 times on the AVP and FIVB tours, dating back to an AVP in New York in 2016 (Hughes has the edge, winning 10 of the 14).
And yet, neither really knew the other. They knew of each other, of course, but nothing beyond the surface.
“It is funny how small the volleyball world is but sometimes you just know someone in passing but never really fully communicate and talk with them,” said Hughes, who is 26 years old. “I had nothing but good things to say about Kelley before I knew her. She seemed really sweet but a really tough competitor, I always had trouble playing against her and the timing never lined up with switching partners. Some things happen for a reason and everything lined up and here we are now.”
It’s an invigorating fresh start for the two, after a Tokyo quad that was trying for both of them, though for varying reasons. Hughes, a 5-foot-10 defender initially partnered with Summer Ross, was an immediate leader in the qualification process, finishing in the top 10 in the first six events of the qualifying period, including a bronze in Yangzhou, China. A 17th in Warsaw, Poland, was immediately followed by a massive fifth at the World Championships in Hamburg, Germany.
They would only play one more event on the World Tour together, as Ross suffered a back injury that would eventually cause an unofficial retirement of sorts. It left Hughes in a strange partnership limbo: She still wanted to make the push for Tokyo, but it was so late in the qualifying process that all of the top American blockers in possession of international points were in far too deep to leave their partners.
Partnered with Emily Stockman, Kolinske was in the thick of the Olympic race, perpetually ranked in the top 10 in the world, always slightly trailing eventual Olympic gold medalists April Ross and Alix Klineman, Brooke Sweat and Kerri Walsh Jennings, and Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil. Technically speaking, Kolinske and Stockman qualified for the Tokyo Games, ranked in the top 10 in the world, well inside the cut line, but were left out due to the country quota limiting each federation to two teams.
When the Olympics were finished and the 2021 season officially concluded, the partnership shuffle began anew.
“It was go time,” Hughes said. “It was time to find that partner, pros and cons of everything, sitting down and having discussions with a lot of different people. One of the coolest parts about Kelley is when we sat down, we listed out our priorities and what we wanted and we had the same ones.”
The macro goal is obvious: They both want to qualify for the 2024 Olympics in Paris. Where they’ll start, in terms of the new Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour rankings, is yet to be seen. They’re teetering on the edge of earning a spot in the coveted Elite 16 and just barely missing out, ranked high in the Challenger level, which consists of a 24-team main draw. But the points, as Hughes pointed out, weren’t much of a factor in the decision-making when it came to the partnership.
Which is where the importance of their other similarly-held values came into play.
“As important as the points are, I want to develop a team because points ebb and flow, you win and lose all the time,” Hughes said. “Kelley looked at me and said ‘Yeah I totally agree. Points should play a factor but I don’t want that to be main point in the partner discussion’ and I thought that was really cool, and I said ‘Hey, you know what, whatever our points are, we’re looking for something bigger and better.’”
While their seamless personality mesh has been a pleasant surprise to both, there was never any doubt that their on-court talents would be an ideal fit. Kolinske, standing 6-foot-2, is one of the best left-side blockers in America, though she has the ability to switch to the right if needed. Hughes has long been a dominant right-side defender, though proved in her partnership with Brandie Wilkerson that she can be just as effective on the left. With coach Evie Matthews at the helm, they can run a dynamic offense, with Hughes’ tremendous passing providing Kolinske the potential to option on two most every ball Hughes is served.
“She’s been in those big moments and has had those experiences competing against the top teams in the world and has been very successful,” Kolinske said. “She’s always been in the back of my mind and she’s had so much success against the top teams and I think it’s important to have experience in those big moments. I’m super pumped that it worked out. We’ve been training for – this is our third week, and it’s been going well so far.
“It brings back excitement to start something new. Obviously it’s exciting to start back up after off-season but going through the pre-season training with someone new and something different just brings that level of excitement.”