Two little girls.
Two big national titles.
The best part of sports is how it brings together people from all walks of life and helps forge friendships and bonds that are never broken. Like 12 years ago, when little Justine Wong-Orantes and Sara Hughes met on Huntington Beach, two strangers who not only became best friends, but this school year celebrated each other’s respective but different NCAA championships.
“We were texting today,” the 5-foot-10 Hughes said a few days after her USC team won the inaugural NCAA Beach crown. “Two best friends and two nationals championships. That’s pretty special.”
Special might not cover it. Hughes and partner Kelly Claes not only clinched that USC championship on the beach of Gulf Shores, Ala., but put an exclamation point on a 48-0 season that extended their winning streak to an incredible 73 matches.
Five months earlier, Wong-Orantes, the libero for Nebraska, was a key cog in her team’s domination of the women’s indoor competition, capped by the Cornhuskers’ sweep of Texas last December in Omaha.
Now heading into their respective senior years of college, they were 8 when they were matched up by the late Bill Lovelace to play beach volleyball together.
“It feels like just yesterday,” Wong-Orantes said. “We created lifelong memories and a friendship and we keep in touch all the time.”
“We were so lucky to have that opportunity to play that summer with our coach, Bill Lovelace,” Hughes recalled. “He called me and asked me to do a tryout. So I went to Huntington Beach, which is close to my house, and Bill said he wanted me to practice with him.
“He told me I had great ball control for a girl my age and he said, ‘I know exactly who you should play with.’
“And I was like sure, I’ll play.”
The two had never met, Hughes said, when they played in their first tournament.
“We kind of said our hi’s and we played and took third place. And after that we took gold in every tournament we played in for a long time. We kind of got used to each other and then slowly started becoming best friends.”
They even started playing indoors together for Long Beach Mizuno and ran a 6-2 as setters on a club team that won a USA Juniors 16s national title. They had so many great tournaments together on the beach, including tying for ninth in the 2011 FIVB Beach Volleyball Swatch Youth World Championships in Croatia.
Not all their tournaments were together. For example, Wong-Orantes won a AAA tournament at the age of 12 with partner Summer Ross to become the youngest known player to ever earn a AAA CBVA rating. But most of the time is was Hughes and Wong-Orantes.
The last time they played together was just before college, but they did face each other this past year in Hawaii. Wong-Orantes plays beach for the Huskers. Nebraska and USC faced each two years ago in Hawaii, but this year Hughes and Wong-Orantes actually played against each other.
“All we could do was laugh and smile,” Wong-Orantes said.
On that day in March, Hughes got to smile more, because she and Claes won over Wong-Orantes and teammate Amber Rolfzen 21-15, 21-15. USC beat Nebraska again the next day, but the lineup changed and they didn’t play each other.
USC’s best celebrating was still two months away. Nebraska, rather, has already basked in the national-title happiness and had a White House visit to show for it.
“She was killing it and when they won the national championship I was so happy for her,” Hughes said.
“And then during our national championship she was texting me and watching me play and was really happy for me.
The 5-foot-6 Wong-Orantes said Nebraska didn’t celebrate its title as much as you might think.
“We tried to take it in as much as we could. But right when we got back we got into sand,” she said. “I think it was a good thing to keep us humble and keep us busy and move on to the next thing. We’re training for what’s next to come and we’re already thinking about Columbus (site of the 2016 NCAA Women’s Championship) next year.”
This summer, Wong-Orantes, the Big Ten defensive player of the year, gets home to Los Alamitos as she tries out for the USA Pan American Cup team, while Hughes will be competing on the beach. But they have time planned with each other.
“Whenever we get together it’s such a fun time,” Hughes said. “I can’t wait.”
As an aside, Hughes — highly recruited as a setter — said choosing to forsake the indoor game to play only beach for USC, “was the hardest decision I ever had to make.
“People were like, ‘This is not a smart idea. Don’t do it. Beach volleyball is not going to become anything, it’s still on the rise and it might fall apart. I love indoor and still love it … but I knew in my heart beach was what I wanted to do. I know I made the right decision and have no regrets.”
Indeed, especially considering she’s basically only had two beach partners in her life and been so successful with both.
“They are a really good team,” Wong-Orantes said. “it’s so cool to see what they’ve done and accomplished and how good their chemistry is.”
It might be early, but it’s safe to say that Nebraska indoors and USC on the beach are the favorites to repeat in 2016-17.
“We grew up doing everything together,” Hughes said. “She went the indoor route and I went the outdoor route and here we are, winning national championships.”