Long Beach, California, USA, Aug. 26, 2016 – Well, that was not a bad summer internship for Sara Hughes and Kelly Claes of the United States. The Beach Volleyball duo, who just started their senior year at the University of Southern California, broke more ground on their fledgling careers Friday by finishing in ninth place at the ASICS World Series of Beach Volleyball FIVB Long Beach Grand Slam.Quick links - Long BeachLong Beach Grand Slam websiteQualification - MenQualification - WomenMain draw - MenMain draw - Women
It’s been quite a year squished into a few months for Hughes, 21, and Claes, 20.. Not only did they reach their first Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) championship match, but they beat two Olympic teams in their first FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour main draw last month in Klagenfurt, Austria and then reached the round of 16 in Long Beach before falling to the world’s top-ranked team, Talita Antunes and Larissa Franca of Brazil.
“This is definitely a very big learning experience,” Hughes said. “We’ve been playing at the collegiate level for so long so it’s hard to know if you can compete at this level and this whole summer both domestically and internationally we’ve learned so much.
“Playing three-time Olympians is a surreal experience for us and the first game it was a battle, we were right there with them and the second, they took it to us. Coming off the court, I can’t be mad at that, I can only take it as a good thing.
“We want to be that team, we want to be the best in the world.”
Their FIVB World Tour debut actually occurred a year ago on Alamitos Beach in Long Beach, but the duo failed to get out of the qualifier in the 2015 FIVB Long Beach Grand Slam.
They received a wild card for Klagenfurt this year and in their first match, they stunned eventual Rio 2016 Olympic gold medal winners Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst of Germany in pool play. For good measure, they also upended Canadian Olympians Jamie Border and Kristina Valjas. Claes and Hughes stand as the last team to beat Ludwig and Walkenhorst.
However, Claes and Hughes were bumped out of the tournament with a loss to Switzerland’s Tanja Huberli and Nina Betschart.
The young duo advanced from pool play Thursday, then opened Friday’s elimination round and found themselves against Huberli and Betscshart again. This time, Claes and Hughes scored a 21-19, 27-25 victory.
“It was awesome, a little revenge,” Hughes said. “They’re an amazing team. I think we’re going to pair up with them a lot in the future. I’ve been playing with them since youth level, so it’s fun to see how we’ve all kind of grow up together.”
Claes and Hughes were undefeated during their junior season at USC and helped their school capture the NCAA Beach Volleyball national championship. What they discovered this summer was that they indeed had the game to compete at the highest level.
“It’s been such an incredible experience,” Claes said. “We’ve learned so much coming out here and not only competing with all of these teams, but watching them on and off the court. It’s cool to see all the different warmups and nutrition. I’m trying to pick up little pieces from all the pros.
“I’ve been keeping little notes on things, trying to piece together what I can get from it. It’s been such a cool experience.”
But Talita and Larissa reminded them that their journey is just beginning after a 21-18, 21-10 defeat.
“We played just an unreal team,” Claes said of the Brazilian Olympians. “Almost all of the shots they made were amazing and I aspire to play the way they do. (Talita) took me out of the match. She’s just so dynamic and I’d love to play like her someday.”
Action continues at the FIVB Long Beach Grand Slam over the weekend with the women’s semifinals on Saturday along with the men’s quarterfinals and semifinals.
On Sunday, the ASICS Worlds Series of Beach Volleyball will conclude in Long Beach with the women and men’s bronze and gold medal matches.