Volleyball

SANDCAST is the leading podcast for beach volleyball and stories in the volleyball world. Hosts Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter take listeners into the world of the AVP, FIVB, NORCECA, and any other professional beach volleyball outlets, digging deep into the lives of the players both on and off the court as well as all of the top influencers in the game.

Episodes

Perhaps you needed proof. Proof that Sara Hughes is, indeed, the one to fit the headline of this very podcast: That she is fit to become the next face of beach volleyball.

Had you stopped by Huntington Beach last Friday morning, you’d have had all the proof you’d need.

There, on court one, was Hughes, this week’s repeat guest on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter, and partner Kelly Claes. There was coach Jose Loiola and mentor Misty May-Treanor. There was Ben Vaught and Tanner Woods, because, yes, Hughes and Claes train with professional men on occasion.  

And there, lining the court was a dozen or so girls, member of the Long Beach City beach volleyball team, watching, studying, looking on.

Taking notes on Hughes.

Yes, they were at the Huntington Beach Pier that day because they had practice – but a Long Beach-based team doesn’t necessarily need to come to Huntington Beach to practice. There were there because that’s where May-Treanor, the director of beach volleyball operations at LBC, was, and May-Treanor was there because, well, Hughes.

There’s a reason Hughes and Claes have landed one Hall of Famer (Loiola) and another who could go down as one of the greatest talents in volleyball history as their coaches. It could be argued – and it often is – that Hughes and Claes, both 22 years old, have more potential than any individual or team in the world, more, even, than the precocious Duda, the 19-year-old Brazilian star and 2016 FIVB Rookie of the Year.

Already, Hughes and Claes have won an AVP, the 2017 season-finale in Chicago. Already they have reached FIVB quarterfinals and landed some of the game’s top names as sponsors.

Already they have broken previous goals and established new ones.

In their first season as professionals, breaking pool in international play was the goal. In their first event, a four-star in Rio, they finished fifth. Now, in just one season as full-time professionals, and a truncated one at that, seeing as they had to miss the early season events while they wrapped up what figures to be the most dominant college run for quite some time, Hughes and Claes see anything less than a podium finish as a shortcoming.

Finishes, though, are but one tangible measurement for the success of Hughes and Claes. There is no barometer through which to measure their “inspiration” to the next generation of beach volleyball players.

For now, you can see it yourself, right there, on the sidelines of court one, watching, observing, taking notes – figuring out ways to become the Next Sara Hughes.

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On one of the walls in Sara Hughes’ bedroom is a poster of Misty May-Treanor. It’s been there since she was little, when Hughes began getting into volleyball, serving as a reminder of what she might become one day should she continue to pursue this beach volleyball dream of hers.

So it struck her when, during a tournament this season, a parent of a young fan approached her and told Hughes that, on one of the walls in her daughter’s bedroom, is a poster of Hughes.

“I was like ‘No way that’s actually happening,’” Hughes recalled on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “I am so grateful for that and I hope I can keep being a person young people can look up to for a long time and thank you to everyone who does.”

Did you catch that, at the end? Hughes thanked the fans for looking up to her, not the other way around. In an era where celebrities grow more and more closed off, taking instead to social media to communicate behind iPhones and laptops, Hughes remains open, willing to talk to anyone, pepper with anyone, give back any way she can.

“I’m always just trying to help people,” she said. “If anybody wants to ask, just come up to me, you can ask me directly.”

No different than May-Treanor continues to treat her. 

When her age could still be measured with a single digit, Hughes would head down to the Huntington Beach Pier and sit on the wall, waiting for a chance, any chance, to simply shag balls for May-Treanor. Sometimes May-Treanor would let her pepper or hop in for a drill or two, creating an indelible memory that Hughes will cherish more than likely the rest of her life.

“I love talking to people and I love talking to young girls because I don’t think I’d be in the position I am today if I didn’t have the coaches I had and people like Misty May taking the time to talk to me,” she said. “I love doing the same to everyone else.”

She’s a sponsor’s dream, Hughes. She has the looks – blonde hair, blue eyes, Colgate smile – the smarts – she’s currently on a one-year track to earn her Master’s degree, just a year after delivering a graduation speech at USC – the media savvy, the talent, a voracious competitive drive juxtaposed with a disarmingly charming personality.

Oh, yes. She has earned this position, the right to have Mikasa run her through photo shoots and turn those shoots into posters for young girls to hang on their walls, to point to each night and morning and say “I want to be like that.

Her accolades at USC could fill a small book’s worth of pages, and it’s a wonder if some of her records – four consecutive national titles, a winning streak that eclipsed 100 matches, a perfect 48-0 junior season, four-time All-American – will ever be broken.

Justifiably, this drew no small amount of media coverage, and while she was appreciative – always thanking anyone for taking the time and interest in her – it drove her a bit insane, how those reporters would invariably walk right past her exceptionally talented teammates. On the occasion that the media showed interest in the rest of USC’s indomitable team, more often than not they’d ask questions not about how their match went, but what they thought about Sara and her partner, Kelly Claes.

“I hated that when it was just ‘Oh! Sara and Kelly and Team USC!’” Hughes said. “I was like ‘No, you don’t realize, these girls who are on [teams] two, three, four, to the eighth team, they’re our support system. We would not be close to being good or successful without our teammates. They deserve just as much fame and respect as we do because we’re out there on the same hot court at USC and we’re training, every day, together.”

Her teammates, as she said, were plenty talented, and a number of them – Nicolette Martin, Terese Cannon, Jenna Belton, Sophie Bukovic, Allie Wheeler, to name a few – have already begun making a name for themselves on the AVP Tour.

Yet Hughes, as May-Treanor was, will be the name fans point to as the next in this massive wave of beach volleyball talent rising from the college ranks. She will be the one on the posters, and in the commercials for Oakley and KT Tape and Mikasa and any other sponsor wise enough to sign her.  

She’s becoming the next generation’s version of May-Treanor – the one everyone looks up to – quicker than she could have possibly realized.  

The final question of SANDCAST is reserved for the athletes to discuss anything else they’d like to discuss, anything the hosts may have missed. Most demur, maybe shout out a sponsor or two, thank us for the time.

Hughes, instead, had a message for her fans: “For the young players and any parents who are listening, I love the indoor game and the beach game, of course. So a lot of players are making this decision where they love the indoor but they have to play the beach in college because they think that’s the only thing they can play. I just think it’s huge for young girls to play both if they love both.”

You can teach any volleyball skill there is. But to become the next face of a sport, as May-Treanor once was?

That’s a trait passed down, from one legend to the one who might just become the next.  

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The 2018 beach volleyball season is, remarkably, upon us. In a way, at least. 

The FIVB kicked off the 2018 year in the very first week of the year, hosting an indoor beach tournament at The Hague, a four-star event to open the season, hauling in a variety of new partnerships and unfamiliar faces.

One of those new partnerships, of course, was that of April Ross and Alix Klineman, who took the longest road possible, battling through a pair of country quota matches, two more in the qualifier, and then running off six straight-set wins in the main draw to claim gold, beating Brazil’s Maria Antonelli and Carolina Salgado – another team that came out of the qualifier – in the finals.

“I’m going to be riding high on this win for awhile and this week in The Hague was a blast,” Ross wrote on Instagram afterwards. “Pretty excited or this journey.”

It was Klineman’s first international beach tournament, though far from her first time on a big stage, having played on both the Brazil and Italian indoor leagues.

As for the rest of the U.S. teams, though, it wasn’t quite the start to the year many would have desired.

Sara Hughes and Kelly Claes finished ninth, while Brooke Sweat and Summer Ross took a 17th and Lauren Fendrick and Karissa Cook finished 25th. The men didn’t fare much better, with the new partnership of Billy Allen and Ryan Doherty claiming the highest finish of American teams at ninth. Casey Patterson and Stafford Slick and Miles Evans and Billy Kolinske both finished 17th.

"It was definitely a little weird overall," said Trevor Crabb, who failed to make it out of the qualifier, on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. "Me and [Sean Rosenthal] pretty much decided we won't practice together before we left for the trip because I went back to Hawaii for the offseason and pre-season for six weeks, doing some training there, and I'm not exactly sure how much training he was doing. It was so early in the year, it's the end of off-season and beginning of pre-season, and it affected us for sure." 

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In a frenetic span of 120 days, Kelly Claes was able to accomplish what the vast majority of the beach volleyball world would be satisfied with in a career. 

She won a national championship with USC, which was preceded by the USAV Collegiate Beach Championships. She stunned 2016 Olympic gold medalists Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst to claim a bronze medal in the World Series of Beach Volleyball. She won an AVP during the season finale in Chicago, which came with the added bonus of boosted prize money, money she was alas able to accept. She even won a NORCECA qualifier – playing defense with Lauren Fendrick.

And Claes isn’t done yet. Not even close.

 “I want to be the best blocker in the world,” she says repeatedly throughout the podcast.

She’s not far off, despite playing professionally for less than one full season (she had to skip the AVP’s opener in Huntington Beach). While her and partner Sara Hughes, the FIVB Rookie of the Year, finished the collegiate season No. 1 in the country and national champs for the fourth straight season, they also finished No. 16 internationally and sixth on the AVP.

 On the podcast, Claes discusses her remarkable partnership with Hughes, which includes a record 103-match winning streak, and what she learned by playing with Fendrick and AVP MVP April Ross in an FIVB in China.

“You can only learn so much from one person,” she says. “I feel like reaching into another hat is always helpful. I feel like I learned from both of them and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. It was a really cool experience.”

With a little less than three months to go before the opening event of the 2018 season, in The Hague, Claes and Hughes are back on the sand. Claes discusses what her training looks like, what events she’s looking forward to in the 2018 season, her aspirations both immediate and long term, and how she plans on developing into the best blocker in the world.

Where you can find Claes:

Twitter: @kellyclaes3

Instagram: Kellyclaes3

Facebook: Kelly Claes

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