NCAA beach volleyball pioneers Kelly Claes and Sara Hughes look to finish what they started

Courtesy John McGillen/USC

Kelly Claes, left, and Sara Hughes are looking to close their careers at USC with back-to-back NCAA beach volleyball titles.

Somewhere in the sands of time, Kelly Claes and Sara Hughes might find themselves atop an Olympic podium -- anthem playing, flag waving, crowd cheering, parents crying.

But for now, the USC seniors, who just capped off finals week, want to enjoy their final weekend as college athletes. It makes sense, considering they've helped build a foundation for beach volleyball at the NCAA level as two of its biggest stars.

"Without them, I don't know if beach volleyball at the college level would be on the map hardly at all," Trojans coach Anna Collier said. "Once you get that kind of a team that actually could, perhaps, be Olympians, everyone pays attention."

Win after win didn't hurt. Timing was on their side, too. Claes and Hughes, native Californians, have been the nation's top duo during beach volleyball's first two years under NCAA status. Since the sport's addition to the NCAA program in 2016, they've gone 70-1. They head to this weekend's NCAA beach volleyball championship looking to lead USC (34-1) to back-to-back national titles.

"I'm just so happy to be one of those people to help pioneer it a little bit to get it moving," Hughes said. "I want to believe it's going to be one of the biggest sports in collegiate history. It's growing like crazy."

It's even commonplace to see USC athletic director Lynn Swann barefoot in the sand at matches.

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USA Volleyball was first to pair Claes (6-foot-2) and Hughes (5-10) as 16-years-olds. Soon after, Collier took notice. It all came naturally on the court.

"Right off the bat, it was just easy to play together," Claes said. "There was chemistry there already. It felt right. ... It worked really well, so we just rolled with it."

They complemented each other, too. Claes, as a dominant blocker, enables Hughes to play high-level defense behind the block.

After Hughes became one of the nation's first elite recruits to opt exclusively for the beach, Collier worked to sign Claes. Her pitch was beachy keen: If you guys really want to lock down and do this, you could do this all the way.

She was right. After that, it was wins -- and lots of them. Between their sophomore and senior years, they racked up 103 consecutive match victories -- not counting international play during the summer. Learning how to dish constructive criticism to each other was another win.

Roughly three years after they started playing together, Claes sensed a nonverbal click. Opponents probably winced.

"I felt exactly where she was on the court," Claes said. "That was a really cool, surreal moment."

Claes and Hughes have helped keep USC atop the rankings. The Trojans had 62 consecutive wins until UCLA knocked them off in the Pac-12 semifinals (USC came back to win the championship match and the title) last weekend. Beyond victories, Hughes and Claes have had a substantial hand in team successes as natural leaders.

"They've matured as friends and partners and leaders and teammates," Collier said.

But they've also kept the team loose. They're known to break out water-bottle battles when the Southern California sun scorches practice. Other times, they lead their teammates in a sort of snowball fight -- but with sand clumps from their freshly watered court. It's all part of Collier's message that beach volleyball ought to be fun.

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The NCAA championships isn't the only high-pressure event on Hughes' May calendar. She will address the crowd at USC's student-athlete commencement later this month.

She called it a big honor but admitted she's "super nervous." She'll write some of her remarks between matches this weekend in Gulf Shores, Alabama.

Courtesy John McGillen/USC

Kelly Claes, left, says she can sense where Sara Hughes is on the court.

"While she has pressure to go perform on the athletic court, she says to me, 'Dad, I've got to kill that speech, too,' " Sara's dad, Rory Hughes, said.

While most recent college seniors spend time applying for internships or jobs, Claes and Hughes have other decisions to make. Although Hughes plans to be a graduate assistant for USC while completing a one-year master's program next year, there are still items on the post-grad checklist.

Instead of job interviews, Hughes and Claes have to plot out tournament schedules, decide if they want an agent and pick a coach.

"I have my job already," Claes said with a laugh.

And while both admit there are things to improve upon, comparisons to Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings bring a boost of confidence.

Still, the focus now is on Alabama and first-round opponent South Carolina. The world stage and international competition can wait.

"This last one I think is going to be especially important and special, so I'm going to give everything I possibly can to win it and bring home that victory," Hughes said.

And cement that bar, both at USC and throughout the NCAA, even higher.

"I think they'll always be remembered as being the first ones -- the pioneers, the ambassadors," Collier said. "And representing USC in the sport with the highest of dignity and skill."

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