HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. — Nearly 20 years ago, this is where it all began for Sara Hughes. This is the beach that became the foundation of the rest of her life, begetting the vision that would shape every step taken since.
“I remember holding the volleyball after the tryout thinking ‘This is the best sport in the world. This is what I want to do.’ Eight years old,” Hughes recalled months ago on SANDCAST. “I remember the exact spot I was: North side of the pier, Huntington Beach. Ever since that day, there was no doubt in my mind.”
Isn’t it awfully fitting, then, a delicious storyline, for the next, most anticipated chapter of Hughes’ career to begin where this entire storybook did in the first place? This weekend, for the final AVP Tour Series of this winding 2022 season, Hughes will be back in Huntington Beach. No longer an 8-year-old tot picking up a beach volleyball for the first time, she’s now a 27-year-old woman, an AVP champion, an Olympic hopeful and a bona fide favorite to qualify for the Paris Games in 2024. She’ll be debuting an old but new partnership with Kelly Cheng, and Huntington will provide the first glimpse at the team that will likely go down as the best pairing in NCAA beach volleyball history, a team that has far bigger designs as professionals.
It’s the perfect tune-up, so to speak. There is positively zero pressure on Cheng and Sara Hughes. They enter as the 1 seed, in a field that features mostly up-and-coming talents: Allie Wheeler and Deahna Kraft, Molly Turner and Kaitlyn Malaney, Hailey Harward and Kelly Reeves, Katie Dickens and Carly Sjkodt, Jessica Gaffney and Savvy Simo, Brook Bauer and Katie Horton, among others. They’ll have the freedom to experiment, to try numerous different offensive and defensive tricks and tactics, to feel each other out. It’s only been, oh, more than four years since they’ve stepped on the court together.
There will be much to iron out this weekend, which precedes back-to-back Volleyball World events in Torquay, Australia, where they will make their international debuts prior to the onset of Olympic qualifying, which will begin with the first event of the 2023 season. And, of course, it will be fun. Huntington is the home beach, so to speak, of both Cheng and Hughes. Both were raised in Orange County. Both have deep roots here.
Both will be beginning this new season of life where it all began.
As will the most notable team on the men’s side: Taylor Sander and Taylor Crabb. Huntington Beach is where Sander cut his teeth on the beach, where he developed the skill-set that Crabb took note of and shelved for a later time, when Sander either finished, or needed a break from, his indoor career.
“He was the best beach player of our group,” Crabb said on SANDCAST in August. “He was winning all the AAU tournaments, all the CBVAs, but it’s still different to come back after how many years and play at this level. But he’s doing it very well.”
Sander and Crabb’s four AVP finals tied for the most of any team this season, a run that was capped with their first win at the Phoenix Gold Series Championships. Huntington Beach will mark the final tournament for the pair this season, as Crabb will be competing with Phil Dalhausser in the concluding event in Central Florida in early December. Similar to the women, the top seed for the men is far and away the favorite, although, similar to the women, there are a number of notable teams and contenders.
Evan Cory and Paul Lotman are competing for the first time — they are also signed up to play in Central Florida — as are Bill Kolinske and Silila Tucker, and Ed Ratledge and Serbian defender DJ Klasnic. Sticking together are a cadre of moderately successful AVP teams in Tim Brewster and Kyle Friend (three Tour Series semifinals made), Jake Dietrich and Hagen Smith (third in AVP Chicago), Avery Drost and Chase Frishman (finalists at the Virginia Beach Tour Series), Piotr Marciniak and Tim Bomgren (winners of Virginia Beach), Cody Caldwell and David Lee (winners of the Atlantic City Tour Series), Seain Cook and Logan Webber (winners of the Panama City AVP Next), myself and JM Plummer (third in Virginia Beach), and Raffe Paulis and Brian Miller (seventh in Manhattan Beach), among others.
The qualifier for the Huntington Beach Tour Series will take place on Friday, with the main draw on Saturday and Sunday.