By Travis Mewhirter | May 13, 2017, 7:51 p.m. (ET)
Sara Hughes (L) and Kelly Claes celebrate at the USA Volleyball Collegiate Beach Championships on May 13, 2017 in Hermosa Beach, Calif.

 

HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. – Perhaps Kelly Claes and Sara Hughes have a flair for the theatrics.

Perhaps it’s merely a coincidence that whenever USC’s dominant beach volleyball duo appears on national TV, it happens to become one of the exceptionally rare occasions that they are forced to play all three sets.

On Saturday in Hermosa Beach for the USA Volleyball Collegiate Beach Championships, a part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Comcast, Claes and Hughes needed all three sets in defeating teammates and good friends Nicolette Martin and Terese Cannon, 19-21, 21-13, 15-11.

“Kelly likes to start slow,” said Lucas Yoder, a fellow Trojan and the winner of the men’s side, paired with UC Irvine’s Michael Saeta. “But she always turns it on.”

In front of a packed stadium — and a nationally televised audience live on NBC Sports Network — Claes and Hughes turned it on again, adding another gold medal to a glimmering career that includes consecutive Pac-12 and NCAA titles.

“You gotta have a little fun, right?” said Claes, who, it seems, never fails to have a little fun.

And, really, how could the final day of an illustrious collegiate career not be a little fun? And the fun at USC is not limited to Claes and Hughes.

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The last three weeks have been one momentous event after another for the Trojans, beginning with the Pac-12 Championships. USC won the team title, and Claes and Hughes took the pairs crown, beating teammates Allie Wheeler and Sophie Bukovec in the process.

The next weekend marked the NCAA championship, in which the team title came down to Martin and Cannon, and Cannon’s sharp cut shot locked in USC as the defending champions.

Then came Thursday, graduation day, in which Hughes and Claes tossed their caps, but not before Hughes delivered a commencement speech.

All of that preceded the USA Volleyball Collegiate Beach Championships, and it would have been easy for Hughes and Claes to maybe ease up, to let one slip past — which they almost did. In the semifinals, against Pepperdine’s Corinne Quiggle and Brittany Howard, they dropped the first set before rallying to win, and then they did the same in the final.

“So much fun,” Hughes said. “We love competing against our own teammates. We know them so well and they know us so well.”

That much was evident as Martin and Cannon played near-flawless volleyball, minimizing errors, taking advantage of what few mistakes Claes and Hughes offered, pushing their teammates as far as they could, in their final opportunity to do so.

This is only the second year in which women’s beach volleyball has been sanctioned as an NCAA sport, a distinction that could lead to future U.S. Olympians in beach volleyball who played on the beach collegiately. To this point all of the U.S. Olympians have had to transition over from indoor volleyball.

Claes and Hughes are eager to start that trend. And they’re wasting little time getting started on their professional careers.

On Sunday they’ll be in the air, on a flight to Rio de Janeiro, representing not the University of Southern California, but the United States of America, in their first event as pro athletes.

Heavier stakes, sure.

Same mindset.

Lucas Yoder (L) and Michael Saeta celebrate at the USA Volleyball Collegiate Beach Championships on May 13, 2017 in Hermosa Beach, Calif.

“No matter what,” Hughes said. “If it’s USC or USA, we’re going to play the best volleyball we can.”

On the men’s side, Saeta and Yoder’s journey officially began three days ago, and yet, it really began months ago, on Feb. 3.

USC vs. UC Irvine.

Or, in reality, Michael Saeta vs. Lucas Yoder.

“He was going off, so I had to do something,” Saeta, a setter and opposite hitter for UC Irvine, said of the Anteaters’ 42-40 second-set marathon against USC last February, in which Saeta finished with 21 kills and Yoder, an outside hitter for USC, had 29.

“We saw each other after and said, ‘We should play some beach,’” Saeta recalled.

Three months later, they did for the Collegiate Beach Championships. And without a single practice, they won, beating UCLA’s Hagen Smith and Jackson Bantle, 21-10, 21-13.

“We just played a simple game,” said Yoder, who finished with five kills, three aces and a block. “We matched up well against them.”

Indeed. Yoder and Saeta both stand 6-foot-5, while Smith, the son of the legendary Sinjin Smith, and Bantle, are both generously listed at 6-foot-1. The mismatch showed, namely in the errors column, in which Smith and Bantle made 19 in the match.

“They couldn’t get in a rhythm,” Yoder said.

The win earns Saeta and Yoder a spot on the USA Volleyball collegiate beach national team. While they’re not sure what, exactly, that entails for the remainder of the summer, they know this: It was nice for men’s beach volleyball, which is not an NCAA-recognized varsity sport, to alas have a platform.

“It was a really cool tournament for us,” Saeta said. “We didn’t expect it, necessarily. The venue is awesome, NBC (which televised highlights of the men’s final on NBCSN) was awesome, and it was just really cool.”

Travis Mewhirter is a sportswriter based out of Southern California. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.