Women take center stage at AVP San Francisco Open

University of Southern California seniors Kelly Claes and Sara Hughes placed second to the Rio-bound beach volleyball team of Kerri Walsh-Jennings and April Ross in the final round of play at the Association of Volleyball Professionals San Francisco Open on Sunday afternoon on Pier 30, falling 18-21, 15-21.

Sunday’s women’s final was a rematch of Saturday’s thrilling quarterfinal when Kelly Claes and Sarah Hughes did what no team has done in 66 matches against the Olympic tandem: win a set.

Claes and Hughes lost the following sets 21-28, 17-15.

But the two California natives didn’t mind the loss at all.

For Hughes, it’s a dream come true just to play her childhood hero Walsh-Jennings and fellow Trojan April Ross in just her team’s second AVP tournament appearance.

“Honestly, it’s like the best feeling in the world,” said Hughes. “Just going up against them is an honor for us. We talked about it in our collegiate season, we’re just like, we want to play April and Kerri. We’re winning teams on the collegiate level but what does it take to beat April and Kerri? Are we even at their level?”

Kerri-Walsh Jennings and April Ross think they are.

“They’re head and shoulders above everyone else and it’s really fun to have that challenge coming from these girls,” said Walsh-Jennings of competing against the 21- and 20-year olds. “We don’t look at anyone differently because of their age if they younger or older, they’re just competitors or athletes and we take them very seriously.”

To 24-time AVP tournament winner April Ross, their overwhelming talent is evident.

“They’re the next Olympians. They literally get better every weekend,” said Ross. “Every time we play them, they get better. Last year they weren’t the second-best team on tour, I think they’re clearly the second-best team on tour in my mind.”

Up-and-coming young players like Claes and Hughes impress titans of beach volleyball, but the veterans really love what the youth bring to a sport that didn’t have an NCAA program until 2009.

“It brings tears to my eyes to know there’s collegiate athletes out here kicking butt,” said Walsh-Jennings.

The San Jose native was also elated to have the AVP tour return to the Bay after a seven-year hiatus, in part because she wants to see more people fall in love with the sport she and her partner Ross have dedicated their lives to.

“Our goal, April and I, is to grow this sport,” said Walsh-Jennings.

She believes the Bay Area, already home to seven NCAA Division I indoor volleyball teams, has a chance to dominate in beach volleyball.

“We’ve always been a mecca of volleyball, and [April and I] want it to be a mecca of beach volleyball as well.”

The men’s main draw concluded Sunday with Olympic pairing Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson’s victory over brothers Taylor and Trevor Crabb after losing the first set 18-21, 21-15, 15-10.

The AVP tour’s next stop and last event before the Rio Olympic Games will be in Manhattan Beach on July 14 through 17.

Shannon Cole

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