Sara Hughes

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Phil Dalhausser named beach volleyball’s most outstanding player

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Phil Dalhausser earned beach volleyball’s top international honor, the World Tour’s Most Outstanding Player, for the fourth time and the first time since 2014.

Dalhausser, a 2008 Olympic champion, and partner Nick Lucena won three tournaments this season, including the World Tour Finals. At the 2016 Olympics, the duo lost to eventual gold medalists Alison Cerutti and Bruno Schmidt of Brazil in the quarterfinals.

Dalhausser was also named the Best Blocker for the seventh time and the Best Offensive Player for the fifth time. He has won more post-season awards, 30, than any other player.

Fellow American John Hyden was named the Most Inspirational Player. The 44-year-old, a two-time Olympian in indoor, finished top-five in four of his six international tournaments in 2017 with Ryan Doherty.

On the women’s side, Germany’s Laura Ludwig was named the Most Outstanding Player for the second consecutive season. Ludwig and partner Kira Walkenhorst swept the year’s two biggest tournaments: the world beach volleyball championships and World Tour Finals. They also won the two most prestigious tournaments of 2016: the Rio Olympics and World Tour Finals.

Ludwig was also named the Best Defensive Player, Sportswoman of the Year and Most Inspirational Player.

American April Ross was voted the Best Server for the fifth time and the third consecutive season.

Ross, a two-time Olympic medalist, has said she will reevaluate her partnership with Lauren Fendrick at the end of this season.

22-year-old Sara Hughes, won two national championships with Kelly Claes at USC, was honored as the Rookie of the Year.

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MORE: The beach volleyball player who turned down Kerri Walsh Jennings

The beach volleyball player who turned down Kerri Walsh Jennings

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VIENNA — A fan holding a large beer gestured to Sara Hughes with his free hand as he watched the world beach volleyball championships.

“That’s her,” the fan was overheard saying. “She’s the one who turned down Kerri Walsh Jennings.”

Word has gotten out that Hughes had the opportunity to partner with Walsh Jennings, a three-time Olympic champion, but instead chose to continue with collegiate partner Kelly Claes.

Claes and Hughes met as teenagers at a beach volleyball camp. Hughes, who had played since age 8, approached Claes, who was new to the sand, about a partnership.

“The chemistry was there just like that,” Claes said, snapping her fingers.

When it came time to pick a college, Claes initially committed to Long Beach State for indoor volleyball. But Hughes convinced her to instead play beach volleyball at USC.

They won two national championships as a pair at USC, where Claes, a redhead, and Hughes, a blonde, were nicknamed “Cardinal and Gold” after the school’s official colors. They graduated in May, with Hughes delivering the student-athlete graduation speech (VIDEO).

They describe themselves as “goofballs,” and often turned USC practices into dance parties by blasting their music at full volume over the loudspeakers.

“There are a million funny stories about these two dancing queens,” USC coach Anna Collier said. “I think the humor that they share together helps keep their relationship both on and off the court very solid.”

During their senior season, Hughes was contacted several times by Walsh Jennings, who split with Olympic bronze medal teammate April Ross in April. Walsh Jennings even flew to Alabama to watch Hughes compete at the NCAA championships, and told ESPN.com “all I wanted to do was play with [Hughes].”

But Hughes was not ready to respond to Walsh Jennings.

“I was honest and told her I couldn’t give her an answer right in the middle of the season with my team,” Hughes said.

Hughes was open with Claes about her conversations with Walsh Jennings.

“It’s really cool that my partner got asked by Kerri Walsh Jennings, and she decided to stay with me,” Claes said. “That just shows how much Sara believes in us.”

Walsh Jennings ultimately partnered with Nicole Branagh, but is sidelined after dislocating her five-times surgically repaired right shoulder in a match in July.

It has been a whirlwind couple of months for Claes and Hughes. Immediately after the NCAA Championships, they flew to Rio for an international tournament. Their best international result in their first full season on the FIVB World Tour was a quarterfinal in Porec, Croatia, a month ago.

They are now the top-ranked U.S. team as worlds get under way in the Austrian capital (broadcast schedule here).

“It’s a dream come true to be here,” Claes said. “We thought we would be watching this at home.”

They are enjoying life as professionals. In Vienna, they took a break from training to practice line dancing, and they plan on visiting the Prater, a public park believed to be home to the oldest amusement park in the world.

But they are all business on the sand.

“We want to show everyone that we are a force to be reckoned with,” Hughes said. “We aren’t these college girls that came out to just to have fun and play. We are here to win and be the best team.”

Partner changes are common in beach volleyball. Of the four teams that represented the U.S. at the Rio Olympics, just one is still playing together.

Even their collegiate coach believes they could benefit from a break.

“I think in some ways, after having played together for this many years, that Sara and Kelly might be nearing a ceiling in terms of their growth as a pair,” Collier said. “I think continued growth is important, and if they were to take some time apart, that when they come back together, they would have a new ceiling to reach for.”

Beijing Olympic champion Phil Dalhausser was in a similar position early in his career. In 2005, he turned down 2000 Olympic champion Dain Blanton to continue playing with childhood friend Nick Lucena. The next year, when Dalhausser was approached by another veteran in Todd Rogers, he put his emotions aside and split with Lucena. Dalhausser and Lucena reunited in 2015 and made the Rio Olympic quarterfinals.

If asked, Dalhausser would have advised Hughes to partner with Walsh Jennings and Claes to partner with Ross.

“I try to tell young players to think of themselves as a business,” Dalhausser said. “Sara would have learned so much from Kerri, and Kelly would have learned so much from April, and they would have made money right off the bat.”

But Claes, 21, and Hughes, 22, insist that they will stay together through the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“I believe in this [partnership] 100 percent,” said Claes, who wears a “Tokyo 2020” necklace that she has not removed in two years. “I believe we can make it to Tokyo. I believe we can take gold. I want to do all that, and I want to go through this process with [Hughes] because I love her and I know we’ve got what it takes.”

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Kerri Walsh Jennings’ first choice for new partner said no

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Kerri Walsh Jennings may be the greatest beach volleyball player of all time, but she was reportedly turned down by her top choice for a new partner after splitting from April Ross.

Walsh Jennings had her eye on promising 22-year-old Sara Hughes after a four-year partnership with Ross ended in May.

“All I wanted to do was play with [Hughes],” Walsh Jennings said recently, according to ESPN.com.

Walsh Jennings reached out multiple times, but Hughes turned her down, according to the report.

Hughes, arguably the most promising U.S. beach prospect since Walsh Jennings in the early 2000s, chose to continue her budding partnership with former University of Southern California teammate Kelly Claes.

Hughes and Claes, while still at USC, were the only pair to take a set off Walsh Jennings and Ross in 2016 AVP play, losing in three sets a month and a half before Rio.

Hughes and Claes had scant international experience at the time and thus did not make the Rio Olympic team.

But this season, they have made two FIVB World Tour event quarterfinals after being part of a fourth straight NCAA title-winning team at USC. They’re one of the top U.S. pairs heading into the world championships in three weeks.

After Hughes declined, Walsh Jennings found her new partner later in May in Nicole Branagh, a 2008 Olympian and 38-year-old mother of two. Walsh Jennings, also 38, has three kids.

Walsh Jennings and Branagh lost their first three matches together before reaching the round of 16 in Gstaad, Switzerland, last week. (Walsh Jennings lost four straight overall dating to her last match with Ross, marking the longest losing streak in her 16-year career)

Walsh Jennings has repeated that she and Branagh will decide after this season whether they will continue playing together.

However, they both said they hope to play together through the Tokyo Olympics, according to ESPN, which also reported that Walsh Jennings may have retired after Rio had she and Ross won gold instead of bronze.

Come Tokyo 2020, Walsh Jennings and Branagh will both be older than any previous Olympic men’s or women’s indoor or beach volleyball player, according to Olympic historians.

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MORE: April Ross discusses playing without Kerri Walsh Jennings