She started as an 8-year-old Manhattan Beach Open volunteer with a dream and passion for beach volleyball. On Sunday, Sara Hughes left the iconic tournament as champion.
Hughes and partner Kelley Kolinske won their first Manhattan Beach Open championship on Sunday, defeating Kelly Cheng and Betsi Flint in straight sets to earn a spot at the iconic Manhattan Beach Pier.
The tournament known as the “Wimbledon of beach volleyball” is the crown jewel of the national circuit. The event that honors the winners by engraving their names on bronze plaques displayed on the pier fueled Hughes’s first obsession with the sport when her mother hired her to help nearly 20 years ago. One of the first athletes to focus solely on beach volleyball in college, Hughes’ career blossomed at USC with three national team titles and two national pairs championships. On Sunday, he took it to an even higher level with family and friends filling the stands with matching red shirts with “Sara’s Squad” on the back.
“I’ve been beachgoing since I was 8 years old and loved every moment,” said Hughes, a native of Costa Mesa. “Winning this with Kelley is unbelievable.”
The first-time champions were joined by winners Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb, who won their second straight Manhattan Beach Open title along with a 21-17, 21-14 victory over Theo Brunner and Chaim Schalk.
Crabb, who defeated his younger brother Taylor in the semifinals on Sunday, is the first man to win three in a row at the Manhattan Beach Open since seven-time champion Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers, who tricamped from 2006 to 2008. Crabb won in 2019 with Reid Priddy.
“I’m coming after you, Phil,” Crabb said during an on-court interview after the game.
After Schalk’s match point serve went out of bounds, Bourne, Crabb and their coach embraced. Bourne jumped onto a sponsorship sign on the side of the court, splashing sand in his face. The pressure of defending a championship floated away.
“It’s a psychological battle, but this is sport. That’s what we got,” Bourne said. “We have achieved this challenge and we have moved on to the challenge.”
In a sport where partnerships change as quickly as the ocean breeze, the pairing of Bourne and Crabb endures. Hawaii natives and childhood friends joined forces in 2019, trusting in their shared passion and history. On the other hand, the women’s final featured two pairs that debuted in January.
Hughes and Kolinske took down Sarah Sponcil and Terese Cannon in Sunday’s semifinals. Kolinske’s husband put up signs all over the condo this week that read “Kolinskes are heading to the pier, champions of the Manhattan Beach Open.” She slammed a sign on her way out the door Sunday morning.
“Manhattan Beach is a beach volleyball mecca,” said Kolinske. “It’s the most iconic, it’s the most historic tournament, so having your name on the pier, stamped there forever, is very special and to do it where we both live, in our hometown, with all our families and our friends here was so special. incredible.”
Hughes and Kolinske finished the match with five straight points, completing a 10-13 comeback to earn their spot on the famous pier with a 21-18, 11-21, 15-13 win. Kolinske tied the third set at 13-13 with an ace.
Flint and Cheng entered the final on an 11-game winning streak that included a title at the Elite 16 Beach Volleyball World Tournament in Hamburg, Germany last week. Kolinske knew he had to serve aggressively at the critical point. When the ball hit the top of the net, the rhythm of the serve helped it dribble smoothly over the tape and down by a point.
“I got lucky with that,” former All-American Pepperdine said with a smile.
The lucky move didn’t detract from the celebration when Hughes knocked Kolinske to the sand after Flint’s match point attack floated out of bounds. Hughes raised his arms to the crowd. She and Kolinske sprayed each other with beer. They posed with the signs that will soon bear their names.
Post Malone’s “Congratulations” blared over the speakers, serenading Hughes with a phrase that befitted the fulfillment of a childhood dream.
“I’ve dreamed of everything since I was young.”
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.