Misty May-Treanor is retired, and Kerri Walsh Jennings will be 41 by the time the next Summer Olympics arrives in 2018.
That Californian duo won beach volleyball gold in 2004, 2008 and 2012, becoming international sensations. Walsh Jennings partnered with April Ross in 2016, and they earned a bronze as host Brazil won gold, ending the USA stranglehold on the top step of the podium.
Now, two years later, American fans are searching for the next Misty and Kerri, and Southern Cal coach Anna Collier believes there is such a duo competing this week at the Beach Volleyball Majors Series in Fort Lauderdale.
Meet former USC Trojans Sara Hughes, 23, and Kelly Claes, 22, who are California natives just like their heroes, May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings.
“In my opinion, [Hughes and Claes] are the next big things in beach volleyball,” said Collier, who has coached Olympians such as Holly McPeak, Nancy Reno, Annette Davis and Jenny Johnson.
“Sara and Kelly could be the golden girls in the next Olympics.”
Claes, a 6-1 blocker, and Hughes, a 5-11 defender, turned pro last summer after leading USC to its third consecutive national title in beach volleyball.
On Sept. 3, they became the youngest duo ever to win an AVP tournament, claiming a $22,000-first-place prize and the season-ending tour championship in Chicago.
They beat two ex-Olympians, Ross and Lauren Fendrick, in the semifinals … not that Hughes and Claes were at all intimidated.
“We don’t go out there and say, ‘Oh, we’re playing an Olympian,’” Claes said. “We’re trying to crush whoever is out there.”
Hughes, named the FIVB Rookie of the Year, and Claes put together eight top-10 finishes last year between the AVP and FIVB tours, including winning bronze at the prestigious Manhattan Beach event.
On Wednesday in Fort Lauderdale, they advanced to the round of 16, beating a team from Spain (Liliana Fernandez Steiner and Elsa Baquerizo McMillan, 19-21, 26-24, 15-13) and a duo from Sweden (Tanja Huberli and Nina Betschart, 21-16, 21-11).
If all goes well for Hughes and Claes, they will advance to Saturday’s 4 p.m. final, which will be broadcast by ABC.
The Hughes-Claes partnership is eight years in the making. Hughes (Mater Dei) and Claes (El Dorado) went to different high schools in Orange County but met as prep sophomores while competing for a Team USA Under-19.
Jon Aharoni, who coached that team, suggested to Hughes that she pair with Claes.
“He said, ‘Go check out this redhead,” said Hughes, referring to Claes.
Claes, meanwhile, referred to Hughes as “this little blonde girl.”
Hair color aside, it has been a perfect match. The first time they played together, they won a bronze medal at a major U-19 international event in Portugal.
At that point, Hughes was committed to USC, and Claes had given her vow to attend Long Beach State. But when they got back from Europe, Hughes called Collier, raving about Claes.
Collier didn’t have Claes on her radar at the time, but that soon changed once Hughes took charge of the recruitment.
“She forced me to go to USC,” Claes said with a laugh.
“Not true,” Hughes said. “But if she hadn’t gone to USC, you never know what would’ve happened.”
As it turned out, they went 147-4 as a duo at USC, setting an NCAA record with a 103-match win streak. They were selected the 2017 Los Angeles Sportswomen of the Year, an award previously won by Allyson Felix (track); Candace Parker (basketball) and Walsh Jennings.
Hughes and Claes have already played pro tournaments in Switzerland, Austria, Russia and Croatia.
This summer, they will add Germany to their itinerary, and Collier believes they will go far — literally and figuratively.
“They are extremely athletic and highly skilled,” Collier said. “They train hard, have a great knowledge of the game and tremendous chemistry with each other.
“Kelly can be a mad person at the net, and Sara is one of the fastest and smartest defenders. She seems to know where the ball is going before the hitter knows.
“And the last component is that they can both side out. Who are you going to serve? You can serve Kelly and have her hit straight downhill. Or you can serve Sara put your track shoes on.”
If you go
▪ What: Beach Volleyball Majors Series.
▪ Where: Fort Lauderdale Beach Park.
▪ When: Through Sunday; women’s final 4 p.m. Saturday; men’s final 1 p.m. Sunday.
▪ Cost: General admission is free; Special VIP packages can be bought at beachmajorseries.com