Sara and Kelly are back! Notice the spelling, though, because we’re not talking about a Team Slaes comeback, and I didn’t forget that Hughes played an entire summer with Kelley Kolinske.
We’ve got a new old partnership reforming, and it’s got everyone talking. It feels like just yesterday I was writing a new partnership piece on Cheng and Betsi Flint, but one season can change everything.
Rumors were whispered at the Phoenix Championships and in the weeks after about this improbable but possible reunion, but Hughes/Cheng became official with their November 17 announcement with NBC Sports. Though both had admirable 2022 seasons with their partners, the once-best team in college opted to give their partnership a second go.
Their reinstated partnership hits different than others for a few reasons.
Hughes and Cheng (formerly Claes) hold some unbeatable college records. Sure, times were different when they were in school. There were fewer established programs and players, and Beach Volleyball became an NCAA sport halfway through their time at USC. But these girls did not lose!
After playing with different people in their first year, they joined forces in their sophomore year. As the #1 Pair, they went 44-3 their sophomore year, 48-0 in their junior year, and 55-1 in their senior year. Do the math – their overall win/loss record was 147-4. They also had a winning streak within their three years of 103 matches (96 of which were straight-set wins). That win streak is more matches than many Tier 2-4 beach volleyball players have ever played.
College ball, especially at that time, was a wholly different game. Cheng/Hughes dominated NCAA, and everyone was excited to see them go pro. But their success outside of collegiate volleyball wasn’t a guarantee. In the summers between school, Cheng/Hughes played a couple of AVPs. In 2015, they were the lowest-seeded team at the time to make a Semifinal (and they had to qualify).
The following summer, in 2016, they also played the Qualifier in their two AVP events. This time, they earned 3rd and 2nd place in their two showings. Things were looking promising for their post-university careers.
The duo graduated in 2017 and hit the AVP and World Stage full force. They were young and hungry, traveling to six FIVBs and four AVPs together. Internationally, their best finish was 5th. At home, they earned 9th, 7th, and 3rd, and won the final event in Chicago to wrap up the season. They still hold the record for youngest AVP Champs (both were 22). Everything was looking rosy for the young, dynamic duo.
That is until they broke up months later.
After two 9th-place finishes to start the 2018 FIVB season, Cheng picked up Brittany Hochevar, and Hughes partnered with Summer Ross. The volleyball community was stunned. We thought Cheng/Hughes – always referred to as a unit of Sara and Kelly – were our next Misty and Kerri. With their impressive college win streak and early AVP success, I don’t think we were wrong.
And this is one of the other reasons this reunion hits differently. The 2018 Sara and Kelly breakup was mysterious. They weren’t performing poorly. They had great on-court chemistry and valuable experience together. Of course, there are a million reasons why a team would split, and it’s only fair that they get to keep those reasons private.
That didn’t mean we weren’t all speculating. As with any beach breakup, people craft theories, one just as juicy as the next. All I can say is – this 2022 reunion of Sara Hughes and Kelley Cheng is not one I was expecting. But I am here for it.
They’re two of the best players in the world. Cheng is one of our youngest Olympians ever. She and Flint won the New Orleans AVP and made three other Finals plus three more 3rd-place finishes in 2022. Cheng’s on-two offense is deadly, sets immaculate, and fiery energy a force.
Hughes was a beach baby from the start; she’s the first player to commit solely to beach sans playing indoor. Hughes has maybe the highest beach volleyball IQ and best court vision on the AVP. She’s everywhere on defense and a high-flying, hard-hitting offender. Her name will go up on the Manhattan Beach Pier next summer (alongside a different Kelley, of course).
Hughes and Cheng have experienced success at home and abroad separately. Now, they’re looking to mine some of that once-raw potential into AVP dominance and an Olympic Run. But now, their potential isn’t raw. It’s honed and polished. Cheng/Hughes are bonafide veterans. They’ve traveled the world, won tournaments, sometimes beating the other.
Cheng’s husband, Jordan, is set to coach. Since hiring him in late 2019, Kelly has stayed loyal to his coaching style. He helped her and Sarah Sponcil reach Tokyo 2020 and coached her and Flint throughout the 2022 season.
We’ll see Hughes/Cheng play their first event in almost five years in Huntington Beach, November 12-13! Then this Thanksgiving, they head to Australia for an Elite FIVB tournament. We’re still waiting to hear the details of Olympic Qualification procedures, but you better believe Hughes/Cheng are after one of our two allotted spots. Unfortunately, their trip to Australia prevents AVP fans from seeing them live in Central Florida, but never fear. We’ll be seeing a lot of Sara & Kelly 2.0.
Stay tuned for more partner updates, Central Florida previews and premonitions, and more from the AVP!