By LOU PONSI     12/13/2023

Before being ranked as a player on the No. 1 beach volleyball tandem in the U.S., Sara Hughes attended Diocese of Orange schools and spent much of her youth playing volleyball and other sports in the Diocese’s Parochial Athletic League (PAL).

Hughes, who has an above average chance to be selected for the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team with her partners Kelly Cheng, started playing beach volleyball at age 8 and won numerous AAU and CBVA tournaments.

She spent fifth through eighth grades playing volleyball and basketball at Sts. Simon & Jude in Huntington Beach. Hughes then played indoor volleyball at Mater Dei High School where accolades included: Orange County Register’s Player of the Year, All-CIF first team and Volleyball Magazine’s High School All-American second team.

Hughes elevated her status even higher as a beach volleyball player at USC where she was a three-time NCAA champion and a four-time All-American.

A brilliant pro career followed.

Hughes and Cheng have won multiple AVP events, including the prestigious Manhattan Beach Open in 2022. The pair has also taken home multiple medals on the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB) circuit.

By June 2024, Hughes and Cheng will find out whether if they’ll be representing the United States at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, France.

As the best team in the U.S. and second best in the world, their chances are well above average.

“It’s been a really successful season for us,” Hughes said. “And peaking at the right time and winning the world championship is a dream come true. It almost doesn’t feel real, just because it’s such a huge feat and knowing after we won that it had been 14 years since the U.S. team had done so. One of those previously winning teams was my idol Misty May (Treanor).”

The victory was the first for a U.S. team since Jennifer Kessy and April Ross won the world title in 2009 and the third overall since May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings won the world title in 2003, 2005 and 2007.

Hughes has followed the paths of her older brother, Connor, and older sister, Lauren.

Both siblings played volleyball in college with Connor winning two NCAA Men’s Volleyball Championships with UC Irvine in 2012 and 2013.

Hughes credits much of her early success to the coaching and mentorship she received while in the PAL program. Hughes was part of the 2023 class of inductees into the PAL Hall of Fame.

“We had really great PE coaches,” Hughes said. “So, they always gave me every opportunity to play sports.”

One of Hughes’ influential PAL coaches was Russ Smith, who is now the director of the PAL program.

Smith recalls Hughes as being an intense competitor but always personable before and after competitions.

“It’s always fun to coach somebody who just enjoys playing sports,” Russ said. “She had a great group of friends and they all played. They enjoyed it every time out. She carried on that same way in high school.”

There was a time when Hughes was practicing and playing with Mater Dei, she would then drive to Hermosa Beach to practice on the sand the same day and practice with her club team that same night.

While on the club circuit, Hughes earned the respect of coach Dan O’Dell, the current coach at Mater Dei.


“She played with an intenseness and relentless passion but did it in a way where she had such a positive energy for those around her,” O’Dell said. “Watching her today, she’s still the same athlete out there, full of 100% effort at all times while showcasing her smile and celebrating her teammate whenever she can. She’s been a great role model for my young daughters.”

After being recruited heavily for beach and indoor volleyball, Hughes chose to play on the beach for USC.

After winning the AVCA Pairs Championship as a freshman and sophomore, Hughes and Cheng won the inaugural NCAA Beach Volleyball championship.

But there have been setbacks.

The Olympics have always been a dream for Hughes who was a clear favorite with partner Summer Ross to compete for Team USA in the 2018 games in Tokyo.

“We were at the time the number one team in the US, and we were on a good path to qualify and then my partner had a career ending back injury, that officially took me out of the Olympic race because there was not time to qualify with a new partner.”

Then COVID struck, putting Hughes career even further int limbo.

“But I just never gave up,” Hughes said. “Instead of saying, oh my career is over there’s nothing I can do, I just kept pushing and kept working hard I’d go down to the beach and practice on my own. I’d work really hard in the gym and then eventually I worked my way up and found a partner.”

Cheng and Hughes teamed up again and the former USC teammates won the Manhattan Beach Open, stayed together and went on to the No. 2 team in the world.

“I went from crying in my room with no partner to now winning a world championship,” Hughes said.

While Hughes said that her faith is something she keeps private, she did say her Catholic faith helped guide her back on her rise to prominence for a second time.

“I do have my faith and growing up in the Catholic school system and Catholic church and still maintaining that faith is really important to me,” she said. “So, I think that was a big part of knowing that it’s going to get better, and everything happens for a reason. It’s been a journey to get to this point.”