Sara Hughes realizes childhood dream, wins Manhattan Beach Open with Kelley Kolinske

She started as an eight-year-old Manhattan Beach Open volunteer with a dream and a passion for beach volleyball. On Sunday, Sara Hughes left the iconic tournament as a champion.

Hughes and partner Kelley Kolinske won their first Manhattan Beach Open championships on Sunday, defeating Kelly Cheng and Betsi Flint in three sets to earn a spot on the hallowed Manhattan Beach Pier.

The tournament known as the “Wimbledon of beach volleyball” is the crown jewel of the domestic tour. The event that memorializes winners by etching their names into bronze plaques displayed on the pier fed Hughes’ earliest obsessions with the sport when her mother signed her up to help almost 20 years ago. One of the first athletes to focus exclusively on beach volleyball in college, Hughes’ career blossomed at USC with three team national titles and two national pairs championships. On Sunday, it reached an even higher level with family and friends packing the stands in matching red shirts reading “Sara’s Squad” on the back.

“I’ve been playing beach since I was 8 years old and I’ve loved every moment of it,” said Hughes, a Costa Mesa native. “To win this with Kelley is unbelievable.”

The first-time champions were joined by repeat winners Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb, who won their second consecutive Manhattan Beach Open title together with a 21-17, 21-14 victory over Theo Brunner and Chaim Schalk.

Crabb, who defeated his younger brother Taylor in the semifinals Sunday, is the first man to win three consecutive Manhattan Beach Opens since Phil Dalhausser, a seven-time champion, and Todd Rogers three-peated from 2006-08. Crabb won in 2019 with Reid Priddy.

“I’m coming for ya, Phil,” Crabb said during an on-court interview after the match.

Tri Bourne, left, and Trevor Crabb celebrate their championship win at the AVP Manhattan Beach Open on Sunday.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

After Schalk’s serve on match point sailed out of bounds, Bourne, Crabb and their coach embraced. Bourne jumped on top of a sponsorship board on the side of the court, sprinkling sand over his face. The pressure of defending a championship floated away.

“It’s a psychological battle, but that’s sport. That’s what we earned,” Bourne said. “We’ve earned that challenge and we stepped up to the challenge.”

In a sport where partnerships shift as quickly as the ocean breeze, Bourne and Crabb’s pairing has endured. The Hawaii natives and childhood friends joined forces in 2019, relying on their shared passion and history. Conversely, the women’s final featured two pairings that debuted in January.

Hughes and Kolinske knocked off top-seded Sarah Sponcil and Terese Cannon in the semifinals Sunday. Kolinske’s husband posted signs all over their condo this week that read “Kolinskes are going on the pier, Manhattan Beach Open champions.” She slapped a sign on the way out the door Sunday morning.

“Manhattan Beach is the mecca for beach volleyball,” Kolinske said. “It’s the most iconic, it’s the most historic tournament so getting your name on the pier, stamped on there forever, is pretty special and to be doing it where we both live, in our hometown, with all our families and our friends here was awesome.”

Hughes and Kolinske finished the match with with five consecutive points, completing a comeback from down 10-13 to earn their spot on the famous pier with a 21-18, 11-21, 15-13 win. Kolinske evened the third set at 13-13 with an ace.

Flint and Cheng entered the final with an 11-match winning streak that included a title at the World Beach Volleyball Elite 16 Tournament in Hamburg, Germany last week. Kolinske knew she had to serve aggressively on the critical point. When the ball clipped the top of the net, the pace on the serve helped it dribble gently over the tape and down for a point.

Kolinske exhaled.

“I got kind of lucky on that one,” the former Pepperdine All-American said with a smile.

Kelley Kolinskke, left, and Sara Hughes celebrate their Manhattan Beach Open title.

Kelley Kolinskke, left, and Sara Hughes celebrate their Manhattan Beach Open title.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The fortunate roll didn’t damper the celebration as Hughes tackled Kolinske to the sand after Flint’s attack on match point floated out of bounds. Hughes raised her arms to the crowd. She and Kolinske sprayed beer on each other. They posed with the plaques that will soon bear their names

Post Malone’s “Congratulations” blared on the speakers, serenading Hughes with a line fitting of a childhood dream come true.

“I dreamed it all ever since I was young.”

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