Simon Golding tried to pump the breaks on the Hype Train that has been surrounding, and building with considerable alacrity, around the reformed pairing of Kelly Cheng and Sara Hughes. The lead commentator for Volleyball World attempted to explain that it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement, the anticipation, the thrill of a shiny new team, and that perhaps what the world witnessed in Torquay, Australia, this week could be, in part, the result of the honeymoon phase of a new team.
Damien Schumann, Golding’s partner on air during the final of the Challenge event on Saturday evening, between Cheng and Hughes and China’s Lvwen Yuan and Jie Dong, was having none of it.
“I’m well and truly caught up in the hype,” Schumann said, laughing.
And at this point, how could anyone not be?
They’ve played two tournaments — the AVP Tour Series in Huntington Beach, and the Volleyball World Torquay (Australia) Challenge this past weekend — since they announced their return in mid-October and have yet to drop a single set. Of the 22 sets they’ve played in those two tournaments, only one, a 23-21 quarterfinal win over Carly Wopat and Megan Rice in Huntington Beach, was decided by two points. Even with that overtime set, the average of those 22 sets? 21-12.1.
“We’re a force to be reckoned with,” Cheng said after a 21-10, 21-16 win in the gold-medal match. “We wanted to come out here and make a statement and I think we did that.”
There is no doubting that. Both Cheng and Hughes won events on the AVP and Beach Pro Tour earlier this year with their former partners, Betsi Flint and Kelley Kolinske, respectively. But never had a win been as thorough as the demolition derby they put on in Torquay, unless, of course, you include their other win together in Huntington Beach, which looked quite similar to the breathtaking dominance in Australia.
“I think the chemistry is just there between us,” Hughes said. “We’ve been working really hard this past month when we got back together and we just showed right there it was so much fun.”
For all the considerable — and well-justified — hype that will continue building on this new team, both are well aware that this Challenge was not the equivalent in difficulty to that of, say, Itapema, a Challenge Hughes won with Kolinske. Nor was the competition as stiff as that of the Hamburg Elite 16, where Cheng claimed gold with Flint. But a gold medal is still a gold medal, and the entire purpose of this late-season overseas jaunt was to provide a litmus test, a barometer to see where they stood and what they needed to iron out prior to the Olympic qualification period beginning early in 2023.
“We have a high ceiling so we’re going to keep improving every single day, every single tournament,” Hughes said.
We won’t have to wait long to see how much they can improve over the course of a few days. In just two days, Hughes and Cheng will be back on the court in Torquay, where they will be the No. 2 seed in the Volleybal World Elite 16, joined by fellow Americans Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth, and the new team of Julia Scoles and Flint.
Stockman and Kraft, who finished fourth in the Challenge, falling to China’s Xinyi Xia and Mei Mei Lin, 21-19, 14-21, 9-15, are the No. 8 seed. The Elite 16 will conclude a month-long road trip for Kraft and Stockman, who have flown up the world ranks with a fifth in the Cape Town Elite 16, ninth in the Uberlandia Elite 16, and a fourth in Torquay.
No team, however, has made the jump that Sara Hughes and Cheng have. If it was a statement Cheng was looking to make, consider it made — and heard by the world.
“A delight,” Schumann said, “to watch the resurgence of this partnership.”
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