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They spent about eight years as sand volleyball partners on the beaches of California, and the world.

Now Justine Wong-Orantes and Sara Hughes will probably be opponents in a college sand volleyball match Thursday, with Wong-Orantes playing for Nebraska and Hughes for Southern California.

Nebraska’s second sand volleyball season will begin in Honolulu with matches against USC and Hawaii.

Nebraska will play about 10 matches during a 10-day trip to Hawaii and Arizona over spring break. College sand volleyball is growing each year, but probably won’t be an official NCAA sport for a few more years.

The Huskers are ranked No. 7 in the AVCA national sand poll. Nebraska may not have as strong a No. 1 team as it did last season with experienced beach players Kelsey Robinson and Alexa Strange, but NU coaches believe the team could be better overall with more experienced players now in the third through fifth spots. The Huskers had a 6-3 record last season.

Wong-Orantes was the starting libero for the Huskers’ indoor team as a freshman last fall, and will probably be on the No. 1 pair for most of the sand season.

Hughes only plays sand volleyball at USC, which is one of the few schools to offer scholarships for players to only play sand volleyball. USC is ranked second in the sand volleyball poll. Strange transferred from Nebraska to play just sand volleyball at USC, and has played on the No. 2 pair this season for the Trojans.

Omaha native Lauren Sieckmann is also on the 18-player USC roster. She began her college career at Nebraska, and has since made stops at Wayne State and with the Pepperdine sand team.

Hughes has been on the Trojans’ No. 1 team this season, and Wong-Orantes asked the NU coaches if she could play against Hughes. Wong-Orantes will probably be paired with freshman Melanie Keil on Thursday against USC, but has also played with Amber Rolfzen in training matches. The top two Nebraska pairs could change multiple times this season.

Wong-Orantes and Hughes both grew up in California, and began playing with each other when they were about 8 years old. Wong-Orantes started playing indoor volleyball first because her parents were coaches, but was playing sand volleyball with Hughes not long after that.

“We met through friends and got together and played in a tournament,” Wong-Orantes said. “We got third in our first tournament together, and ever since then we’ve been partners and inseparable.”

In 2011, Hughes and Wong-Orantes won the AAU Junior National Beach Championship, and were ninth at the FIVB Youth World Championship in Croatia. In 2012, Wong-Orantes and Hughes finished ninth at the FIVB Youth World Championship.

It’s been about two years since they played in a tournament together, but Wong-Orantes and Hughes played for fun a few months ago, and talked earlier this week.

“It will be different, because I’ve never played against her. I’ve always been on the same side of the net as her,” Wong-Orantes said. “It will be fun, and maybe a little trash talking.”

Amber Rolfzen has played with both Wong-Orantes and Amber's twin sister, Kadie, during training. She doesn’t like playing against Wong-Orantes.

“Justine is amazing. Literally everything is dug,” Amber Rolfzen said. “The other team has such a hard time getting a ball down. Kadie and I played her last weekend, and I was like, ‘Justine, stop digging all of my balls.’ She knows the game very well, and will teach her partner what they need to do.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7435 or bwagner@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSSportsWagner.

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Sports reporter

Brent has worked at the Journal Star for 14 years. His beats include Nebraska volleyball, women's basketball and high school soccer and cross country.

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