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Hughes will seek Hong Kong tournament after National Team break

Heather Hughes enjoyed her first professional volleyball season during the first part of 2009, but after she leaves her Fallbrook home January 11 to return to USA Volleyball’s National Team, she will be focusing on making the cut for a February tournament in Hong Kong rather than planning to play professionally in 2010.

Hugh McCutcheon, who coached the United States men in the 2008 Olympic Games in China, is now the women’s national coach.

“I’ve decided not to play overseas this season,” Hughes said. “I’ll hopefully improve a lot more staying here learning his system.”

Hughes has been on the USA Volleyball National Team since 2009. In January 2008 she earned a berth on the National Training Team, whose members are groomed to replace National Team members who leave the squad. The National Team’s 2008 activities included participation in the Olympic Games when 14 players traveled to China. Hughes was one of five alternates.

The 6’2” Hughes played outside hitter, opposite hitter, and setter for Loyola Marymount University and made the National Training Team as a libero. Prior to being selected for the National Training Team in January 2008, she had been selected for the A2 youth national team, as an alternate for the junior national team, and as an alternate for the 2007 national A2 team. She has sought national team berths since she was in eighth grade and has been playing club volleyball since she was in sixth grade.

Hughes graduated from Fallbrook High School in 2004 and continued her volleyball career at Loyola Marymount University. She completed her college career as LMU’s all-time leader with 157 career aces and ranked second on the Lions’ all-time list with 1,697 kills and 1,261 digs. Her 5.00 kills per game in 2007 led West Coast Conference players.

As a college senior Hughes earned both first-team West Coast Conference honors and honorable mention recognition for the American Volleyball Coaches Association’s all-Pacific Coast team.

She was also a first-team West Coast Conference selection for her junior and sophomore seasons while earning honorable mention all-WCC honors as a freshman. As a junior she was twice selected as the WCC player of the week and was the WCC player of the month for September 2006, and in 2006 she also earned three selections to all-tournament teams, including two tournament most valuable player honors. As a sophomore she was Loyola Marymount’s female athlete of the year.

While at Fallbrook High School, Hughes earned Avocado League recognition three times and all-CIF honors twice. As a junior and senior she also earned berths on the Cal-Hi Sports all-state team.

In January 2009 Hughes made her professional volleyball debut in the Turkish league. She played for Besiktas, whose home games and practice court are in Istanbul.

“I feel very privileged to be able to go and do this and represent America and be able to play overseas,” she said.

“It was a really good season,” Hughes continued. “I loved it. I really liked playing overseas. It was a great experience.”

Playing in Turkey was also a new experience in more ways than one.

“The volleyball is completely different than American volleyball,” Hughes said. “They’re really big on hitting really hard and blocking the ball really hard.”

The American style relies more on passing and defense.

“That was definitely something to get used to,” Hughes said of the Turkish game.

Although the Besiktas coach doesn’t speak English, two Turkish players knew enough English to translate.

“It was enough to know if the coach was angry or happy,” Hughes said.

Hughes tried to pick up as much of the native language as she could.

“Turkish is a really hard language,” she said. “I learned some phrases and some words. I can get around.”

The Besiktas gymnasium has a tea and coffee brewery, which was also a new experience for Hughes.

The Turkish league has 12 teams.

“It was quite an experience learning how other teams travel,” Hughes said.

Besiktas qualified for the playoffs before losing in the first round.

“The league was a pretty competitive league,” Hughes said.

Agent David Kim contacted Hughes about playing in Turkey. Kim also arranges for players to participate on the beach volleyball tour, although Hughes will defer any beach offers until the future.

“For now I’m just sticking to indoor trying to make the next cycle of tournaments,” Hughes said.

The Turkish season ended in April, and in May Hughes returned to the national team, which now practices in Anaheim. She participated in the World Grand Prix tournament in August 2009.

Hughes is one of 15 players currently training with the National Team, which gave players time in December and early January to spend with their families. McCutcheon will likely take 12 players to Hong Kong in February.

Hughes has thoughts about playing in the 2012 Olympic Games in London, but she will focus on other tournaments first.

“I’m taking it one year at a time and trying hard not to look too far in advance,” she said.

Based on her past year, however, three years may seem shorter for her than for others.

“It seems like it has just flown by,” she said. “I can’t imagine how fast the next three years are going to go.”

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