Willie Hughes learned the game on the beach. Now he is among the best of volleyball players.

So what is he doing at George Mason University, a school known more for basketball, track and soccer?

Leading the Patriots to national ranking, No. 12 at last tally, and hoping to represent the United States in the 1983 World University Games.

Hughes, 20, of Springfield in Fairfax County, is rated as one of the most powerful hitters in the country. Volleyball Monthly named him a third-team preseason all-America.

At the 1981 National Sports Festival in Syracuse, N.Y., Hughes, a 6-foot-4 strong-side hitter, led the East team into the finals over a West team made up primarily of players from UCLA and Southern California, the two top collegiate teams.

At last year's festival in Indianapolis, Hughes again was the top hitter for the East. It won easily over the North and South, but lost to the West in round-robin play and again in the finals, despite a strong comeback led by Hughes.

"Willie is a crowd-pleaser with the force he has behind his hits," GMU Coach Wayne Stalick remarked. "The crowds really like him."

Hughes is admired by opposing coaches as well.

"There is no doubt that among college players he is one of the top players in the country," said Penn State's Tom Tait, who is to coach the U.S. men's volleyball team for the World University Games July 1-11 in Edmonton, Canada. "Willie is certainly one of the top players currently in school we will take a long, hard look at."

How does a native Virginian develop into a nationally recognized volleyball player when there is no interscholastic competition in high schools and an 18-year age minimum exists in the county recreation program? On the beach, of course.

Hughes' uncle has a summer home at Rehoboth Beach, Del., where Willie, his parents, brother John and sister Maryanne often played pickup games.

"I was 12 or 13 when I started playing on the beach," Hughes recollected. "It was just a fun thing to do."

The family was involved with indoor volleyball and played with the Washington Volleyball Club in United States Volleyball Association-sanctioned tournaments. Willie and John have competed with the George Mason team at the USVBA national championship tournaments in Austin, Tex. in 1981 and Hilo, Hawaii, in 1982. Each time GMU finished 25th of 45 men's open-division teams.

Willie Hughes played baseball and basketball at Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria. As a senior he was named the oustanding pitcher in Alexandria, most valuable player on both the baseball and basketball teams, and athlete of the year.

Why not continue in a sport in which he could possibly earn a living?

"A lot of people ask me that," said Hughes, "namely my parents. I had a good fast ball, around 90 miles per hour. Maybe I could have gone somewhere in college with the proper training. But baseball practice got to be like a job. You went out there and you hated to be there. It's never been like that with volleyball."

"Willie is a great leader by example," said Ron Shayka, George Mason assistant coach who is a 1981 Penn State graduate and captained the Nittany Lions in volleyball. "Our players look to him for an important point, sideout or block, and the guys really pick up on that. It doesn't take words."

The Patriots began the season as the 10th-ranked team in the nation. Four of the six losses in their season's first 28 contests were to third-ranked Penn State (which finished second to UCLA last season), seventh-ranked Ball State and 10th-ranked Ohio State (twice). They are second in the 22-team Eastern College Volleyball League behind Penn State.

"If we could play with consistency . . . " Hughes' voice trailed off with visions of an ECVL championship and place in the final four in the NCAAs at Ohio State, May 5-6.