Fresh off of an undefeated run in 2015 that culminated with the program’s first-ever AVCA National Championship, the No. 1-ranked beach volleyball team will be in a prime position to repeat its success and win it all once again in 2016.
The upcoming season will mark the first year of beach volleyball being recognized as an official NCAA sport, in addition to becoming the first ever season of Pac-12 beach volleyball. After going 28-0 in 2015 and claiming the school’s 123rd national team title, the Women of Troy have been ranked preseason No. 1 by multiple media outlets, including the AVCA National Poll and by DiG Magazine.
While the early expectations may loom large for the Women of Troy, fifth-year head coach Anna Collier will return some firepower in 10 letterwinners from last year’s squad. USC boasts a good mix of experience and fresh faces in their line up with the top three pairs being made up of upperclassmen — five of whom are juniors — while the four and five pairs consist of a freshman, a sophomore and two former transfers.
“Interestingly enough, I actually think we have an even tighter-knit group than last year, and we’re also pretty deep,” Collier said. “I really think we’ve got the correct pairs playing together and ultimately in the correct order.”
Among the returning players are junior All-Americans and reigning AVCA Pairs National Champions Kelly Claes and Sara Hughes. In just their first season playing together collegiately, USC’s No. 1 duo went an impressive 44-3 overall in 2015 en route to becoming the third USC pair in a row to claim the pairs title.
Now, the two will look to cement themselves as the best beach duo in the nation and make another big run together this season as the Women of Troy’s indisputable on-court leaders.
Also returning will be the experienced pair of senior Alexa Strange and junior Sophie Bukovec. Last season, both were named AVCA All-Americans for the first time in their careers after going 33-10 overall at USC’s No. 2 position and will provide key leadership and stability in 2016. Juniors Nicolette Martin and Allie Wheeler, who went 31-5 together at the four spot in 2015, move up one flight to stand at the No. 3 position this year, while sophomore Jenna Belton and freshman Abril Bustamante will suit up together in their place at No. 4. Rounding out the pairs will be sophomore Jo Kremer and graduate student Zoe Nightingale, debuting at the No. 5 position.
With one AVCA national championship already under their belts, team captains Bukovec and Hughes are hoping their team can leave an imprint on this the inaugural season of NCAA beach volleyball.
“Our main goal is ultimately to win the first ever NCAA National Championship, because this is the first official year as an NCAA sport,” Hughes said. “That’s really what our team is striving for.”
However, the team knows that the road to the championship in Gulf Shores, Alabama, won’t be easy.
“I think that because we are ranked No. 1, we have a pretty big target on our back,” Hughes said. “It’s going to be about us taking things one point at a time and one match at a time. Then, we’ll get to that ultimate goal of winning the national championship, which I really think we can achieve.”
Bukovec also noted that the early pressures of being the No. 1-ranked team in the nation will be a challenge that the Women of Troy are up for.
“Expectation goes hand in hand with pressure, and that’s something I think our team is really good at handling,” Bukovec said. “We’re just going to come out and use it as fuel for each and every match.”
Collier was more frank in describing what her team needs to do in order to repeat as national champions.
“Honestly, I think we’re going to have to play better than we did last year,” Collier said. “Everybody wants to win the first NCAA Championship, so everything is elevated. Every team that lines up on the opposite side of the net will play their best match against us, so we need to make sure that we not only know that, but also know that we’re still going to win in the end.”
In addition to the star-studded roster, USC boasts an impressive coaching lineup as well. Collier herself is a former three-sport athlete and All-American at USC and has coached women’s beach volleyball teams in a pair of Olympics. Named AVCA National Coach of the Year in 2014, Collier has compiled a 74-15 record as USC’s first and only head coach. Also returning to the sidelines as volunteer assistant is former gold medalist and two-time beach volleyball Olympian Dain Blanton, while Ali Lamberson comes to Troy in her first year as assistant coach. Lamberson, formerly a volunteer assistant at Tulane, brings 25 years of experience as a player, coach and administrator and has worked with Collier for more than 20 years.
With all of these factors put together, Collier thinks she has the recipe for success.
“I’m expecting us to come out and play some good, solid, elite volleyball, which I always call ‘USC volleyball’ because it’s true — we are elite,” Collier said. “So, I think if we can just play USC volleyball, we’re going to be fine.”
USC will begin their quest to win the first-ever NCAA Beach Volleyball Championship this weekend in Malibu for the Pepperdine Kick Off. The Women of Troy will face off against four of the nation’s top six ranked teams in this tournament, starting with No. 3-ranked Hawaii on Saturday at 10:15 a.m., followed by a match against host and No. 2-ranked Pepperdine at 12:45 p.m.