In a highly anticipated battle between the top two teams in the nation, it was the No. 1 USC beach volleyball team who triumphed over visiting No. 2 Pepperdine on Senior Day at Merle Norman Stadium.
Already the third meeting between these two teams this season and the second time in six days, it would be another back and forth battle between the Women of Troy (20-2) and the Waves (15-3). However, it was USC which came away victorious in the form of a 4-1 victory with wins on all courts except at the four spot. While the previous six meetings between the schools would end in 3-2 final scores, this was the first time since March of 2014 that the final score was 4-1.
It was a tight race in the first set for the four and five pairs. Sophomore Jenna Belton and freshman Abril Bustamante would put up a fight against Skylar Caputo and Corinne Quiggle before falling 23-21, 21-19 on Court 4. Playing at the five spot was senior Zoe Nightingale and sophomore Jo Kremer, who were pushed to three sets against Samantha Cash and Sarah Sieber. In the deciding frame though, it was the USC pair that came out on top, with Nightingale and Kremer notching a thrilling 21-18, 22-24, 15-12 victory.
With all eyes on Court 5 in that final set, Nightingale was not going to let the win slip out of her and Kremer’s hands.
“Having lost to [Cash/Seiber] before already this season, we knew going into that third set that the game was going to be ours,” Nightingale said. “We were so ready to go and I just knew we were going to win that game.”
Courts 1, 2 and 3 would be closely contested early on as well before USC pulled away with first set wins on all three courts. At the one spot, the reigning Pac-12 Pair of the Week — juniors Kelly Claes and Sara Hughes — would notch USC’s second point of the dual with a 21-16, 21-17 win over Heidi Dyer and Taylor Racich. With the win, their dominant winning streak reached 53 matches in a row, and a perfect 28-0 mark in 2016.
Fittingly, it would be the senior Alexa Strange and her partner junior Sophie Bukovec who would clinch the victory for the Women of Troy. On Senior Day, Strange and Bukovec put up a gritty performance on Court 2 with a 21-15, 21-13 win over Kaity Bailey and Delaney Knudsen. For Strange, there was no better way to end her final regular season game at Merle Norman Stadium with a win against Pepperdine.
“It was kind of like a storybook ending for me,” Strange said. “Our teams were split 1-1 on the season, this was the tiebreaker, and to be able to go out and get the win on Senior Day — I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”
The No. 3 pair of juniors Nicolette Martin and Allie Wheeler would add the fourth and final point for USC with a three-set victory (25-23, 15-21, 15-12) over Madalyn Roh and Anika Wilson. USC has now won six of the last eight meetings against Pepperdine and improves their record to 20-2 overall with a 16-match win streak.
While the victory was sweet, it will be a quick turnaround for the Women of Troy, who will now have to board a plane early Friday morning and travel to the Lone Star state for three more dual matches on the weekend.
“We’re actually going to leave for Texas on Friday at 4:30 a.m. and then play that night,” Strange said. “For us now, the biggest thing will be to compartmentalize this victory and remember that while it is huge for us and we’re allowed to enjoy it right now, you can’t get too comfortable, so we have to put up a fight this weekend.”
USC will take part in the 2016 Cowtown Classic in Fort Worth, Texas, hosted by Texas Christian University on Friday and Saturday. The first match of the tournament will be against New Mexico (16-4) at 6 p.m. CT on Friday, followed by matches against Louisiana-Monroe (9-13) at 11 a.m. CT and host TCU (14-5) at 2 p.m. CT on Saturday.