Beach volleyball continues to serve streak of success

The USC beach volleyball team is no stranger to winning.

After going 34-2 overall and finishing last season on a 30-match winning streak to capture the sport’s first-ever NCAA championship title, the Trojans’ golden success on the sand has transferred over seamlessly into their 2017 campaign.

The top-ranked Trojans currently own an unblemished 25-0 record this season and have since extended their program-record win streak to a remarkable 55 consecutive matches, with wins in 87 of their last 89 duals. In fact, USC hasn’t lost a match in nearly 400 days, dating all the way back to March 11, 2016.

With a streak of that magnitude, you might expect there to be some added pressure to remain “perfect.”

For the Trojans and head coach Anna Collier, however, the focus is not on the streak, but rather on playing good, high-quality beach volleyball every time they step out on the court — a style of play that Collier simply brands as “USC volleyball.”

“We try not to focus on those winning streaks because we’ve obviously been down that road before,” Collier said. “Last season was last season, and after winning back-to-back national championships, the target is definitely on our backs. But what we’re just trying to do is play the best volleyball we can, and if we can do that, then the byproduct will be that three-peat.”

And this year’s new-look Trojans are certainly poised to make another big run in the postseason. In addition to Collier, who is the first and only collegiate beach volleyball coach to reach 100 career victories with a 133-17 overall record (.886), USC has relied on a roster filled with experienced upperclassmen to lead the way.

Perhaps the most impressive feat this year, however, has been the fact that the Trojans have maintained that success even with shuffled pairs and multiple injuries.

The current lineup is comprised of five seniors, three juniors, a sophomore and a freshman. All but one of those five pairs had played together before the start the season, though, as the No. 2, 3, 4 and 5 pairs were all newly formed this year.

And yet, with about half of the regular season completed, all four of those new pairs have already reached double-digit wins despite battling multiple injuries on each court.

The one constant for USC has been at the top court, where seniors Kelly Claes and Sara Hughes have steamrolled over their competition. The All-Americans and the winningest pair in NCAA history have played together since the beginning of the 2015 season and have since compiled a 122-4 all-time record (.968).

They also had a nice streak of their own, winning an incredible 103-consecutive matches dating back to April 2, 2015.

It’s this type of consistency and big-time play from top to bottom that has helped position the Trojans well for a chance to win their third consecutive national title this spring.

Claes acknowledged that the depth of her team and their willingness to compete and win has been a big factor to USC’s success this season.

“We all knew coming into the year that every single team would be gunning for us,” Claes said. “But that was something we all really embraced. Every team we face is going to be playing their best against us no matter what, and we’re up to that challenge and ready to prove why we’re the best team in the nation.”

In retrospect, the last four years of the collegiate beach volleyball scene have been dominated by USC and its senior class. Claes, Hughes, Sophie Bukovec, Nicolette Martin and Allie Wheeler — all starters since the day they arrived on campus — own a combined record of 110-5 overall for an impressive .957 career winning percentage.

With about a month left in the season, though, Hughes and the rest of the Trojans are eager and ready to defend their title in the upcoming tournament.

“Staying on top is definitely the mantra this year,” Hughes said. “There were so many amazing firsts last season, like winning Pac-12s and NCAAs, and the streak has been pretty cool too. But while we’re really proud of what we accomplished, this season we have to work even harder to win them again. The ultimate goal has always been to win a national championship at the end of the season. We know it’s not going to be easy, but we’re ready to fight and we want to go out with a bang.”