USC beach volleyball wins third consecutive national championship

The USC beach volleyball team won the NCAA National Championship on Sunday, beating Pepperdine 3-2 to clinch the program’s third consecutive national title.

The No. 1 ranked Trojans had been dominant all year, finishing with a 38-1 record, so perhaps it was no surprise they found themselves in Gulf Shores, Ala. last weekend, looking to defend their back-to-back national championships. USC carried its regular-season momentum into the National Collegiate Beach Volleyball Championship, running rampant through the competition. Facing the top programs in the nation, the Trojans were flawless, and they swept South Carolina, Hawaii and Pepperdine to earn a spot in the final.

But for the first time since their sole loss of the season against UCLA in the Pac- 12 Championship, the Trojans faced major adversity in their rematch against Pepperdine. The first dual of the final matchup went in favor of Pepperdine’s Deahna Kraft and Anika Wilson, who downed the young pair of sophomore Abril Bustamante and freshman Joy Dennis. The Trojans responded quickly, as juniors Jenna Belton and and Jo Kremer dispensed of their competition 21-18, 21-15.

With the two teams tied at 1-1, Pepperdine’s Brittany Howard and Corinne Quiggle regained the Waves’ advantage with a tough three-set victory over seniors Sophie Bukovec and Allie Wheeler. The seesawing affair continued with the Trojans’ decorated senior pair of Kelly Claes and Sara Hughes winning another tightly contested three-set dual, evening the match at two wins apiece.

Both teams were set for a deciding final matchup with the National Championship on the line. It was up to junior Terese Cannon and senior Nicolette Martin to notch a win over Pepperdine’s Skylar Caputo and Heidi Dyer and bring home another national title. After capturing the first set 21-19, the Trojan pair dropped the second 18-21, setting up a dramatic final frame in an already razor-thin final.

But the Trojans were able to seize the moment, as Cannon and Martin won the title-clinching set 15-13, giving USC 104 all-time NCAA team championships. For seniors Kelly Claes, Sophie Bukovec, Allie Wheeler, Sara Hughes and Nicolette Martin — who made up head coach Anna Collier’s first recruiting class — the win over Pepperdine marked their third national championship in four years at USC.

“They came in and pretty much set the tone from the beginning,” Collier said. “From the moment they were sophomores, they took control of the situation and started building a team culture. They improved so much in volleyball, but more than that, they became a unit.”

Collier refers to the group as the “Fab Five,” and on Sunday, the senior class solidified its legacy in USC lore, giving the school its 20th NCAA championship in women’s sports.

“It came down to those last two points,” Claes said. “It was just an unreal feeling — I’m on cloud nine right now. I’m just so proud of all these girls and the fight that all of us had.”

To wrap up a season full of silverware, the Trojans had three pairs selected to the all-tournament team, including Claes and Hughes, who were named the top overall pair. Cannon and Martin were honored as the No. 3 pair, with Bustamante and Dennis following just behind in No. 4.