USC faces North Florida in first round of tournament

For the No. 4 USC women’s sand volleyball team, its entire season has led up to this tournament.

The team will finally be put to the ultimate test in the second-annual American Volleyball Coaches Association collegiate sand volleyball national championship in Gulf Shores, Ala., beginning Friday.

This will be the Women of Troy’s second consecutive appearance in the tournament, making them two for two in their two years of eligibility as a varsity sport.

“We are looking forward to going down to Alabama and playing our style of beach volleyball,” USC head coach Anna Collier said. “It should be challenging but we have prepared ourselves enough to do well through competing a lot this season.”

USC will begin team play on Friday against No. 5-seeded North Florida at 7 a.m. The winner of that match will face undefeated and top-ranked Pepperdine, a team that has not lost a single match in its two-year-old program and is 18-0 this season.

Pepperdine also defeated the Women of Troy twice earlier in the season and owns the title of defending national champion. That match would take place at 10 a.m.

USC (14-6) will first have to take care of North Florida (16-3), who earned an automatic bid to the championship by winning the Atlantic Sun Conference championship.

The Ospreys went a 8-0 in conference play this year, and the team’s only losses came out of conference to Georgia State, University of Alabama at Birmingham and Louisiana Monroe. Monroe is the No. 6 seed in the tournament. All of these losses came in five sets.

USC will be joining a six-team field that includes many top teams in the nation. Defending national champion Pepperdine is set to participate, as is No. 2 seed Long Beach State and No. 3 seed Florida State.

The two teams in the tournament that the Women of Troy have not faced this season are North Florida and No. 6-seeded Louisiana Monroe.

In addition to the team tournament, there will also be a single-elimination, 16-team pairs championship featuring the top duos in the nation.

Both the No. 1 pair, composed of junior Kirby Burnham and graduate student Stevi Robinson, and the No. 2-ranked pair, senior Katie Fuller and freshman Cinnamon Sary, will be representing USC.

Burnham and Robinson are coming off an exhibition tournament win against the USA Junior National Team, which should prove beneficial to the pair’s momentum going into the championship.

“Right now, we are trying to focus on our first match against North Florida,” Robinson said. “But we will worry about the two-on-two matches when the time comes.”

The Women of Troy’s two pairs teams will begin play in the pairs championship on Sunday at  6 a.m. Portions of both the team and pairs competitions will also be available on the CBS Sports Network.

USC’s exhibition against the USA Junior National Team was additionally beneficial in that it gave the Women of Troy a look at the same style employed by its future AVCA competition.

“These games really gave us a look at the scrappy, beach-style games of teams like North Florida or Louisiana Monroe,” Collier said. “That should help us a lot for the AVCA [championships].”

Whatever the results of the tournament are, USC has made an immediate impact in just two years of competition to become one of the top-ranked programs in the nation. Though the team has fared well at brand-new Merle Norman Stadium, it has yet to knock off a top-three-ranked team in the nation.

This weekend’s tournament will provide USC with the opportunity it needs to join the nation’s upper echelon of elite programs.