Women of Troy aims for first national title

The No. 1-ranked USC sand volleyball team is looking to complete its quest toward perfection when it heads to Gulf Shores, Alabama, this weekend for the 2015 AVCA Collegiate Sand Volleyball National Championships. After earning the top seed in the field last week, the Women of Troy (24-0) will make their third consecutive appearance in the national championship tournament and seek the program’s first-ever national title.

USC carries a program-record 24-match winning streak into the championships and is the top-seeded team for the second straight year. The eight-team field consists of second-seeded Hawai’i (15-1), third-seeded Florida International (18-1), fourth-seeded Pepperdine (10-4), fifth-seeded Georgia State (18-1), sixth-seeded Florida State (13-4), seventh-seeded Long Beach State (13-4), and USC’s first-round opponent and eighth-seeded Stetson (21-4). Pepperdine returns as the defending national champion and was also the first title winner in 2012, while Long Beach State won the championship in 2013.

The national championship trophy has been elusive for USC, as the Women of Troy have yet to play in the title game, bowing out in the AVCA semifinals two years in a row. Going into last year’s tournament, USC was the No. 1 seed but suffered a 3-2 upset loss in the first round against No. 4-ranked Hawai’i and were forced to play in the losers bracket, where they were handed another close 3-2 loss, this time to No. 2-ranked Pepperdine. Should the Women of Troy make it there this year, however, they will have the opportunity to get revenge on both No. 2-ranked Hawai’i and                     No. 4-ranked Pepperdine during bracket play.

But first, USC must face a familiar foe in the first round of the tournament on Friday, as the No. 1 seed Women of Troy play against the No. 8 seed Stetson for the first match of the day at 8 a.m. CT. USC leads the all-time series 2-0, with the last meeting being a 4-1 win over the Hatters that knocked them out of last year’s AVCA tournament. The then No. 6-ranked Hatters were only able to pull off a win at the three spot, a 21-19, 21-15 decision over USC’s Sam Hirschmann and Natasa Siljkovic. Only one USC pair remains intact from that game, sophomores Nicolette Martin and Allie Wheeler at the four spot. The Hatters recently won the Atlantic Sun Conference and suffered just four dual losses this season. Julie Bassett and Kaley Melville lead Stetson as the top pair and sport a 26-3 overall record together. Furthermore, it will be a familiar sight for USC senior Alexa Stonish, who played her first collegiate sand volleyball season at Stetson in 2012 and produced a 16-14 overall record before transferring to USC.

USC has improved each season under 2014 AVCA National Coach of the Year Anna Collier, going from a 3-1 record in 2012, 23-3 in 2013, 14-3 in 2014, and now a perfect 24-0 in 2015. In her fourth year guiding the Women of Troy, Collier has USC atop the national rankings for the second half of the season.

Of USC’s 24 wins this season, 16 of them have been 5-0 sweeps. Furthermore, before this season, only two USC pairs had ever crossed the 30-win plateau in four years as a program. Now all five Women of Troy pairs could reach that mark this weekend. Two of USC’s starting five pairs have already reached 30 wins on the year, led by the No. 1 pairing of sophomores Sara Hughes and Kelly Claes with an impressive 36-3 record. Senior Eve Ettinger and graduate student Meg Norton  at court three also have 30 wins, combining for a strong 30-5 record. The other three Women of Troy pairs are right on the cusp of reaching 30, as junior Alexa Strange and sophomore Sophie Bukovec at the No. 2 spot have 29 wins, Nicolette Martin and Allie Wheeler are at 28-5 as the No. 4 pairing, and the       senior-freshman duo of Bria Russ and Jenna Belton are 27-4 at court five.

The Women of Troy have also had great success in the Pairs Tournament that takes place during the tournament as well, as USC tandems have won each of the last two pairs titles, with Kirby Burnham  and Stevi Robinson winning in 2013, and Burnham and Hughes winning in 2014. Hughes has the experience going deep into pairs play after capturing the title as a freshman last season, and now she’s looking to defend her pairs crown with Claes on Sunday.

The team championship will be held on May 1-2. Each school fields five doubles teams ranked in order and plays the corresponding pair from an opponent, and the team-versus-team matches are decided by the school that wins three of the five flights. These matchups over the two days culminate with the finals of team play on Saturday, May 2 at 4 p.m. CT.

The pairs’ field includes the top duos from the schools in the team competition as well as 10 teams identified as the “Best of the Rest” from schools not in the team competition. Pairs were selected from Loyola Marymount, Louisiana-Monroe, LSU, Arizona, UAB, Grand Canyon, Tulane, College of Charleston and UCLA. First-round matches in the pairs’ championship will start at 8 a.m. CT on Sunday, May 3, with the championship match later that day slated to begin at 2 p.m. CT.

USC opens the championship tournament against Stetson on Friday, May 1, at 8 a.m. CT (6 a.m. PST).