Top-ranked beach volleyball kicks off season

Stepping foot on the sands of Zuma Beach this weekend to start off the 2016 season, the No. 1-ranked USC beach volleyball team had a jam-packed schedule that saw them face off against four of the top six ranked teams in the nation all in a matter of just 30 hours.

However, cold and dreary weather in Malibu at the Pepperdine Kick Off put a damper on the defending national champions’ opening weekend, as the Women of Troy lost their first match in nearly a year to end their hopes of achieving yet another undefeated season. Still, head coach Anna Collier and the Women of Troy were able to come away with three quality wins to start the season off at 3-1 overall.

“I think we played really well on the weekend,” Collier said. “On Saturday, we came out and played a little tentative and not aggressively, so we sat the girls down and told them that no one was going to hand this to them. If we want to win, we’re going to have to fight for it and I think they changed their attitudes and fought really hard.”

After notching a 4-1 victory against No. 3-ranked Hawai’i to open up the Saturday slate, USC fell for the first time in thirty matches with a tight 3-2 loss at the hands of host and No. 2-ranked Pepperdine. The next day, USC crushed crosstown rival and No. 6-ranked UCLA 5-0 in the morning before closing out with a thrilling 3-2 victory over No. 4-ranked Long Beach State.

Collier was impressed with her team’s efforts as the Women of Troy endured severe weather conditions to pull out two wins on Sunday.

“When we train at USC, we never see wind like this,” Collier said. “It was 25-30 mile per hour winds and it was kind of ridiculous volleyball — you could barely bump or serve the ball over the net — so for them to stay mentally tough and fight to win those matches was very impressive to watch.”

Against the Rainbow Wahine, USC’s No. 1 pair of juniors Kelly Claes and Sara Hughes got the Women of Troy off to the right start with an easy 21-11, 21-17 victory over Nikki Taylor and Mikayla Tucker. At the four position, sophomore Jenna Belton and freshman Abril Bustamante went big in their debut to put USC up 2-0 with a 22-20, 21-19 decision over Ginger Long and Hannah Zalopany, while juniors Nicolette Martin and Allie Wheeler sealed the win at court three with a 21-16, 21-14 defeat of Ari Homayun and Emily Maglio. The No. 2 duo of junior Sophie Bukovec and senior Alexa Strange added to that total with a hard-fought 28-30, 21-15, 21-19 win over Lara Schreiber and Katie Spieler, while the five pair of sophomore Jo Kremer and graduate student Zoe Nightingale lost to Hannah Rooks and Ka’iwi Schucht (21-10, 19-21, 15-9) to finish out the 4-1 final team score.

The win pushed USC to 6-1 all-time against Hawai’i and marked 29 straight victories in a row, but that streak would be broken about an hour later against Pepperdine.

The No. 2-ranked Waves came out swinging on their home sand and found themselves up 2-1 after Madalyn Roh and Anika Wilson defeated Belton and Bustamante at court four (21-13, 21-19) and Kaity Bailey and Delaney Knudsen outlasted Bukovec and Strange (15-21, 21-18, 15-12) on court two. Eventually, a nail-biter from court five ended up going in Pepperdine’s favor, as Samantha Cash and Sarah Seiber defeated Kremer and Nightingale by a slim (14-21, 21-11, 22-20) margin and sealed the match.

The one and three pairs provided the only two points for USC on the day, with Claes and Hughes handling Heidi Dyer and Taylor Racich (21-11, 21-17) and Martin and Wheeler holding on against Skylar Caputo and Corinne Quiggle (21-19, 18-21, 15-9).

Overall, the loss snapped a program-best 29-match winning streak for the Women of Troy, as USC has only defeated Pepperdine at Zuma Beach once in five tries.

Sunday morning’s match against UCLA was the first 5-0 sweep of the season for the Women of Troy, as the two, three, and four pairs earned quick two-set wins to shut the door on the Bruins. The one and five pairs, Claes and Hughes and Kremer and Nightingale, both went the extra mile before winning in three, marking USC’s fourth straight victory over UCLA. In the rematch of the 2015 AVCA National Championship, USC relied on the experience of Martin and Wheeler in order to pull out the tight 3-2 win over No. 4-ranked LBSU. Claes and Hughes and Belton and Bustamante won their matches in two sets, leaving it all down to the juniors over at court three, who pulled out the 15-8 win in the deciding set to save the day for USC.

Now, the Women of Troy head back to Los Angeles for their home opener at Merle Norman Stadium this Thursday at 6 p.m. against Arizona State.