Beach volleyball prepares title defense

Last year marked a season of firsts for the beach volleyball team. Not only did the Trojans capture the historic first-ever NCAA national championship and the inaugural Pac-12 Championship last May, but they also ended the season on a school-record 30-match winning streak, becoming the first program to ever win back-to-back national titles.

So while 2016 was all about making history, the 2017 season is an opportunity for USC to add onto its dynasty and cement itself as the premier beach volleyball program in the nation.

The preseason No. 1 Trojans are led by head coach Anna Collier, who enters her sixth season at the helm with a 108-17 overall record and a .864 winning percentage. After guiding her team to an undefeated 2015 season and the AVCA National Championship, Collier became the first head coach to reach the 100-win plateau after USC tacked on a program-best 34 wins in 2016. This season, she returns eight of her ten starters from last year, including five seniors, and is in prime position to make another big run in the postseason.

“What we’re trying to do this year is play really good, high quality, elite level volleyball,” Collier said. “We have a lot of good players coming back this season and I think we’re in a good spot, so if we can play the best volleyball we possibly can, then the byproduct will be another Pac-12 Championship and then another NCAA championship.”

Headlining the group of returnees is the pair of senior All-Americans Kelly Claes and Sara Hughes. The duo posted a perfect 48-0 record in 2016 and dropped just one set on the year, extending their remarkable winning streak to 73 matches in a row dating back to the 2015 season. Claes and Hughes, who were named the first-ever Pac-12 Pair of the Year last season, are the winningest pair in program history with a 92-3 combined record.

A new pair will make its debut at Court 2 this season as seniors Sophie Bukovec and Allie Wheeler team up together for the first time in their respective careers. Bukovec, an AVCA All-American and member of the Pac-12 All-Conference First Team, has played at the No. 2 position since she came to USC in 2015, but is now joined by the veteran Wheeler, who makes the jump up one flight from the
No. 3 spot.

Wheeler had played the last three seasons with fellow senior Nicolette Martin and compiled a 91-14 overall record, good for second most wins by a pair all-time in school history. Martin, however, will now join forces with junior Terese Cannon at the three spot. Cannon was used primarily as a reserve in 2016 but has come on strong during the offseason and earned her way to a top three position. Martin, a Pac-12
All-Academic First Team selection a year ago, will serve as a team captain in her final season at USC.

Coming in at the No. 4 position is a pair of young guns in sophomore Abril Bustamante and freshman Joy Dennis. Bustamante was a Pac-12 All-Freshman Team and All-Conference Second Team honoree a year ago and produced a 28-7 overall record. This season, however, she will pair with Dennis, a promising freshman who has significant international experience at the youth level.

Rounding out the fifth and final pair will be juniors Jenna Belton and Jo Kremer. Belton was named to the Pac-12
All-Academic Second Team last year and has been a serviceable option at USC’s lower flights since she arrived at USC. Playing behind Belton will be Kremer, who had an outstanding 2016 season at the five spot. Kremer went 32-6 overall and was named to the NCAA All-Tournament team, finishing the year on a 16-match winning streak.

The Trojans will be tested right out of the gates to open up their season this Saturday in Malibu, as they are scheduled to take on No. 3 UCLA and
No. 4 Pepperdine at Zuma Beach for the Pepperdine Kick-Off. USC has never lost to the Bruins, leading the all-time series 5-0, while the Trojans have also won their last three meetings against the Waves. In addition, USC has won 62 of its last 64 matches dating back to the beginning of 2015.

“It will be great to see where we stack up because we’ve been training for so long, but only playing against each other,” Collier said. “I think we’re the best in the country, but that doesn’t mean anything, so I’m really excited to see how we match up. We’re looking to be challenged this weekend.”

Claes, the reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year, is also eager to get dual match play started and wants to see just how far along USC is to begin the season.

“I can’t wait,” Claes said. “We’re obviously hoping for wins across the board, but because it’s our first tournament, we hope that if we do have any hiccups or kinks to work out, we see them early and take care of them so we don’t have any of those problems in the future. I know everybody is going to go out there and play their best this weekend, so I’m really excited to compete with these girls.”

USC will begin their title defense against UCLA on Saturday morning at 11:15 a.m., followed directly after by a 12:30 p.m. matchup against Pepperdine. Both dual matches will be streamed live on