Beach volleyball ready for home opener

After a successful spring break trip to Hawaii that saw the
No. 1 beach volleyball team capture the Outrigger Hawaii Invitational Crown, the undefeated Trojans (11-0) will now gear up for their first home match of 2017, as they host Loyola Marymount in a dual on Wednesday at noon at Merle Norman Stadium. Immediately following the dual will be a pairs tournament between the Trojans and the Lions starting at approximately 2 p.m.

Over the weekend, USC rattled off seven straight victories at the Outrigger Hawaii Invitational in Honolulu against a stacked field that featured three of the nation’s top seven teams, including No. 4 Florida State, tournament host No. 5 Hawaii and
No. 7 Arizona. The Trojans defeated the East Coast rival Seminoles twice in just three days, in addition to posting a pair of 5-0 sweeps over Nebraska and 4-1 wins over Utah, Arizona and Hawaii.

Head coach Anna Collier’s upperclassmen had dominant showings in the tournament, led by seniors Sophie Bukovec and Allie Wheeler, who provided 4 dual-clinching points from the second court and went 6-1 on the weekend. Juniors Jenna Belton and Jo Kremer were also solid at the five spot, dropping just one set in their seven matches and going a perfect 7-0. The newly formed pair is now 9-1 on the season overall.

In addition, senior All-Americans Kelly Claes and Sara Hughes pushed their own winning streak to 84 consecutive wins at the top court after going undefeated on the islands. Hughes was named the tournament’s most outstanding player as she and Claes helped USC improve its school-record winning streak to 41 matches in a row.

Claes attributes the team’s early success to the high level of competition exhibited every day in practice.

“There’s always a really high level of aggressiveness out there because we want to make each other better,” Claes said. “Everyone pushes each other, and Anna kicks it up a little more just to make sure that everybody is playing at a high level and always giving an all-out effort. All of that really helps prepare us when we get to play other teams.”

The next opponent on the schedule for USC is Loyola Marymount, a team that the Trojans swept 5-0 in their last meeting back in 2016. The Lions received votes in this week’s AVCA National Poll (though they remain unranked) and are led by their top pair of Sarah Sponcil and Savannah Slattery.

While USC has never lost to Loyola Marymount and is 15-0 in the series all-time, Sponcil was part of the last pair to defeat Claes and Hughes in NCAA competition. In April 2015, Sponcil and then-partner Betsi Metter pulled out a thrilling
15-13 third-set victory over Claes and Hughes in a dual at Merle Norman Stadium, but since then, the Trojan seniors haven’t lost a match, dropping just two sets total in that nearly two-year span.

Hughes knows that teams like LMU and pairs like Sponcil and Slattery are always looking to pull the upset over USC, but as long as the Trojans can take care of their own side of the net, Hughes believes they will be in good shape.

“We all know that we have a huge target on our back this season and that every team will be playing their absolute best against us every single match,” Hughes said. “But for us, if we just worry about how we play and take care of what we can control, then we’ll be fine.”

Forecasts predict showers on Wednesday morning, but, rain or shine, competition at Merle Norman Stadium will begin at
noon with the dual match against LMU, followed immediately thereafter by the pairs tournament at
2 p.m.