Beach volleyball tops UCLA for 60th consecutive win

In an epic display of passion and competitive fire, the top-ranked USC beach volleyball team put an exclamation point on their regular season with a huge 4-1 victory over crosstown rival No. 2 UCLA over the weekend at Merle Norman Stadium. The matchup between the nation’s best was one to remember, as the Trojans completed their dual slate undefeated at 30-0 and improved their incredible school-record winning streak to 60 consecutive matches dating back to last season. Furthermore, USC snapped the Bruins’ (26-3) own school-record 24-match win streak in the process and remained perfect in the series history against UCLA at 7-0 all-time.

Saturday was a big day for USC athletics, with multiple crosstown rivalry matches on tap across tennis, beach volleyball and women’s water polo. However, it was perhaps an even bigger day for head coach Anna Collier’s
five-member senior class, who played in their final home matches and were honored in pregame Senior Day ceremonies. The most successful class in USC beach volleyball program history — comprised of seniors Sophie Bukovec, Kelly Claes, Sara Hughes, Nicolette Martin and Allie Wheeler — have amassed over 400 wins individually in their four years and were the
first-ever true recruiting class for Collier back in 2014. In particular, Hughes, the winningest player in NCAA beach volleyball history, became the first high school player to declare that she would only play sand volleyball in college back in 2013 and has been the staple in USC’s rise to national prominence. Since then, Hughes and her veteran classmates have led USC to
back-to-back national championships in 2015 and 2016 and an unblemished record in 2017. Fittingly enough, it would be those five seniors who came up big in Saturday’s rivalry matchup against UCLA.

To begin the dual, the Trojans fell behind 0-1 after USC’s youngest pair, sophomore Abril Bustamante and freshman Joy Dennis, took a 13-21, 19-21 loss against UCLA’s Jordan Anderson and Izzy Carey at the four spot. Then, after dropping a close second set, USC’s No. 5 tandem of juniors Jenna Belton and Jo Kremer were forced to a third against the Bruins’ Chanti Holroyd and Lily Justine before pulling out the thrilling 21-16, 19-21, 15-9 victory. That win by Belton and Kremer would knot things up in the dual at 1-1 and ignite the fire underneath the rest of their Trojan teammates in the next wave of play.

All even heading into the top flight of matches, things would turn into a best-of-three series on courts one, two and three. At the No. 2 spot, Bukovec and Wheeler used mini point spurts in the middle of both sets and solid blocking at the net to run away with an identical 21-13,
21-13 victory over Kamila Tan and Madi Yeomans and give USC its first lead of the day, 2-1. With fans now packed in the stands, along the courts, and even above the adjacent parking structure surrounding Merle Norman Stadium, all eyes turned to the top court to watch senior All-Americans Claes and Hughes take on UCLA’s Megan and Nicole McNamara. After capturing the first set 21-15 over the Bruins, USC’s all-time winningest pair fought back from a 3-point deficit late in the second frame to reach set, match and dual point. To the roar of the crowd, Claes and Hughes fended off the UCLA attack and squashed the Bruins’ hopes for an upset on a huge cross-court smash by Claes, ending the set 22-20 and clinching the dual win for USC, 3-1.

With the outcome already decided, heads then shifted to the far end of Merle Norman Stadium, where junior Terese Cannon and senior Nicolette Martin were engaged in a long battle with UCLA’s Torrey Van Winden and Elize Zappia on court three. After dropping a tight first set, 19-21, Cannon and Martin came back to win the second, 22-20. As spectators gathered around and both teams surrounded the court to finish off the day, consecutive aces by Cannon helped USC pull away and eventually claim the 15-10 victory in the third set to seal the 4-1 win over UCLA. All in all, the Trojans extended their streak to 16 consecutive home victories, while each of the five seniors came away with wins in their final matches on home sand to cap a successful Senior Day.

USC will now take its 60-match winning streak with them to the desert when they head to Tucson, Ariz. for the Pac-12 Championships tournament hosted by the University of Arizona from Thursday to Saturday. The Trojans are the defending Pac-12 champions, having won the conference title last season when they hosted the event at Merle Norman Stadium, while Claes and Hughes are the defending Pac-12 pairs champions.