USC starts title defense versus No. 15 Long Beach State

Senior Tina Graudina jumps up to hit the ball near the net.
Senior Tina Graudina was the first USC beach volleyball player to qualify for the 2020 Summer Olympics after redshirting her junior season. (Photo courtesy of USC Athletics)

After beating UCLA to become National Champions back in May 2021, No. 1 USC women’s beach volleyball starts off its 2022 season against No. 15 Long Beach State. 

The Trojans are looking to continue their dominant performance from last season, with eight of their 10 starters returning this season, and the addition of two graduate transfers — Caroline Schafer from Cal and Sunny Villapando from Stanford. Also returning to the team is two-time Pac-12 Player of the Year and fourth place Olympian, senior Tina Graudina, 2021 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, sophomore Megan Kraft and AVCA All-Americans and graduate students Julia Scoles and Sammy Slater.

Despite last season’s success, the Trojans are dedicated to opening the season with a clean slate. 

“You climbed the mountain [last year], and then, you have to climb it again,” Head Coach Dain Blanton said. “The matches last year aren’t going to win us matches this year … We expect people to come at us, so we want to flip it on them. We are the predators going after them.”

The Trojans ranked first in the 2022 AVCA preseason coaches poll, a full 16 points ahead of crosstown rival and 2021 Pac-12 Champion UCLA.

“Anyone who is a defending champion has a target on their back,” said Scoles, one of this year’s captains. “Last year really means nothing. We handled business last year, but now it’s time to go out and prove it once more.”

Many Trojans returned for an extra year due to the eligibility extension following the coronavirus pandemic. 

“We can share our experiences, and set the culture for, hopefully, years to come,” Scoles said. “It’s such a cool opportunity to be here that extra year to help lead this program forward.”

Those around the beach volleyball team this year look to cement its place as a historic program. 

“A lot of the girls having this extra year realize how special it is,” Blanton said. “That’s what we are trying to do: create a legacy here … When people think about collegiate beach volleyball, the first name they think of is USC.”

With many veterans returning, younger teammates have the opportunity to learn from the experienced figures of the team.

“We have great leadership,” sophomore Delaynie Maple said. “It’s only helping the program. Next year, whoever the captains are, we have so many people to learn from, it’s only going to help the trajectory of not only the season but also the program in general.”

Looking ahead to their match against Long Beach State, the Trojans will focus on their own play, regardless of the Elbees’ strategy.

“We are trying not to think too much about what they are doing, but more about what we are doing,” Maple said. “Just focusing on our side and focusing on our defense … We have been training so hard, and I’m excited to see everything we’ve been working on go into play. I only have confidence in our team, but it’s also exciting and jittery.”

Blanton said he recognized the group’s stature ahead of the season’s start. 

“It’s a special group,” Blanton said. “They’re motivated, and they work extremely hard … They know what they are capable of doing. It’s a matter of going out and executing it every time, and proving every time that you are the best.”