No. 1 USC sweeps in Center of Effort Challenge

Junior Harper Hallgren and sophomore Megan Kraft high-five after a point.
Junior Harper Hallgren and sophomore Megan Kraft celebrate after a point in a match against Houston Baptist University March 22. (Colin Huang | Daily Trojan)

No. 1 beach volleyball emerged victorious in San Luis Obispo this weekend, sweeping the Center of Effort Challenge Tournament to extend their win streak to 26-straight duals.

The first win of the tournament came Friday afternoon, as USC narrowly defeated No. 6 Loyola Marymount 3-2, with points on court one from senior Tina Graudina and graduate Hailey Harward, court two from graduate Sammy Slater and sophomore Megan Kraft and court three from graduate Julia Scoles and sophomore Delaynie Maple. Both courts one and two went to three sets to collect their points.

“LMU is a really strong team, and it’s cool to see their program keep rising year after year,” said Harward, who, along with partner Graudina, makes up the reigning Pac-12 Pair of the Week. “They have really strong serves, and a lot of really skilled players and great coaches.”

LMU was the only team to earn 2 points off of USC during the tournament and the only team to score more than 1 point against the Trojans besides UCLA during their win back in March.

“We went into [the match against LMU] knowing that it would be a tough battle,” Slater said. “Having it come down to one last match, I think it showed us that we have what it takes in really tough times and when things get tight … I’m sure we’ll see them again at the National Championships.”

USC went on to sweep both No. 13 Cal Poly San Luis Obispo — the tournament’s host — and No. 4 Florida State, who the Trojans had already defeated once this season back in March.  

“It was really great to see the girls put things together and work on things, get better and then really show it on the court today,” said Head Coach Dain Blanton. “Every time this team steps onto the court, our big challenge is to make sure that we play the type of volleyball that we are capable of, and we know that everyone is going to kind of give us their best shot.”

The last game of the tournament set the Trojans up for a rematch with UCLA, who previously handed USC its only loss this season.

“We were disappointed in our performance the first time around because we didn’t play to our potential, so we knew that was half the battle,” Blanton said. “Taking care of our side of the net, coming in with the right mindset and really attacking — that’s really what the girls did, which was amazing. They attacked from the first whistle.”

The Trojans scored the first 3 points to clinch the match on court one, court three and court four. UCLA picked up its only point on court five before USC closed out the match with a 3-set win on court two.

“We’ve been waiting all season to be able to play them again,” Slater said. “We went out and didn’t feel like we had our best match against them last time, so we’ve really been working and training super hard to be able to come out and get a win like we did today.”

With only one regular season game left, the Trojans are gearing up for both the Pac-12 and National Championships coming up.

“Each pair just continues to make improvements on our own game,” Harward said. “All the teams are scouting us, and we’re scouting them, so [we’re] just trying to stay one step ahead on our side of the net.”

The Trojan will host their final regular season game at Merle Norman Stadium against UCLA at 1 p.m. Friday.