Beach volleyball finishes second to UCLA in SLO

The Trojans went 3-1 at the Center of Effort Challenge and swept two top-10 teams.

Seniors Megan Kraft and Delaynie Maple consistently serve up cause for celebration. They have a 28-3 record this season at the No. 1 position. (Bryce Dechert / Annenberg Media)

For the first time in a long time, USC put forth a full team effort.

The No. 2 Trojans (27-4) have played 25 of their 31 duels on the road, meaning the entirety of their 21-woman roster is hardly in full attendance. But this weekend at the Center of Effort Challenge in San Luis Obispo, USC brought the whole squad on its trek up the coast. 

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“We’re all getting a little tired of airplanes and traveling,” said sophomore Madison White. “Being able to play where we can bus and take everyone and have the whole team and get to be in our home state and at a stadium that is as awesome as [Swanson Beach Volleyball Complex] was really just a privilege.”

With family and teammates cheering along the Swanson sidelines, USC won 4-1 against Pepperdine (15-14) and 5-0 against No. 7 Long Beach State (23-7) on Friday. The following morning, the Trojans swept No. 5 TCU (25-7) to qualify for the tournament final where No. 1 UCLA (28-4) defended its CoEC title with a narrow 3-2 victory.

After dominating Friday, the Trojans’ dual with TCU summoned some gnarly conditions: sub-60 degree temperatures, heavy rain (by California standards) and blaring winds.

“We play these conditions a lot because unfortunately, it’s been raining a lot in [Los Angeles],” said senior Delaynie Maple. “We don’t cancel practice for it, so it helps us by the time we play in games.”

USC embraced the conditions and won each of its matches in straight sets, confirming that Horned Frogs are better suited for arid weather.

“That was our best dual this year, top to bottom,” Maple said. 

The Trojans victory was their third over TCU this season and their second consecutive sweep against the Horned Frogs. They notably improved compared to their last 5-0 victory March 29, needing 106 fewer points to secure the win.

For Saturday’s duels, Head Coach Dain Blanton switched up the traditional structure of the Trojans’ lineup. Graduates Maddi Kriz and Grace Seits typically play the No. 3 position and boast a 19-4 record as a pair; at the No. 4 position, freshman Ashley Pater and White have totaled 12 matches together. However, Saturday the duos were split up such that Kriz and White played at No. 2, graduates Audrey and Nicole Nourse took over at No. 3, and Pater and Seits teamed up at No. 4.

“We’ve kind of tweaked with the lineup with some new pairs,” Blanton said. “Sometimes on paper a team looks really good, but they might not match, whereas sometimes they don’t look good, but they really do match. You only can figure it out once you put them out there and actually try out those pairs, and we’re just trying to find the right combinations.”

Against TCU, the duo switches proved effective, but against UCLA, Blanton observed mixed results. Kriz-White and the Nourses each dropped their matches in straight sets, while Pater-Seits crushed UCLA redshirt freshman Ensley Alden and junior Natalie Myszkowski 21-15, 21-17.

Trailing 1-2, the Trojans relied on the one constant in their lineup — No. 1 All-American duo and seniors Megan Kraft and Delaynie Maple — to keep their CoEC title hopes alive. The duo edged out the first set 22-20, but ceded the second 15-21. 

Now, for most duos, losing a set by six points to the No. 1 pair on the nation’s top-ranked team would derail a match, but with Kraft-Maple’s signature end-of-point ritual — a low-five followed by an embrace — the pair never loses control.

“We try to use [the hug] to breathe and slow the game down, because there are some teams that really like to go fast, and we like to take a lot of time,” Maple said. “It’s just a tactic to slow the game down but also helps you reset and not carry the last play into the next one.”

Kraft-Maple rolled through the third set to defeat UCLA sophomore Maggie Boyd and graduate Lexy Denaburg, knotting the dual score at two apiece. 

With the gold-medal dual coming down to the No. 5 match, spectators and the USC bench migrated to the sidelines of freshman Madison Goellner and sophomore Mabyn Thomas’ three-set thriller. Unfortunately for USC, Goellner-Thomas couldn’t close out the match against UCLA’s more experienced duo in senior Tessa Van Winkle and graduate Jaden Whitmarsh.

Although USC hasn’t defeated the Bruins since its first dual of the season, Trojan fans can still  breathe easy with this weekend’s result. Last spring, USC lost its last three regular season duels against UCLA but wound up defeating the Bruins in the NCAA championship.

“We’re trying to get in the groove so that we are ready over the next three weeks of the season, which is a championship segment,” Blanton said. “The Pac-12 and the national championship — that’s our goal.”

The Trojans will seek vengeance Thursday when they host UCLA at 12:30 p.m. at Norman Stadium in their third and final homestand of the season.

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