Enjoy this Premium story on VolleyballMag.com
After back-to-back victories this past weekend over UCLA, USC has vaulted back to the top of NCAA beach volleyball.
And leading the way was the No. 1 pair of Abril Bustamante and Tina Graudina, who have gone 30-2 this season and have the Trojans thinking they can win their third NCAA championship in four years.
They’re an unlikely combination, Bustamante, the 6-foot senior from Redondo Beach, and Graudina, the 6-foot sophomore from Jurmala, Latvia. But no one should be surprised at their success: After all, they were the 2018 VolleyballMag.com national pair of the year and their combined record since 2018 is 56-4.
“The thing about Abril is that she’s just grown up so much as a person, as a player, as a leader,” USC coach Anna Collier said. “In every aspect of what you want in a student-athlete to do, she did.”
Graudina, perhaps the most dominant blocker in college beach volleyball, competed as a heptathlete for six years. Her FIVB resume the past year includes a fifth in the Yangzhou four-star event and being named the FIVB top rookie of 2018.
“She took this team from a mediocre team and set the tone,” Collier said, pointing to Graudina’s work ethic. “She said, ‘This is the level we’re going to play, I’m trying to play on the FIVB, so I can’t have you guys running around here trying to play AVP ball. We need to take this up a level.’
“That’s what she did for the team on the volleyball aspect. We compete a lot in practice, she made the whole team take a huge step and play better ball.”
Bustamante and Graudina only lost twice this season, in March to South Carolina’s Cadie Bates and Shannon Williams, and then last month to the UCLA twins, Megan and Nicole McNamara, in what has become a fantastic rivalry.
This past weekend at the Pac-12 Championships, the USC pair beat the McNamaras 21-13, 18-21, 15-10 on Friday and then again 21-18, 21-17 in the final. Their team is 28-4 (with two losses to UCLA and one each to South Carolina and Pepperdine as they prepare to play eighth-seeded Stetson in Friday’s first round of the National Collegiate Beach Championship in Gulf Shores, Ala.
Bustamante, the Trojans’ captain, was a highly touted junior both on the beach and indoors, competing for Elite Beach outdoors and Mizuno Long Beach indoors.
“She came in playing 5s, then she was playing 4s, and then went straight to the top, and is playing really good ball, and she’s all in,” Collier said. “As they say, ‘She’s drinking the Kool-Aid. She does the things she needs to do to take care of her body, listens, and this year we put a lot of pressure on her to be a leader and a captain.”
Bustamante was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but was raised in Redondo Beach. Graudina, born in Riga, Latvia, grew up in nearby Yurmala.
“I love playing with her,” Bustamante said. “I’m sure that you can see the chemistry that we have on the court. We love playing together, we have this sort of telepathy, we can feel where each other is on the court, and it’s awesome.
“It’s so nice having a partner that I know that I can count on 150 percent on any given match, any point, any set. It’s really incredible.”
“Playing with April? It’s fantastic. I literally always want to play with her at every moment in my life, because we have this connection where we start to understand each other without words where she just feels where I’m going to go, and I can feel her, and we get high from each other’s energy.”
Graudina is a political science major who was also the 2018 VolleyballMag.com freshman of the year.
“America offers a really unique opportunity to study and play high level sports,” Graudina said. “I really like this opportunity, and I want a good degree in my life, and at the same time continue to play beach volleyball. In Europe, it’s not that easy to have that life, so I decided to go here.
“It’s a different lifestyle over there, a different mentality. Here in America, I feel like I live in a little bubble, our own little ecosystem. No one cares what’s happening outside in the world, especially in volleyball. That’s cool. I like it, I like this experience.”
Collier was eager to get Graudina. Graudina had established a promising career even as a junior, winning gold at the FIVB U22 European championships in 2016.
“I had seen her when I was a junior national coach, and I had seen her play in Acapulco,” Collier recalled. “She was young, and the rule at that time was that players couldn’t be contacted before midnight September 1 of her junior year.
“In the interim, I had collected her home address, her information, and I literally sat there, and the moment that the clock ticked, I Skyped her, and I said, ‘Hey, I’m interested. What do you think?’”
Collier wasn’t the only coach after the Latvian.
“South Carolina was talking to her that same night, I think UCLA contacted her, because she was a really good track athlete. She was thinking about doing both beach volleyball and track, and I think UCLA would allow her to do both.
“I told her, ‘Well, here, you’ll probably need to focus on beach volleyball, maybe you could be a high jumper,’ because she’s a heptathlete, and a really good high jumper.
“And that was all in the first Skype. We got everything in. And then I sent her videos of the school, videos of the team, friended her on Instagram, USC beach, and then we Skyped about twice a month and then an official visit her senior year.
“She came, spent two nights with the team, and then made the decision to come.”
Once Graudina arrived, Bustamante set her sights on partnering with her from the first day of practice and Collier told her simply, “Well, you’re going to have to elevate your game. You’re absolutely going to have to elevate your game if you want to be with Tina.”
Added Collier, “And she did. So that started the good chemistry between them, because Tina saw how much Abril wanted to play with her, and how much she was willing to elevate her game to be able to play with her.
“We tried her, we tried Tina and Sammy (Slater), we tried a lot of them, but nobody clicked like them, and they clicked because Abril forced that. Abril was like, ‘I’m playing with you, you’re the best player, and you are going to make me the best player.’
“A year into their partnership, they make each other play the best ball that they can. That’s what’s so unique and so great about them as a pair.”
Bustamante said the pair was already feeling good, but going 4-0 last week boosted their confidence even more.
“We’ve beaten some highly ranked teams and we definitely know that we can beat anyone out there as long as we play our game,” Bustamante said. “The confidence level is high, and just knowing that we can win, there’s nothing stopping us.”