NCAA beach West: USC primed to return to dominant form

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Tina Graudina 8/21/2020-Tina Graudina-USC beach volleyball
USC's Tina Graudina hits around the UCLA block/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

NCAA beach season begins this week. This is first of two looks at the national picture. First the best teams in the West, and Wednesday, the best teams in the East:

The talent. It’s everywhere — omnipresent, ubiquitous, overflowing — whatever word you want to use, it’s the correct one.

It is almost without argument that there is more talent in this 2021 NCAA beach volleyball season than there has ever been before. Populating the rosters are Olympians (hello, Tina Graudina), more than a dozen AVP qualifiers, national champions, players who beat potential future Olympians (hey, LSU’s Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth), some who are already representing their national federations in FIVBs, and countless others who will be turning pro and populating AVP and FIVB brackets soon enough.

To watch college volleyball this year will be both a glimpse into the present and inevitable future of the sport.

And much of that talent lies right here, where the sport was born: the West Coast.

Tina Graudina 8/21/2020-Tina Graudina-USC beach volleyball
USC’s Tina Graudina celebrates a block during Pac-12 play in 2019/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

USC — Acknowledging that I’m running the risk of sounding wildly hyperbolic here, I’m going to say it: This USC team might be the most talented beach volleyball team in college history. There. I said it. Yes, more talented than the Kelly Claes and Sara Hughes-led team that won back-to-back-to-back National Championships. More talented than UCLA’s powerhouse lineup that included Nicole and Megan McNamara, Sarah Sponcil and Lily Justine, Zana Muno and Abby Van Winkle.

This USC team is downright silly.

Returning after what was supposed to be a redshirt season is Tina Graudina, the Latvian sensation who has already qualified for the 2021 Olympics and is one of the best blockers in the world, let alone among the college ranks.

Joining Graudina in her return to Los Angeles is 2020 court one defender Hailey Harward, who spent this summer winning tournament after tournament with incoming transfer Julia Scoles, a bomber using her final year of eligibility after stints at North Carolina and Hawai’i. Haley Hallgren adds another layer of depth and experience, as she split on court one with Harward a year ago, and is, in my opinion, one of the most underrated players in the country, perpetually in the shadow of other sublime Southern Californian talents.

On the younger side of the depth chart are twins Audrey and Nicole Nourse, who have continued working out with now-UCLA volunteer assistant coach Jose Loiola. As freshmen in 2020, they played well on court three, and I’d only expect them to continue making strides as they mature on the court.

New freshmen expected to make immediate impacts are San Diego wunderkinds Delaynie Maple and Megan Kraft, who capped their high school career with a state championship – after taking fifth at AVP Hermosa.

Which means that, yes, a team that made an AVP quarterfinal could be on court four or five.

USC is going to be fun to watch this season.

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UCLA’s Devon Newberry and Rileigh Powers celebrate their match-point win over USC/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

UCLA — Acknowledging that nothing good came out of COVID, the team that may have benefited the most from an extra year for any player who chose to take it has to be UCLA. The Bruins were — and are — young, one of the youngest teams in the country, with freshmen Lexy Denaburg, Rileigh Powers, and Devon Newberry all playing big roles, as well as indoor transfer Jacqueline Quade, the Bruins could have used an extra year of seasoning.

Along with that extra year of seasoning for the freshmen, UCLA also picked up a Hall of Famer for a volunteer assistant coach in Jose Loiola, adding a brilliant mind – and a heck of a lot of energy — to an already-brilliant coaching staff with Stein Metzger and Jenny Johnson Jordan.

UCLA is replete with talent, from top to bottom. Senior leader Savvy Simo was playing at a level in 2020 that put her in contention for Player of the Year discussions, while sophomore Abby Van Winkle had made huge strides as well, developing into one of the best blockers in the country. Her sister, Tessa Van Winkle, another 6-foot-2 presence, joins the roster, as does talented youngster, Peri Brennan, a regular partner of Tessa’s in CBVAs.

With Simo and Quade serving as the only seniors on the team, it’s funny to think that the “experienced” players on the roster include junior Megan Muret, sophomore ball control wizard Lindsey Sparks, and junior Lea Monkhouse. This is a team that’s built both to succeed now, but one that’s also forming the foundations of a dynasty for several years.

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Hawai’i’s Pani Napoleon takes a swing against UCLA/Hawai’i photo

Hawai’i — My heart breaks for every team that lost its 2020 season, though there are three in particular that were especially brutal: Florida State, LSU, and Hawai’i.

Hawai’i was in the midst of a tremendous season in 2020, starting out 7-2, utilizing a veteran-laden lineup that was paired well with up-and-coming youth. Seniors Morgan Martin, Amy Ozee, Julia Scoles and Hanna Hellvig anchored one of the most dangerous teams in the nation, while freshman Maia Hannemann was proving to be a precocious talent on court two, and sophomores Pani Napoleon and Kylin Loker consistent winners on courts one and four, respectively.

Then COVID hit, and it hit Hawai’i hard. The school’s funding for the program was depleted, and head coach Jeff Hall, an excellent man who helped build the program into a perennial power, was laid off, replaced by former Hawai’i indoor All-American Angelica Ljungqvist, currently the associate head coach for the indoor program.

Martin, Ozee, Scoles and Hellvig all left, either graduating or transferring elsewhere, and Hanneman, alongside freshman Madi Bogle, opted out for the 2021 season.

Rebuilding isn’t the dreaded term to use for this team, as it does still retain quite a bit of talent. Napoleon, who started on court one with Martin, returns, as does junior Brooke Van Sickle, who started on court three in 2020. The Bows are teeming with young talent, namely in Canadian freshmen Kaylee Glagau (6-foot-2) and Jami Santer (6-feet).

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LMU’s Reka Orsi Toth plays a ball as the Pepperdine squad watches/George Davison photo

LMU — In 2019, LMU stunned the beach volleyball world a bit when it beat Pepperdine back-to-back in a double-final at the WCC Championships, supplanting the Waves as the team to beat in the conference. In 2020, the Lions proved they belonged at the top, starting out 6-3, with another win over Pepperdine and a decent resume-booster over Stetson.

Seven starters return from the 2020 LMU team, including Italian Reka Orsi Toth, Selina Marolf, Canadian veteran Darby Dunn, and Megan Rice.

Orsi Toth is quietly one of the best players in the country, while Rice comes with one of the biggest arms out there. LMU is also adding to the roster Iya Lindahl, a transfer from Cal Berkeley who has court one experience and, potentially more valuable, professional experience, with three AVP main draws to her name and a career-high ninth-place finish at the 2019 Manhattan Beach Open.

Experience is key in big matches, and LMU has plenty of it on one of the oldest — that’s meant as a compliment! — rosters in the West.

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Cal Poly’s Tia Miric celebrates her match win against UCLA/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Cal Poly — The transfer portal was both a blessing and a curse for Cal Poly last year. On the one hand, the Mustangs lost one of the most talented blockers in the country, Torrey Van Winden, to Florida State — more on her in our East preview — but on the other hand, it hauled in Hawai’i’s Amy Ozee, an athletic and dynamic player who proved she could have success playing any position. She blocked, defended, and split-blocked, and former Hawai’i coach Jeff Hall moved her around with numerous partners on numerous courts, and she won everywhere.

Transfers aside, Poly also returns much of its formidable team from 2020, including Canadian defender Tia Miric, physical and athletic blocker Mariah Whalen, consummate veteran Emily Sonny, and one of the best servers — and maybe most enthusiastic player — in the college game in Macy Gordon.

Coach Todd Rogers has also done an excellent job recruiting, bringing in freshmen Piper Naess and Sam Strah — as well as his daughter, Hannah, who transferred from TCU — who should make immediate impacts.

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Carly Skjodt playing on grass this past summer/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Pepperdine — Pepperdine, by its standards — being one of two teams in the country to make the national championships every year — has had a strange few years. In 2019, the Waves relinquished their WCC crown to LMU, and in 2020, they got off to a 2-5 start, the worst in school history. It is, however, more of a sign that the rest of the country is simply catching up than it is Pepperdine slipping. There is still no shortage of talent in Malibu, even with the departures of seniors Gigi Hernandez (graduated and has a job) and Deahna Kraft (transferred to play indoor at Wisconsin).

There are eight returners back from 2020, including my pick for newcomer of the year, Carly Skjodt, a former outside for Michigan who may have played in more beach volleyball tournaments in 2020 than anybody else in college. Whatever beach transitioning she needed to do from Michigan has been thoroughly smoothed over: Carly Skjodt is a beach player now.

As is her likely partner on court one, Brook Bauer, one of the best defenders in the college game. Together, they’ll comprise one of the more formidable court one teams in the nation, and will be backed in depth by senior Alix Filippone and sophomore Texan Sutton Mactavish.

The most intriguing player on the roster may be Latvian freshman Kristine Briede, who is expected to make an early impact, and, well, we’ve already seen what another Latvian has been able to do in Southern California.

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Mima Mirkovic chose to not play indoors this season stay on the beach for Cal/Al Sermeno, KLC fotos

Cal — Cal is certainly in the running for Team That Got Hit The Worst By COVID. The Bears were off to a torrid start in 2020, going 9-1 with a win over USC. Only six starters return from the 2020 team, but that list does include court one blocker Mima Mirkovic, who belongs on any first-team All-America projection list. Her partner on court one, Iya Lindahl, transferred to finish out her college career at LMU.

Also coming back, however, are Jordan Polo and Caroline Schafer, who went 9-1 together on court two. Ainsley Radell, too, returns, after also going 9-1 in 2020.

Expected to compete at the jump are freshmen Brooke Buchner, Maya Gessner, and Canadian Ava Mann.

Grand Canyon — Making a quiet ascent a year ago was Grand Canyon, who put together a 9-2 campaign — including wins over USC, Berkeley, and South Carolina — in 2020 before COVID got in the way. Seven starters are back, including the court one duo of Teagan DeFalco and Bella Baumann, who went 9-2 against some of the nation’s best.

The court three team of Katie Sarber and Anaya Evans are also back, and coach Kristen Rohr has done an excellent job hauling in talent from all corners of the country, and well outside of it. Transferring in is Brazilian Paula Hoffman, who had been playing for Eckerd, and freshmen Alli Hansen and Allani Navas of Puerto Rico are expected to appear in the lineup early.

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