USC, UCLA, Pepperdine, Arizona enjoy fall beach competition

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Do not adjust your set. You're not seeing double. You're watching the Witt twins of Arizona (right) versus the McNamara twins of UCLA (left)

On Saturday, volleyball powerhouses USC, UCLA, Pepperdine, and Arizona met in Malibu, but it wasn’t on the hardwood as one might think for an October confrontation. Rather, it was a rare pre-season fall beach tournament, each team contesting against three other teams in dual competition.

2016 NCAA-champion USC came out on top, finishing 3-0 in dual matches, winning 14 of its 15 individual matches. Since teams have only been practicing two to three weeks, and are without the benefit of their indoor players, it is probably too early to draw any conclusions from this weekend’s play. Rather, the coaches welcomed it as a chance to get a sense of how their players compete.

We had a chance to sit down with each of the head coaches to get a sense of how their team was progressing towards the start of the season in March:

Ashley Witt, Arizona, digs
McKenna Witt of Arizona digs a cut shot

Arizona coach Steve Walker, whose Wildcats finished fifth in the NCAA Championships in May in Gulf Shores, Ala.:

VBM: How do you feel about fall pre-season tournaments?

Walker: “I hope we’ll be able to get more opportunities to get out, see some different teams, and compete in the fall. The ratio of  training to competition in beach volleyball is the biggest in terms of hours spent. It’s nice to get some early season competitions in.”

VBM: What does this year’s team look like?

Walker: “I like this year’s team. It’s the first year that I feel like it’s not our first year. What I mean by that is that even though this is our fourth season, we’ve had an enormous amount of turnover. We’ve graduated a lot of players, fifth-year players, graduate students, and transfers.

“We returned six starters off of last year’s squad and brought in a pretty talented group of freshmen as well. I really like what I’m seeing, we’re further ahead at this time than we’ve ever been for this program. It has everyone excited for what’s coming this spring.”

VBM: Any players that stand out in your mind?

Walker: “Olivia Halloran, a freshman from the Phoenix area. She was our last recruit from 2016, primarily as an indoor player, but she’s proven to be a great addition, and I look for her to be a great Wildcat in the years to come. She’s such a good learner. Her athletic ability, coupled with her work ethic, make her an exciting player.”

Pepperdine's Delaney Knudsen chases one down
Pepperdine’s Delaney Knudsen chases one down

Pepperdine coach, Nina Matthies, whose Waves tied for fifth in Gulf Shores:

VBM: What have you learned about your team so far?

Matthies: “We’ve only been training for two weeks, getting our full 20 hours a week for the last two weeks, so we have six new faces, and I have my three indoor kids, so there’s a lot of change at this point. We haven’t spent a lot of time playing at this point, just training, working on technique, and what we’re trying to accomplish this year as a whole group. It’s been great, I love my team, they’re working really hard, we’re getting fit now, that’s what we’re working on, and just getting everybody in the Pepperdine Waves program. I couldn’t be happier.

“I have 16 players, and to be honest with you, all 16 have been amazing. Everybody’s been amazing, it’s a total buy-in, we’re training really, really, hard in the weight room, and conditioning, they’re all in. And that’s a really good sign. It bodes well for January and on. I love my team. I don’t think I could pick out anybody. Honestly, they’ve all been really, really, good.

“The new kids I have: Brittany Howard, a fifth-year international-business school student from Stanford, Katty Workman, an outside hitter from Boston College, with very little beach experience, so it’s been fun having them learn, and getting their MBA, so what a great deal. And then I have Tiffany Morales, a grad student in psychology, so she’ll come out with her masters, and she played for Michigan as a libero. She hasn’t swung at a ball for four years (laughs). Probably five.

“So it’s been a lot of fun for the older kids to come in with a lot of enthusiasm and really excited about learning the game and joining our great program of beach volleyball. That’s been amazing, and then I have three freshmen in Jordan Ferrari, who is just awesome. And then Gigi Fernandez and Deahna Kraft from Washington. I couldn’t ask for better kids. They’re absorbing the whole freshmen thing pretty well, and the first two months, everyone is just adjusting. They’re just really good kids.”

VBM: Are there any pairs that have shown unusual chemistry together?

Matthies: “We haven’t worked on pairs at all. We played yesterday at practice for the first time on Friday. Otherwise, we’ve been all around the horn, playing left side, right side, working on all kinds of things. Friday was the first day we paired people up, and then today, they didn’t really know who they were playing with until I brought them in this morning and said, ‘Here’s what we’re going with.’ They’ve all said, ‘I don’t care who I’m playing with, I don’t care what side I’m playing on, whatever you guys want’, so that’s pretty awesome. That’s what we’ve done every year at this time of year.

“And January, we’ll start honing in. We’ll get going. For me, I’ve only had some people a couple of weeks, so we haven’t seen all their colors yet, you have to give them a little time to get more ingrained in the program. And then with our indoor kids, you don’t want to make pairs without them, because they’re: Heidi Dyer was part of our No. 1 pair last year, and she’s going to be somewhere in there, Jenna Tunnell didn’t play last year, she’s very athletic, a right side setter from Arizona, tremendous beach player, and then Nikki Lyons from Florida. So I have to fit in those kids, and don’t want to put things together now, and then all of a sudden we’re changing. We’re just getting better. That’s our philosophy around here, we’re just getting better.”

Nicole McNamara of UCLA, lays out in No. 1 pairs competition
Nicole McNamara of UCLA, lays out in No. 1 pairs competition

UCLA’s coach Stein Metzger, whose Bruins finished third in the NCAA Championships:

VBM: Are you in favor of fall competition?

Metzger: “The fall tournament, it’s great. A great opportunity for teams to feel each other out, and get a sense of how we actually compete. The younger classes coming in are fantastic. There’s no substitute for competition, so you never know how pairs will mesh with each other until you see them compete. I know there’s some legislation that we’re trying to push through that will allow more fall tournaments, so we’re all hoping that that is going to come through, and give us an opportunity to play three or four of these in the fall.”

VBM: How does your recruiting class for this year look?

Metzger: “We have four new freshmen that are in. We’ve added quite a bit of size and physicality, as freshmen. Last year’s team was all about ball control, and I thought we set the ball really well, and this year we’re going to have more of a traditional style with a blocker and defender. We’ve got some growing pains in that regard, but this tournament I’ve actually matched up a freshman with an upperclassman, and asked the upperclassman to communicate a lot, and just get them up to speed as quickly as possible. I know that they’re going to make a significant impact on this team this season.”

VBM: Last year you had a significant amount of talent move over from the indoor team. Who is coming over this year?

Metzger: “We’ll have four or five coming over from indoor, and two of them are freshmen, one will be a sophomore that comes back in Zana Muno, and then we have Jordan Anderson and Reily Buechler, who also contributed last year. So we have a sizeable chunk of talent that’s still coming out in January, but what I know from Fall practice is, that with the addition of these freshmen, the level is about double what it was from fall of last year in terms of physicality, and what we’re able to do, so I’m really excited about our ability to train at a high level early in the season.”

Sara Hughes of USC retrieves a high line shot.
Sara Hughes of USC digs

USC coach Anna Collier, whose team not only won the inaugural NCAA title last spring, but also the AVCA competition on which it was modeled the two years before that:

VBM: Are you excited for fall volleyball?

Collier: “We’re here in the fall, and we’re excited that this is a high-level fall tournament, and that the game has grown to where there are teams that can get out and compete in the fall. I think that is just going to improve everybody’s game.”

VBM: How do the Trojans look for 2017?

Collier: “For us, we only really lost Alexa Strange and Zoe Nightingale, so we’re feeling pretty good that we should be able to do well.”

“We’ve been training extremely hard this off season. Strength and conditioning, and we’ve been going six days a week for about three weeks now. We are getting a lot of work done in the fall. And if we can just compete we’re going to have a really nice season. I think we’ll be in it in March, I don’t know if we’re going to be able to win the parade, so to speak, but I think we’ll have a chance to be there. We’ll see how they compete.”

“I’m really excited about this year. We’ve got great new freshmen, Joy Dennis, who’s really come on strong, and is really helping us. We’ve flipped a lot of teams around. That’s really exciting for us, to be able to train and coach different people. I actually have a team of twos that are going to be splitting the blocking duties, and if you follow USC volleyball at all, there’s usually a blocker and a defender. This is really exciting for me, too, because I get to coach a new aspect of the sport, so that’s fun for us too. Other than that, Jo (Kremer) is now at five, she won for us last year, and we feel she can carry that spot, we’re hoping that Sara (Hughes) and Kelly (Claes) can cover their spot,  and other than that, we’re just trying to feel it out right here to see what we do with the two through four. The only one that has stayed the same from last year is Kelly and Sara.”

Speaking of seniors Claes and Hughes, we had a quick chat with the national-champion pair who are riding a collegiate winning streak that started in their sophomore year:

Sara Hughes, USC, runs one down
Sara Hughes of USC plays defense.

VBM: So, how’s college after all the travel of last spring and summer?

Claes: “It’s so much fun, we’re having so much fun with school and being able to play beach, it’s just such a blessing, and we’re just having a great time with it.”

Hughes: “It’s fun to be back in the rhythm. Class, practice, class. We’re always busy, but it’s fun that way.”

VBM: Do you miss the travel?

Claes: “Yeah, being able to travel, play, and see new places all the time is amazing, but being back at SC, and being at home just feels so nice.”

VBM: What’s it like, coming from a pairs focus this summer to a team focus at USC?

Hughes: “It’s nice coming into a program where a lot of people have our back and we play for each other, not only as a partnership but as a whole team behind you. I think that’s a really fun aspect of it. Our team, we’re so much fun. We have great relationships with everyone on the team, and we have a good time.”

Claes: “I think that passion is a big part of it. We’re very passionate about playing this sport, and playing for each other. We just take it one day at a time, and try to get a little bit better every day with the mindset that March will come up pretty quick, this semester is almost half over. Its comes up quick.”

Hughes: “It’s fun. I love practice.”

VBM: Do you think about your streak at all (Hughes and Claes have won 73 consecutive matches)? If the score is 19-19, does it cross your mind?

Hughes: (laughs:) ”Oh, no.”

Claes: “We didn’t even know about the streak until our social media told us about it. We’re just going out there, playing for each other, and trying to have fun, and playing our best ball every time we go out on the court.”

Madison Witt of Arizona scrambles
Madison Witt of Arizona scrambles for a dig.

 

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