NCAA beach: A primer as the 8-team tournament begins in Gulf Shores

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NCAA beach volleyball 5/2/2019-Emily Sonny
Cal Poly's Emily Sonny and the Mustangs are in the NCAA tournament for the first time winning the Big West Championship/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

GULF SHORES, Ala. — The fourth National Collegiate Beach Championships begin Friday.

Here’s what you need to know.

There are eight matches Friday and by the time the sun sets on the Redneck Riviera, two will be gone. 

When the dust clears Saturday, three will remain, setting up two matches Sunday that will decide the NCAA championship. The first is a so-called semifinal, with the winner advancing to play the lone unbeaten team.

USC won the inaugural title in 2016 and again in 2017. Last year UCLA won.

Not surprisingly, they’re the top two seeds in this year’s eight-team field. USC gets things going at 9 a.m. Central on the white sands where the breeze usually comes through with authority and the temperature is expected to hover around 80.

NCAA beach volleyball 5/2/2019-Anna Collier
USC head coach Anna Collier celebrates with her team after a Pac-12 winners bracket win over UCLA/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

No. 1 USC (28-4) vs. No. 8 Stetson (29-8), 9 a.m. Central, ESPNU
USC, which also won the 2015 AVCA national title, has the 2018 VolleyballMag.com national pair of the year of Abril Bustamante and Tina Graudina at No. 1 and a pretty stout lineup after that. Coach Anna Collier’s team lost to UCLA early, then to then No. 10 South Carolina before falling to Pepperdine on March 30 and then UCLA again on April 3. Since then, the Trojans have won 12 in a row, including beating UCLA three times, twice last weekend in the Pac-12 Championship.

USC beat Stetson, winner of the Atlantic Sun 4-1 March 7 at USC. Stetson’s lone win that day was when Quinci Birker and Rebecca Ingram beat Cammie Dorn and Mollie Ebertin.

Coach Kristina Hernandez’s team has won 13 in a row, including winning the ASUN tournament title. Stetson was the third team out of the East in a field that NCAA took three from the East, three from the West, and two at-larges.

No. 5 LSU (29-6) vs. No. 4 Pepperdine (20-9), 10 a.m. Central, ESPNU
Pepperdine and first-year coach Marcio Sicoli have had an up-and-down season, losing to Loyola Marymount in the West Coast Conference tournament final. But the Waves are one of only two teams (USC) that have made the national tournament in every year of its eight-year span, beginning in 2012 when the Waves won the inaugural AVCA Championships. Pepperdine also won in 2014.

Pepperdine boasts some of the top pairs in the country in Heidi Dyer and Brook Bauer at No. 1 and Deahna Kraft and Gigi Hernandez at No. 2.

LSU, seeded seventh the past two years, thought it would be the No. 4 seed, but regardless of whether you’re 4 or 5, the winner plays the 1-8 winner and loser the 1-8 loser.

LSU, coached by Russell Brock, has been extremely tough at No. 1 with Kristen Nuss and Claire Coppola and No. 5 with Hunter Domanski and Allison Coens (who has been out with an illness).

These teams met March 9 in the East Meets West Challenge and LSU won 3-2. LSU won at 1, 4, and 5. This time LSU will likely have the so-called home-sand advantage, since Baton Rouge is about a four-hour drive from Gulf Shores and its fans normally come out strong.

No. 7 Hawai’i (26-9) vs. No. 2 UCLA, (31-3), 11 a.m. Central, ESPNU
UCLA was unbeaten and No. 1 for much of the season until April 7 when it took its first loss to USC, 3-2 at Stanford. Then last weekend the Bruins opened the Pac-12 tourney with wins over Oregon and Arizona before losing to USC 3-2 again. UCLA had to beat Cal to get to the final, and it lost again to USC 3-2. In the last meeting, UCLA won at No. 4 behind Lea Monkhouse and Savvy Simo and at No. 5 behind Izzy Carey and Lindsey Sparks. But the previous seemingly unbeatable pair at No. 1, Megan and Nicole McNamara, met their match against USC’s Bustamante and Graudina. 

That’s one of the challenges for coach Stein Metzger if the Bruins are to repeat. His team won at Hawai’i 5-0 February 24.

Hawai’i coach Jeff Hall’s team is also coming off a loss, falling to Cal Poly twice in the Big West tournament last week. The Sandbows are in the NCAA tournament for the fourth year in a row — have finished third the past two years — and are led by the No. 1 pair of Emily Maglio and Amy Ozee.

Julia Scoles, a transfer from North Carolina who plays No. 2 with Ari Homayunn, hurt her back in the Big West tourney and had to withdraw, but said she’ll play Friday.

No. 3 Florida State (28-5) vs. No. 6 Cal Poly (25-10), noon Central, ESPU
Florida State won the CCSA for the fourth year in a row. But that’s not the title that coach Brooke Niles and the Seminoles are after. A year ago, they were so close, beating UCLA, USC and Hawai’i to get into Sunday’s final unscathed. But UCLA bounced back and won it all, beating FSU 3-1.

FSU, led by the No. 1 pair of Alaina Chacon and Madison Fitzpatrick, won 11 of its 15 matches against ranked teams and have won 12 duals in a row, including last weekend’s sweep of LSU in the CCSA final.

Cal Poly went 4-0 in the Big West tournament, sweeping Sacramento State and Long Beach State before stunning Hawai’i 4-1 and 3-2. It gave the Mustangs one of the two at-large bids and got the team into the NCAA tourney for the first time.

Cal Poly is led by its No. 1 pair of Crissy Jones and Tiadora Miric and No. 2 of Macy Gordon and Emily Sonny.  The Mustangs have been particularly impressive considering they lost Torrey Van Winden early. Van Winden, an indoor All-American and a budding beach star, sustained a serious concussion during the NCAA Tournament. She tried to come back for the beach season but had to stop and try to heal.

In their only meeting this season, Florida State beat Cal Poly 4-1 on February 23 in Tallahassee.

Also Friday:
USC-Stetson loser vs. LSU-Pepperdine loser, 1 p.m., ESPNU
Florida State-Cal Poly loser vs. UCLA-Hawai’i loser, 2 p.m., ESPNU
USC-Stetson winner vs. LSU-Pepperdine winner, 3 p.m. ESPNU
Florida State-Cal Poly winner vs. Hawai’i-UCLA winner, 4 p.m., ESPNU

The ESPN NCAA beach crew, from left, Holly Rowe, Courtney Lyle, Same Gore, Dain Blanton, Holly McPeak, and Dawn Davenport

The Worldwide Leader
ESPN, covering the event for the second year, will have two broadcast teams as it shows every match. 

One announcing group will feature Courtney Lyle, Dain Blanton and Holly Rowe, and the other Sam Gore, Holly McPeak and Dawn Davenport.

Saturday’s first, second and third matches will be shown on ESPN2, while the winners match at 3 p.m. will be shown on ESPN.

Sunday’s first match at 9:30 a.m. will be shown on ESPN2 with the 1 p.m. national championship match on ESPN.

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