No. 1 USC, No. 2 Florida State, No. 3 LSU, No. 4 UCLA set for high-level NCAA beach volleyball weekend

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Sammy Slater/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

If you’re a college beach volleyball fan, this is the weekend you’ve been waiting for:

This is when the titans of the East and West finally meet. And they’ll play twice each day in Los Angeles. It starts Saturday at 10:30 a.m. Pacific, with No. 3 LSU (16-2) at No. 4 UCLA (11-1), while No. 2 Florida State is at No. 1 USC (12-0).

Then the same teams play again at 1 p.m. Saturday.

Then on Sunday, also at 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m., LSU goes to USC, while FSU goes to UCLA.

These four teams have lost only to each other within their regional confines, with FSU defeating LSU twice, 4-1 and 3-2, while USC swept UCLA in their only meeting.

And fans, don’t despair: All eight matches will be live-streamed. See how and get the links by going to our VolleyballMag.com TV listings.

Given COVID’s travel restrictions, this will be the only time these four will meet until the NCAA beach volleyball championships in Gulf Shores, Alabama, May 7-9.

So both seeding and bragging rights are on the line.

What’s more, four of the NCAA’s six undefeated pairs will be going toe-to-toe.

At the No. 1 spot, USC’s future Olympian Tina Graudina, who has qualifed for Latvia, and Sammy Slater (11-0) will play LSU’s Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth (18-0). At the No. 5 spot, FSU’s Kate Privett and Jenna Johnson (15-0) will face USC’s twins, Audrey and Nicole Nourse (12-0).

“These programs are strong from top to bottom,” USC coach Dain Blanton said. “You’re scrapping, you’re clawing, trying to get a point at any position that you can. We believe that it’s going to be a big challenge, and I think that our athletes are up for that challenge.”

In a normal year, we would be heading to Manhattan Beach for the East-West tournament on iconic Manhattan Beach, fans and all. But with Los Angeles county beaches still under code-red restrictions, UCLA coach Stein Metzger proposed a change.

“We pivoted from having eight teams on the beach at Manhattan Beach to what we could do, which is one team at a time at our home environments,” Metzger said.

“So I called Dain and said, ‘Hey, why don’t we host LSU and FSU? They’re going to be really good this year, it would be great to have them come out.’ ”

Megan Kraft/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

No. 1 USC
The stars have all aligned for USC to assemble one of the most impressive teams in college beach history. In particular, USC’s top three teams are impressive physical threats that challenge other teams to stay within their game. 

Graudina is the most dominating blocker in the NCAA field, paired with experienced senior southpaw Slater at the No. 1.

No. 2 Julia Scoles and Hailey Harward are nearly as impressive (10-1). Scoles has one of the heaviest arms in the women’s game, while Harward displays impressive range both on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.

No. 3 combines the youth and talent of Megan Kraft and experience and power of Haley Hallgren (9-1). Kraft earned a fifth place at AVP Hermosa 2019 while just a precocious high-schooler. 6-foot-1 senior Hallgren adds athleticism and decision-making skills to a partnership that continues to improve.

“I think there’s no hiding the fact that USC is one of the most physical teams that have ever been put together,” LSU coach Russell Brock said. “It’ll be a great matchup with that team, and we know that they’re good. They’ve got all the pedigrees, all the All-Americans, they’ve come together to create that super-team. It’s great. I love it.”

USC is even more formidable at home, within the confines of Merle Norman beach stadium, sheltered by buildings on all four sides, presenting no equalizing winds.

“We look at every match on our schedule, not only as an opportunity to improve, but also to give us a gauge to give us an idea of where we’re at,” Blanton said. “We are excited to compete every weekend, but we haven’t played any teams yet from off the West Coast, so that will be a treat.”

USC has also spent significant time in the film room, Blanton said.

“We watch film on ourselves, we watch film on our opponents, we try to allow the players to go into every match as prepared as possible.”

NCAA beach volleyball 4/2/2021-Alain Chacon-Florida State beach volleyball
Alaina Chacon, FSU/Joe Kepler, SC athletics

No. 2 Florida State
FSU coach Brooke Niles is a big believer in adversity. She has scheduled aggressively, with a total of 21 matches, 12 of them against ranked foes, through four weeks of competition.

With an undefeated 21 victories to their credit, the Seminoles have achieved that balance of physicality and beach skills rarely attained at a young age, Metzger said.

“FSU is a lot of really good beach-savvy players. Their blockers aren’t as tall, they have some split-teams, each team looks different, they’re a little harder to prepare for, because you have to prepare five pairs,” Metzger said.

“They have a lot of talent, they’ve brought in Torrey Van Winden, who makes them a lot stronger, and some really good young players too.”

Combined, Florida State’s top five of Alaina Chacon and Molly McBain (14-5), Van Winden and Keara Rutz (19-1), Sara Putt and Maddie Anderson (20-0), Liz Waters-Leiga and Payton Caffrey (10-1) and Kate Privett and Jenna Johnson (15-0) are an astonishing 78-7.

Niles has her team battle-ready, but is also thinking ahead to next week’s home matches against FIU, Stetson and UNF April 9-10.

“Our preparation has been pretty normal, when we go out there we’re going to try and stay on East Coast time, just because when we come back it’s a pretty quick turnaround to come back to our home tournament.,” Niles said. “So the itinerary we have, the meal times will all be in relation to the time in Florida versus the time in California.”

Niles’ preparation has been focused on maintaining consistent execution on the FSU side. 

“I feel like when we struggle it’s been us beating ourselves at this point, so we’re still working on all that.  We haven’t faced USC or UCLA yet, when we see them a little more, and see them in the postseason, it will be more, ‘What are they doing?’ but right now, since we don’t have ton of information, we just know that they have great players and great coaches, scrappy teams, so we’re focused on ourselves.”

NCAA beach volleyball 4/2/2021-Kristen Nuss-LSU beach volleyball
Kristen Nuss/Jacob Reeder, LSU

No. 3 LSU
Last year LSU was ranked atop the AVCA poll, running up a 12-2 record and riding an 11-win streak that included beating UCLA when COVID stopped the season.

Nuss and Claire Coppola, now split at the Nos. 1 and 2 pairs, were a dominant pair at 12-2 in 2020 until COVID intervened.

The Tigers are motivated to handle their unfinished business, starting six seniors, one grad student, two juniors, and one sophomore. The Tigers have tremendous experience, returning the vast majority of their roster. This year their 16-2 record is marred only by those losses to FSU. 

Brock admits that they haven’t yet recaptured all of the magic from their 2020 run, including their home win against then-No. 1 UCLA. They’re positioned to compete well, coming off a rest week.

“For us, it’s really about defining who we are. We have the opportunity to play teams that not a lot of teams from the East will get the chance to play,” Brock said. 

“We haven’t yet reached our potential, which is a great place to be. Even though we have two losses, both to Florida State, there’s been zero panic. We know that we’re not firing on all cylinders yet. And that takes time. One real good way to kickstart that engine is to get out there and know that there is absolutely nothing to lose. 

“You’ve got to play great, and you’ve got to give it everything you have, or you may as well not play. We’re pushing ourselves into a space where we have to bring every bit of our training, every bit of our energy, every bit of our togetherness, every bit of our support and excitement against two opponents that are going to demand that.”

“That’s a great place to reignite the magic that they had. It’s a perfect time for us, coming off a little bit of a break, and really, honestly getting genuine competition in training.” 

LSU’s bus left Baton Rouge Friday at 4:30 a.m. so the Tigers could practice at both UCLA’s Mapes Beach and USC’s Merle Norman stadium, facilities new to the LSU beach program.

“That team is very good. Every team on LSU is very similar.,” Metzger said. “Big left-side blocker, smaller right-side defender, very traditional blocker-defender type, they’re all on the same side, which is smart, because it makes them interchangeable if something were to happen due to injury or COVID protocols. They have gotten very good at what they do. 

“LSU has a lot of maturity, with a lot of fifth-year seniors with a ton of experience.”

Brock said LSU has been a work in progress.

“Every week we’ve changed a little bit, and as we’ve gotten more and more information about who we are, and what we need to work on specifically, we’ve tailored our practices to fit our needs more and more as we’ve gone along,” Brock said. “That’s been the major component. We haven’t seen either of these teams play other than in clips and highlights and social media posts.”

LSU’s off-week preparation has focused on the nuances presented by USC and UCLA.

“We know most of the players on their rosters. Some of the things we were working on were in preparation for a style, a physicality that we’ll see, that maybe we haven’t seen very often, other than Florida State in the last couple of weeks.,” Brock said.

“That’s something we can focus on, the pace of the game, the angles that can be created, those are things we’ve focused more on this week for these specific opponents. More than anything, this is about us getting more data on our pairs, and putting themselves into position to iron out the things that are revealed as we play them over the last three to four weeks.”

NCAA beach volleyball 4/2/2021-Jaden Whitmarsh-UCLA beach volleyball
Jaden Whitmarsh/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

No. 4 UCLA
UCLA is a young team, returning only three starters (Savvy Simo, Lindsey Sparks and Abby Van Winkle) from its 2019 championship lineup. 

But their youth doesn’t play like youth, according to LSU’s Brock.

“UCLA’s been great for years, Stein’s been doing a wonderful job training those players, and they grew up on the beach,” Brock said. “The skill levels, and the pairings they’ve put together, we know that they’re really well oiled. They’re not going to give points away, they’re going to demand that we execute at a really high level, and there are going to be games that are decided by one or two plays in each set. 

“You don’t get that most weekends. Most weekends you roll out into the sand, and you can miss a few serves here or there, and you can hit a few balls out, you can get blocked a couple of times, and you can create a couple of real point opportunities to get back into sets and even win them handily. That’s not going to be the case.”

We  spoke with Metzger on Thursday after he had completed his scouting report for both FSU and LSU.

“They’re going to be some really tough matches. It’s hard not to get caught up on their side of the net, because we’ve been focusing on our side of the net for so long, with not being able to compete as much,” Metezger said. 

“Now it’s neat to see and learn what other people do, and are there small adjustments that we can make in order to match up well with them.”

Metzger sees this weekend as an opportunity to identify and shore up any Bruin weaknesses a little more than a month away from the NCAA championships. 

“Because this is the first time we’re seeing them, it is a tough matchup for us. We have put in quite a bit of preparation, very much how we would prepare for a post-season championship. 

“It gives us a chance to see what we can do against their particular styles, and win or lose, reassess how it went. We won’t see them again until NCAA’s, if everyone gets there.”

Metzger said the Bruins have worked hard this week on ball control and he’s optimistic about the weekend.

“I feel pretty good about where we’re at,” Metzger said. “This will be a good litmus test in terms of where we’re at from one to five on how we stack up against the top teams in the country. That’ll be good to see.”

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