USC rushes Delaynie Maple and Julia Scoles after they clinched/Tim Britt, techandphoto.com

GULF SHORES, Alabama — It really wasn’t as easy as it might have looked.

True, USC won its next 36 matches after losing the season opener and on Sunday, it took home the National Collegiate Beach Volleyball Championship trophy for the second straight year and fourth time in the six years the tournament has been an NCAA event. 

But there were some close wins, the usual assortment of injuries to overcome, and even Sunday, the final against Florida State was an all-out battle to the end.

With the last-day format in effect, first the Nos. 2 and 4 faced off. At No. 4, USC’s Audrey and Nicole Nourse, almost automatic, swept Florida State’s Morgan Chacon and Jordan Polo 25-23, 21-12. The first set was an intense battle, but the twins were dominant in the second to improve to 24-4 this season. On Saturday, Audrey talked about how they both dealt with really sore elbows last offseason. During the first set, she wore a sleeve on her right arm.

At No. 2, it was flat-out on, as Morgan’s sister, Alaina Chacon, and Madison Fitzpatrick squared the dual at 1-1 by beating Megan Kraft and Sammy Slater 14-21, 24-22, 17-15 in a match with all the intensity befitting a national championship being shown live on ESPN2.

And the Seminoles needed that win, because they simply had no realistic shot at sweeping the next three matches.

Then the Nos. 1, 3, and 5 courts began. At No. 5, USC’s Mollie Ebertin and Sunny Villapando got off to the quickest start, taking the first set over FSU’s Caitlin Moon and Raelyn White.

But at No. 1, USC’s Tina Graudina and Hailey Harward got all they could handle from FSU’s Maddie Anderson and Brook Bauer before winning 21-17, 21-15 to improve to 31-1.

The FSU pair rallied on Court 5, so it was evidently coming down to Court 3, where Julia Scoles — who said later that she was sick to her stomach and fighting to get through — and Delaynie Maple beat Anna Long and Kate Privett 25-23.

In the second set, the rout was on as Scoles and Maple won 21-12 to improve to 36-1. The dual was clinched — unfittingly — on an FSU hitting error.

The dogpile was on after USC beat FSU for the fourth time this season.

“I’m so grateful for our team that was willing to put in all the work ever since September,” Graudina said. “We really worked with just one goal in mind, to get this trophy. To maintain the focus for this long, it’s amazing.”

Then the Trojans got their trophies, cut the net into pieces and ran to the Gulf of Mexico for the traditional post-championship plunge.

“What a team effort,” Coach Dain Blanton said.

In a span of 364 days, USC won two NCAA titles.

And Graudina? In between, she finished fourth in the Tokyo Olympics with Latvian teammate Anastasija Kravcenoka.

It was suggested that she might be emotionally drained.

“I’m not emotionally drained,” she quickly said. “I’m emotionally charged. I’m so ready to continue my journey.”

For that matter, so are Harward and Scoles, soon to also be seen on a pro-beach volleyball court.

USC poses after taking the plunge/Stephen Burns photo

Their victory capped a long week but an especially tough two days for Florida State, which had to play three times Saturday because an early morning rainstorm Friday altered the schedule.

The tournament opened with eight single-elimination matches on Wednesday as the field was expanded this season from eight teams to 16. But no one played Thursday, something the NCAA is going to have re-consider, especially knowing how it can rain on the Gulf Coast at this time of year. The tournament was actually fortunate to have lost only the time it took to play two matches on Friday, when six were competed instead of eight, hence the three matches for FSU on Saturday.

On Saturday, the fifth-seeded Seminoles lost to USC, also in four, came back to eliminate sixth-seeded LSU 3-1 and and then in the late afternoon swept fourth-seeded Loyola Marymount.

Florida State’s Alaina Chacon goes all out/Stephen Burns photo

Sunday morning, the Seminoles sent third-seeded UCLA packing 3-2. In that one, FSU lost on No. 2 and then Morgan Chacon almost single-handedly led her and Polo past UCLA’s Rileigh Powers and Marlie Monserez 19-21, 25-23, 16-14. Morgan Chacon is now transferring to Long Beach State to play indoors with her sister, Savana, who has been at Purdue. Alaina is done.

“I’m proud of the team. We fought for everything,” said FSU coach Brooke Niles, who got the Seminoles back into the championship match for the third time (2016, 2018). “We had a lot more losses than we normally have this year, but I think we tried to learn from those moments and get better every day, and they are just grinders.”

Florida State finished 33-11, but more losses is kind of a tough way to look at it. The ‘Noles lost four times to USC, twice to UCLA, three times to TCU and once to LMU. That’s nine losses to the top four seeded teams that were in the tournament. 

“I told my team, we’re not hanging our heads low,” Niles said. “We should be proud of that second-place trophy.”

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Hailey Harward goes airborne for USC/Stephen Burns photo

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