GULF SHORES, Ala. — While defending-champion USC sat back and relaxed, enjoying another easy path to Sunday’s National Collegiate Beach Volleyball Championship title match, Hawai’i and Florida State, facing elimination in the last match of Saturday, played one for the ages.
The kind of match that if you weren’t already a college-beach volleyball convert, if you saw it in person or on TV, you are now.
Hawai’i won at Nos. 3 and 4.
Florida State came back and won at Nos. 1 and 2.
So it all came down to the No. 5, where Hawai’i’s Hannah Zalopany and Amy Ozee won the first set 21-17. But FSU’s Hailey Luke and Eva Torruella won the second 21-18.
And then things got really interesting.
In the end, battling swirling wind and playing before a crowd five deep surrounding the court, with yells of “Let’s go ‘Bows” to the FSU Chop war chant, in a game to 15, Zalopany and Ozee won 27-25.
“Awesome sporting event, great for the game,” Hawai’i coach Jeff Hall said. “And that’s what we’re trying to do here. Obviously we’re trying to win and the other team is trying to win, but collectively we’re trying to grow the game. And that means everybody, that means you guys, the media, that means the people putting this together, Gulf Shores, all these great teams that are here, for me that’s what it’s all about.”
It marked the end of the line for Florida State, which played USC in last year’s championship match.
Now the Sunday schedule has:
Third-seeded Pepperdine (26-4) vs. Hawai’i (29-6) at 10 a.m. Central on NCAA.com.
Top-seeded USC (37-1) vs. the Pepperdine-Hawai’i winner at 1 p.m. Central on TBS.
Earlier Saturday, Florida State ousted UCLA in another close one, while Hawai’i beat LSU.
Then USC beat Pepperdine.
Which set up Hawai’i-FSU thriller.
At No. 3, Emily Maglio and Laurel Weaver beat FSU’s Sierra Sanchez and Macy Jerger 16-21, 22-20, 15-7. The Sandbows took a 2-0 lead at No. 4 when Ari Homayun and Carly Kan beat Katie Hotron and Francesca Goncalves 21-14, 22-20.
But FSU bounced back with a win at No. 2, when Vanessa Freire and Victoria Paranagua got past Ka’iwi Schucht and Nikki Taylor 18-21, 21-19, 15-12. And when the No. 1 pair of Leigh Andrews and Brooke Kuhlman beat Morgan Martin and Mikayla Tucker 21-14, 15-21, 17-15, it was on.
At the time, it was already 20-20 on the No. 5 court.
After that FSU had match point at 21-20 and 22-21. From then on it was survival and unfortunately it ended on two Seminoles hitting errors.
“We just said one point at a time no matter what side were on,” Zalopany said. “We stuck with each other one movement at a time, pass, set, in the court, listening to each other, listening to each other’s calls and trusting each other’s judgement and just sticking together.
“And ultimately that’s what brought us to the finish line.”
Much to the relief of their coach.
“It’s so neat for them, because they’ve had a tough tournament so far,” said Hall, whose team opened the tournament Friday by beating Florida State before losing to UCLA. “They haven’t put points on the board. Quite frankly, they were having really tough issues. And then to put it together right there when it mattered, to get our team to advance is so special. And that’s what’s so unique about the college beach duals. There’s nothing like it. Maybe tennis.
“But that was awesome with a great crowd, too.”
Hawai’i and Pepperdine met three times during the regular season. On March 29 on Malibu’s Zuma Beach, Pepperdine won 3-2. On April 7 at Hawai’i, Pepperdine won again 3-2. But the next day, the Sandbows bounced back and won 4-1.
“A great team and they play in this wind, so it’s right up their alley. We’ve have some great battles with them the last couple of years and this year,” Hall said. “I look forward to the challenge.”
The Seminoles saw their season end 28-9.
“That’s why I love beach volleyball in college because it’s a true team sport and it always comes down to one game and it could have gone either way,” said FSU coach Brooke Niles, nearly eight months pregnant with her second child and fighting an illness all week.
“Hats off to Hawai’i and congrats to them, but it hurts for us.”
USC, meanwhile, made short work of Pepperdine and the 3-0 victory puts the Trojans in a position to win three in a row. They won the AVCA title in 2014 and then last year took the inaugural NCAA event.
Sunday will mark the end of the line for two of the more remarkable athletes that college sports has seen. Seniors Kelly Claes and Sara Hughes, who earlier this season had a 103-match winning streak broken, defeated Delaney Knudsen and Madalyn Roh 21-18, 21-9.
“We get a little more time and a little more recovery and we get the advantage of to watch whatever teams makes it to the finals,” Claes said. “All of those pieces we’re really going to take advantage of because they don’t have that advantage. We’re just going to roll with it, play as hard as we can and hopefully take home that national championship.”
Hughes is determined as ever.
“We’ve been working for this all year,” Hughes said. “From the moment we came together Anna came in and said, ‘Our goal is to win a national championship.’ And that’s what we’ve been striving for this whole time. And that’s what you see here. We’re competing at our hardest level. We’re going for everything. We’re not letting anything drop.
“And we’re playing as a team. That’s the most important thing, we’re going to come out here and win as a team.”
USC also won at No. 3 (Terese Cannon and Nicolette Martin) and at No. 4 (Abril Bustamante and Joy Dennis).
Florida State beat UCLA 3-1, winning at Nos. 1, 2 and 4.
“When you get into a tournament like this things can happen,” UCLA coach Stein Metzger said. “The wind piped up. We played a great match. I thought we battled really well and so did Florida State. And so did Pepperdine yesterday when we played them, so we ran into a couple of freight trains and I thought we played well. They just played a little bit better.”
UCLA, ranked either second or third all season, finished 30-6 and had on its resume as the team that broke USC’s 62-match winning streak.
“All you can do is put in the work and put yourself in a position,” Metzger said. “And I think that’s what did this year and what we’re going to continue to try to do.”
UCLA never lost to a team ranked lower than fourth, falling to USC three times, Pepperdine twice and Florida State
“I’m super proud of this team,” Metzger said. “They worked their tails off. We’ve made big strides in the last two years and we’ll continue to try to make big strides and see what we can do. It’s our goal to be in the conversation every year and we did that this year.”
LSU finished its season 27-8, leaving here with its first NCAA victory after losing to UCLA to open the tournament but knocking off sixth-seeded Long Beach State on Saturday.
“We for sure expected to be better this year, just like we were last year and just like the year before,” said LSU coach Russell Brock, whose Tigers had a 24-match winning streak this season. “The farther along in the process you go it becomes harder to make those big jumps. But we believed it was possible to make a big jump and I think that we did.
“And one of things we talked about (in the post-match meeting) was we’re not done. We’re not done improving.”