A severe series of thunderstorms blew through the Gulf Coast on Thursday morning and as a result, the NCAA delayed the start of practice for the National Collegiate Volleyball Championships in Gulf Shores.

A couple of tents that were set up Wednesday between Court 2 and the practice courts were knocked down. You can see what the setup looked like Wednesday in the photo below when the weather was ideal.

The forecast for Thursday called for isolated thunderstorms again in mid-afternoon, which would affect the practices scheduled from 1 to 6 p.m., but Friday’s weather is expected to be sunny with temperatures in the mid- to high-60s.

Wednesday was gorgeous in Gulf Shores as setup was near completion/Eric Bouscher photo
Wednesday was gorgeous in Gulf Shores as setup was near completion

If nothing else, the past month showed us that the USC beach team is human.

After all, Kelly Claes and Sara Hughes actually lost.

And the team last week saw its 62-match winning streak snapped.

But when the National Collegiate Beach Championship starts Friday in Gulf Shores, Ala., have no doubt that defending-champion USC is the the team to beat.

A year ago, USC won the inaugural NCAA title by beating Florida State in the final.

The Trojans picked right up where they left off this season with much of the focus on Claes and Hughes, the seniors who extended their almost two-year winning streak to 103 matches before finally getting knocked off April 8 by Lindsey Knudsen and Payton Rund of Saint Mary’s.

They haven’t lost since.

Meanwhile, the team kept on chugging, having a few close ones, but winning them all until UCLA finally knocked USC off in last week’s winners bracket of the Pac-12 Championships.

No worry, though, because the Trojans bounced back by beating Washington in the losers bracket before then beating UCLA 3-2 in the final.

And now USC (34-1) is the No. 1 seed, UCLA (29-4) is second, Pepperdine (24-3) is No. 3 and Florida State (27-7) fourth.

USC opens play Friday against eighth-seeded South Carolina (23-9). Also in the field are No. 5 Hawai’i (25-5), No. 6 Long Beach State (25-8) and No. 7 LSU (26-6).

Coach Anna Collier, flanked by stars Kelly Claes, left, and Sara Hughes/Ed Chan, VBshots.com
Coach Anna Collier, flanked by stars Kelly Claes, left, and Sara Hughes/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Veteran USC coach Anna Collier likes where USC is headed, especially the last half of the season.

“I think we’re a lot better, actually,” Collier said. “During the Pac-12, there were a couple of matches there where I thought, ‘Wow! We’re almost surgical. We’re kind of dissecting some of these teams with our high-level skill.’ “

She laughed.

“And then there were a couple of matches where I was like, ‘Really, have we ever played this game before?’ “

Every coach feels that way at some time or another, but understand that USC has won 96 of its last 99 matches.

For that matter, before UCLA finally cashed in last week, only four teams had ever beaten USC in a dual, Pepperdine eight times, Long Beach State five times, Florida State three times and Hawai’i once.

Nonetheless, USC has grinded at times this year. Collier has used 15 different pairings this season.

“This team is different because we’ve had some more adversity, if you will, we’ve had some different sicknesses and injuries and different people playing with different people, so it hasn’t been quite as smooth as last year in that respect,” she said.

“But I think this team is much more talented, much more mature, simply because my fab five are seniors and they want to win more than anybody I’ve ever met in my life.”

That’s what she calls her five seniors, Claes, Hughes, Sophie Bukovec, Allie Wheeler and Nicolette Martin.

USC senior Sophie Bukovec finished second at the Pac-12 pairs championships/ed Chan, VBshots.com
USC senior Sophie Bukovec finished second at the Pac-12 pairs championships/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Talk about depth: In the Pac-12 pairs competition after the team tournament, Claes and Hughes beat Bukovec and Wheeler, the USC No. 2 pair, for the title.

“An all-USC final at the Pac-12 is probably not going to happen for a lot of years,” Collier said.

Collier will be coaching the remarkable Claes and Hughes for the last time this week. They’ll be earning money on the sand very shortly.

“They’re very special. Special people, special players, special leaders, special teammates,” Collier said. “They really are the whole package, which is nice, but they bring a lot to the table other than their volleyball skills.

“And it takes a lot more than just the volleyball skills to bring it all home.”

Should USC beat South Carolina, which it did 5-0 at South Carolina on March 25, it will play the winner of Florida State vs. Hawai’i. South Carolina and LSU are the newcomers in what appears to be a much stronger field in a much stronger college sport than last year.

“Without a doubt,” Collier said. “I’m not a clipboard coach, but I’m sure we had a lot more 5-0’s last year. We’ve gone into a lot more matches where in previous years we’d be saying, ‘OK, this is a training match.’ And this year, I’m saying, ‘OK, girls, it’s on.’

“And South Carolina is a perfect example of that. They’re going to bring their A game and they have an A game that can challenge us.”

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