The NCAA beach volleyball season begins in earnest Friday as the AVCA top five are in action. And two of them are in the Pac-12, top-ranked and two-time defending-champion USC and No. 3 UCLA.
Our Pac-12 preview follows, but first a look at some of this weekend’s NCAA season-opening tournaments.
Arizona State is the host for the Sun Devil Challenge, which includes USC, No. 14 Cal Poly and Nebraska.
No. 2 Pepperdine heads to nearby Grand Canyon to compete against No. 6 LSU, No. 10 GCU, and also Cal Poly.
UCLA jumps the pond to No. 5 Hawai’i for the Rainbow Wahine Classic that includes No. 17 Stanford. Click here for the schedule.
Stetson has a great gathering in DeLand, Fla., as the No. 15 Hatters play host to No. 4 Florida State, No. 8 South Carolina, No. 12 Georgia State, No. 16 Florida Atlantic, and Eckerd.
Although USC has perhaps the strongest recruiting class in the history of beach volleyball, it will rely heavily on freshmen, perhaps opening a door for No. 3 UCLA. Arizona comes in at No. 9, Stanford at No. 17, and Washington at No. 19.
Washington, Oregon, and Utah are in the midst of coaching transitions. Steve Whitaker takes the helm at Washington, with Oregon and Utah yet to name their coaches.
2017 Record: 38-1
The Trojans have won back-to-back NCAA titles, but have lost a tremendous amount of talent in Sara Hughes, Kelly Claes, Nicolette Martin, Allie Wheeler, and Sophie Bukovec. Anna Collier’s squad returns plenty of strength in Terese Cannon, Jo Kremer, Jenna Belton, Abril Bustamante, and Joy Dennis. USC’s recruiting class might be the mightiest ever, with the likes of Sammy Slater, Haley Hallgren, Tina Graudina, Peri Green, Brianna Sizemore, Alexandra Poletto, Brianna Sizemore, and Maja Kaiser. USC will need to depend on its freshmen if it is to three-peat (four-peat if you include the 2015 AVCA championship) in Gulf Shores this May.
“We’re young,” Collier said. “Probably close to 50 percent of our starters will be freshmen. That’s a whole new experience for me, I had that situation when Sara (Hughes) and that class came in, but I think that the competition now is far more fierce and competitive.
“It’s just wonderful. All the programs are growing, everyone is getting so good, I love it. I love great competition. For me and our squad, I think it’s going to come down to how we can perform at a young age. I think we’re good enough, I think we’re very competitive, I think we’ll be knocking on the doors, the unknown is how these girls will respond when they’re standing across the net from a UCLA, a Florida State, a Pepperdine, an LSU team. Any school, really, it’s that competitive.
“In previous years, by the time my players reached their junior or senior years, I pretty much knew how they would react. I felt more comfortable knowing that they had competed against these top programs for the four years , and I could expect that they would get in and compete. We’ll find that out soon, I guess.”
Coliier said Bustamante is playing very well.
“Last year she played on my 4s, and I’m looking for her to play at a much higher number this year, and she’s earned it, deserves it, and is playing at that level,” Collier said. ” … She really has developed into a great player, a wonderful person, with great leadership qualities, and all the things I expected from her, but I wanted that from her when she was a freshman.”
Speaking of freshmen, Collier said they’re developing nicely and understanding the USC way.
“My freshmen, they understand, ‘I need to step up.’ They have impressed me in that they have grown into their roles on the team, and not necessarily caring if they’re freshmen, playing on the one’s and the 2s and the 3s with a non-freshman,” Collier said. “It’s equal across the board. It took a while to get there, but my freshmen have surprised me with that level of leadership development. It’s on them.”
2017 Record: 30-6
UCLA beat USC 3-2 in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals last spring, but lost to the Women of Troy 3-2 in the final and then got knocked out of the quarterfinals of the NCAA Championship by Florida State.
The Bruins return their core group, including Megan and Nicole McNamara, Elise Zappia, Zana Muno, Izzy Carey, Madi Yeomans, and Savvy Simo. Although the Bruins lose Jordan Anderson and Torrey Van Winden, they add Sarah Sponcil, who finished fourth at the FIVB U21 world beach championships. UCLA also picks up Mac May, Jamie McQuarrie, Hannah Phair, Megan Muret, and Cami Sanchez.
“I think that we will be competitive,” coach Stein Metzger said, “and we certainly are better than we were last year. But I expect the teams across the country have been accelerating at the same speed. We have a great group of freshmen who are making a huge impact on the competitiveness and depth of our team on a daily basis.”
2017 record: 5-3, 17-10
Arizona finished 2-2 at the Pac-12 conference tournament, defeating Cal and Stanford, with losses to UCLA and Washington. The Wildcats return Olivia Macdonald, Olivia Hallaran, Brooke Burling, Mia Mason, and Hailey Devlin and 2018 brings key newcomers Jonny Baham, Nacey Nady, Stephany Purdue, and Makenna Martin. Gone is the No. 1 pair of Madison and McKenna Witt.
Coach Steve Walker said his team has had a good preseason.
“This may be the best training team we’ve had to date,” Walker said. “We have a solid core of returning players and have added a good number of talented newcomers, and not one person is in this program is interested in having a rebuilding year. I really like the talent level and this group really wants to make a serious run this 2018 season.”
2017 record: 13-10
The Cardinal return a core of their squad from 2017, including FIVB U-21 beach world championships bronze-medalist Kathryn Plummer, Courtney Bowen, Catherine Raquel, Payton Chang, and Morgan Hentz. Stanford has also mades some key adds, with Sunny Villapando, Amelia Smith, and Kate Formico joining the squad.
“We have a roster full of student-athletes who are hungry for challenges and who are making an incredible culture at Stanford,” coach Andrew Fuller said. “It’s always exciting to represent Stanford in competition and knowing that teams will bring their best against us gives our team a myriad of opportunities to respond.”
2017 Record: 11-7
Whitaker, a former Idaho indoor assistant from 2008-15, takes over a team that last year finished third in the Pac-12 tournament.
Washington lost three key players. Crissy Jones will redshirt in order to focus on beach only in her fifth year, Tia Scambray has chosen not to play beach, and Cassie Strickland has used all of her eligibility. Three indoor standouts — Courtney Schwan, Destiny Julye and Carly DeHoog — and Shayne McPherson will anchor the Dawgs. Washington picks up transfers Jordan Anderson (UCLA) and Kimmy Gardiner (Oklahoma). Three others from indoors, Kara Bajema, Lauren Sanders and Natalie Robinson will join the team.
“The girls are working hard,” Whitaker said. “We had a group of four that went through the fall that I got to train with in the 20-hour section. They went after it. Kimmy Gardiner, Jordan Anderson, Chloe Newton and Anna Crabtree. They got a lot better over the fall and it’s showing. Now when we’re back into season with all the rest of the girls, they go after it hard. That’s a coach’s dream. They come ready every morning, whether they like to or not. I know beach volleyball is a challenging thing in the Northwest, but they’re embracing it. It’s neat to be a part of that.
“There’s some different dynamics, because of some people that weren’t able to play, so it’s creating a lot more room for leadership roles and it’s pretty neat to see the returners take control and I’m proud of them for that. We haven’t honed down who is playing with who as of yet. We’re just getting a lot of games with everybody and narrowing it down this week. I think we’ll have some really good options, and with 11-12 girls, it always helps to have open minds. They’re just out there to compete. It’s been pretty neat to see that response from the athletes, ‘Put me with who you think I’ll do well with, and let’s go.’ ”
2017 Record: 16-16
ASU has some restocking to do, with the loss of Whitney Follette, Bianca Arellano, Oluoma Okaro, Madison Berridge, Sage Patchell and Bethany Wedepohl. Still, the Sun Devils have plenty of returnees in Natalie Braun, Katelyn Carballo, Frances Giedraitis, Kwyn Johnson, Sydney Palmer, Jourdan Parnell, Mia Rivera, and Kara Woodard. Arizona State adds freshmen Kate Baldwin, Sierra Ellett, Bailey Anderson, Cierra Flood, Cassidy Schilling, and Samantha Plaster.
“It’s not going to be easy,” coach Brad Keenan said. “A lot of them will probably play this year which is a good sign for the future, but we’re going to be young.”
“We lost some size, but we did gain a lot of ball control with our freshmen, and a lot them have been playing beach for a long time. Some of our older kids came in with very little experience because it was a new college sport. Most of these young kids played all through high school so you’re starting to see a bigger talent pool coming in with each class.”
“We’ve got some good kids, but I’m still getting a feel for where I want to put them,” he said. “It’s just about performing when the lights are on. We’ll see what happens when the whistle blows and there’s a team on the other side.
“I feel like our freshman class gets stronger every year and before long we’ll be able to recruit the level of players that USC and UCLA are getting right now. We’re getting more scholarships as we grow, which helps, too. I really think the program is headed in the right direction.”
2017 Record: 13-12
The Bears should be able to build on last year’s 13-12 season, returning much of their 2017 roster, including Bryce Bark, Jessica Gaffney, Iya Lindahl, Grace Campbell, and Mia Merino. FIVB U21 bronze medalist Mima Mirkovic headlines the Bear’s incoming class, along with Alexia Inman, Caroline Schafer, and Maddie Micheletti.
“Our program continues to grow,” coach Meagan Owusu said, “and this squad is expected to perform at a higher level compared to any other years of Cal beach volleyball. Our seniors have been in the program for four years so they are outstanding leaders. Our freshmen are coming in at a really high level. So we have senior leadership with the young talent, which puts us in a really good place to go play at a really high level.”
2017 Record: 2-12
The Utes return the bulk of their squad, with Dani Barton, Adora Anae, Bailey Choy, Bri Doehrmann, and Tawnee Luafalemana. They add freshman Shannon Scully, Kenzie Koerber, Phoebe Grace, and transfer Melissa Powell.
The Utes are currently in a transition with former head coach JJ Van Niel accepting a position as assistant indoors coach at USC.
2017 Record: 3-9
Matt Ulmer coached Long Beach to an AVCA championship in 2013 and took over the beach program last April after he went from assistant to head indoors coach. The Ducks lose Brooke Van Sickle to injury, but return several key players, including Taylor Agost, Ronika Stone, Lindsey Vander Weide, August Raskie, and Lauren Page. Oregon will also add a couple of walk-ons who will likely see court time this season.