HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — The first thing one might notice is the shirt. All black, with garnet and gold lettering, it reads “Back to back National Champions.” There are two fingers in what many presume to be a peace sign but is, according to Trojan faithful, a “V for victory.” The shirt that Dain Blanton is wearing isn’t wrong; it is simply outdated.

USC, as of May 7, is no longer back-to-back NCAA Champions — they are back-to-back-to-back champs. And life, as it turns out, is awfully good for those in the most dynastic beach volleyball program in the sport.

Take the last month of Blanton’s life as an example.

After Audrey and Nicole Nourse fended off UCLA’s Haley Hallgren and Rileigh Powers on court three, clinching USC’s 3-2 victory in the finals, Blanton and the Trojans went on a victory tour of sorts. There was the appearance on SportsCenter for the twins, the seniors who have now won three consecutive championships in four years in Los Angeles. A trip to the White House. More local media in Southern California. Blanton was even called to serve as the honorary falconer before an LAFC game.

“It got so much exposure,” he said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “Just having some fun, doing some fun stuff.”

The fun, the tour, the glittering ring the size of a chestnut, is well deserved. Given its history, USC will never be accepted as an underdog, regardless of roster turnover. The Trojans have won six national championships (which includes five NCAA titles); three have come during Blanton’s four years as head coach.

USC hasn’t dropped a single match in Gulf Shores under Blanton, extending their unblemished record to 13-0 in 2023. Yet if there was one year in which the Trojans could have been considered, not necessarily underdogs, but distant favorites, this would have been the one.

Blanton lost 12 players from his 2022 team, a group that won 37 of 38 matches and is widely considered the most talented lineup in the sport’s young history. He was burdened with replacing consummate winner Sammy Slater, veteran starter Sunny Villapando, physical dynamos in Hailey Harward and Julia Scoles, and an Olympian and European Champion in Tina Graudina.

“It’s a lot. We brought 10 in,” Blanton said. “It was going to be a quick learning curve for some of the freshmen.”

A learning curve that would have to be expedited by Megan Kraft and Delaynie Maple, a pair of juniors suddenly thrust into a leadership position for the first time in their careers.

“I had to grow up fast,” Maple said before the season. “I would see myself as a leader. I knew what it took to make a winning team and how to replicate it with new girls. I caught onto all of those habits that those girls did last year and I tried to replicate that and put that into all the new girls’ heads this year.”

Winning, as Blanton says, is contagious. It becomes as much a part of the culture as garnet and gold and V for victory hand signs. Maple and Kraft may not have needed to be leaders as freshmen and sophomores, but to study the habits of Graudina, Scoles, Harward, and Slater, among others, prepared them to step into that role earlier than they may have expected or wanted.

“You don’t just win here and there usually,” Blanton said. “Some people are winners and some people aren’t and some people are on their way to getting there. I don’t like to look at it as you’re a freshman, you’re a senior, you’re a scholarship player, you’re a walk on — you’re just a player. I always tell the team, you guys pick the roster, not me. Could I have ever put Tina Graudina at the two spot? I couldn’t. I’d be thrown in jail. But I didn’t create that. She did.

“Players gotta make the decision really easy for me where I’d be looking like a fool if I make a bad decision. When you put that in their hands and empower them with that freedom of I’m driving this bus — you only do that through creating relationships, creating trust. When you’re giving them instruction, they’re going to listen. They’re not going to question motives.

“We try to really open up recruits’ eyes, like ‘Hey, you’re coming to play with elite athletes. If you have a problem looking left and right and seeing talent, you’re probably in the wrong place.’ ”

And so it was that freshmen Madison White and Gabby Walker, two freshmen Blanton recruited from outside of Southern California, became key contributors in their first seasons. White finished 26-9, mostly on court 2, winning a critical three-set match in the finals alongside graduate transfer Madison Shields. Walker held down court 5 with Olivia Bakos, winning 22 of 36 matches, one of them being a deciding three-setter in the semifinals against No. 2 TCU.

“They’ve been like sponges,” Maple said of those freshmen in February. “They’ve all be so open to get better, grow, get out of their comfort zone.”

Delaynie Maple-USC beach volleyball
Delaynie Maple/Mark Rigney photo

It’s a competitive atmosphere Blanton has fostered in his four years as head coach in Los Angeles. When a player signs with USC, they know the intent. That intent is to win an NCAA Championship. With that intent comes a roster so thick with talent that previous court one players transferring in could very well end up in exhibitions on court 6. It helps to explain why Blanton was able to haul in three court 1 or 2 transfers — Shields from Pepperdine, Ashlyn Rasnick-Pope from LSU, Jenna Johnson from Florida State — who knew they wouldn’t appear in that position at USC. Johnson only started 11 matches for USC and did so on court 4, yet it was Johnson who went undefeated in Gulf Shores, providing wins over TCU and UCLA with Rasnick-Pope. Shields was Pepperdine’s undersized split-blocker on court 1 with Melanie Paul and wound up working her way up to court 2 for Blanton, winning 15 straight matches at one point in the middle of the season.

“That was their goal: We got one year, one crack at this, let’s go to SC and pull this off,” Blanton said of the transfers. “Most people thought we weren’t going to be in the mix last year. We just put our heads down and said ‘Let’s keep playing.’”

And, per usual, they kept on winning, beating the No. 6 (LMU), 2 (TCU) and top-ranked (UCLA) teams to seal up a record-setting third straight NCAA Championship, becoming the first USC women’s team to do so. Now Blanton is able to enjoy some much-needed — and deserved — down-time. He’ll commentate a bit for the AVP. Shore up a little recruiting. Hang with his family. Maybe he’ll even take a vacation.

Eventually, he’ll get around to getting new T-shirts made, ones that read back-to-back-to-back NCAA Champions.

Dain Blanton-USC beach volleyball
Dain Blanton and USC celebrate winning the 2023 NCAA title/Jamie Schwaberow, NCAA Photos via Getty Images


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