HERMOSA BEACH, California — There were roughly 11,000 people surrounding court three in Gulf Shores, Alabama this past spring. Another 300,000-plus were tuning in on ESPN, all eyes on a single, NCAA Championship-deciding match. For NCAA beach volleyball, there is no bigger platform. No larger moment. Audrey and Nicole Nourse were in the position that Nicole describes as “every athletes’ dream, or it should be if you play the sport.”
They were 15 points away from securing an unprecedented third straight NCAA Championship for USC.
They didn’t notice.
To the Nourses in that moment, it wasn’t a 2-2 split between USC and UCLA, the two most dynastic forces in the sport. There wasn’t an NCAA Championship on the line. It was just two sisters playing beach volleyball. Nothing more.
“That final, I was in such a flow state. I couldn’t hear the crowd around me, I couldn’t hear anything except for my sister,” Nicole, the lefty who plays right-side, said. “That’s kind of exactly where you want to be in that position. Sometimes it’s hard to get there. Your mind is a muscle. You gotta work it. Luckily we’ve done the preparation to feel comfortable in those moments.”
It is no accident, no simple luck of timing, that the Nourses slipped into that flow state when they needed it most, when their teammates needed them most, when history was potentially in the making. Coaches, with hindsight in perfect 20/20 vision, will almost always point to whichever team sealed the win and say that there is nobody else they would rather have out there. Sure enough, that’s exactly what Dain Blanton said on ESPN after the Nourses sealed up a 21-18, 19-21, 15-11 NCAA Championship-winning victory over Haley Hallgren and Rileigh Powers.
Cliche as it was that Blanton said those words, you can’t really blame him, either.
The Nourses hadn’t lost in Gulf Shores in two years. In 2022, they didn’t even drop a set in four matches en route to a second straight NCAA Championship. Physically, they’re talented. No question about it. Two of the best ball-control players in the country who have been hand-setting since they were 12, architecting their own spread offense in youth tournaments up and down California, tinkering with it to reach the highest levels in the NCAA. But physical gifts only get one so far, especially when your competition includes AVP main draw players for much of the season.
What separates the Nourses is mental.
“Such a focal point of my life and especially with how I approach sports psychologically, I got to a place where I was grounded consistently when I play,” Nicole said. “As an athlete, you can’t ask for anything more than that. If you can try to get into that flow state consistently and figure out what grounds you, that was what I always wanted. Every athlete wants that. I’ve slowly gotten a taste of that.”
It’s a learned trait, that mental focus. The Nourses have been seeing a sports psychologist since they were 16. Initially, that sports psych was more relationship counselor than mental coach “because we knew we wanted to play the sport together for a long time, but the only way we were going to that was if we were able to solve our differences,” said Audrey, who is the right-handed left-sider.
“What started as us trying to figure out what the other needs on the court, but over time we each have our own issues we go through. For me, I figured out certain tools I can bring out when I’m in a rut in the game. She might not have the same ones but you develop tools to help you through that. In the beginning it was tough being vulnerable because we always thought we don’t need to talk to anyone. But the sport can get pretty heavy and we needed that outlet.”
It can get especially heavy at a program such as USC, which has long been the standard-bearer in the sport. When longtime USC coach Anna Collier recruited the Nourses out of Orange Lutheran High in Orange, California, they were entering a program that had already won three straight National Championships and would soon produce Olympians (Kelly Cheng, Tina Graudina), World Championships medalists (Sophie Bukovec), and half a dozen AVP champions (Cheng, Graudina, Sara Hughes, Terese Cannon, Hailey Harward, Julia Scoles).
“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,’ ” Blanton said. “As the years go by you start to figure it out more, who works for your squad and who doesn’t, who’s diehard, someone you call and they go ‘Oh my gosh! SC is calling!’ You want someone who’s passionate, not someone who’s weighing a few different offers.”
The irony there is that the Nourses more than weighed other offers — they had been committed to Stanford since their sophomore year of high school. At Stanford, they would have been immediate starters, two of the best players on the roster. A dream to most recruits. For two years, it was. But USC remained “so enticing to us,” Audrey said. “We wanted to be in an environment that was very competitive and we felt that was USC.”
The USC roster their red-shirt freshman year — after the 2020 season was cancelled due to COVID — included one of the program’s all-time winningest players in three-time All-American Sammy Slater (118-31 career record), Harward, Scoles, Graudina, and U19 World Champions in Delaynie Maple and Megan Kraft. At most programs in the country, the Nourses would have competed on courts one or two. At USC? They were on the five — just the way they wanted it.
“There’s pressure, but I feel like it’s more about empowerment because if you get to USC, you’re meant to be there. At that point you have nothing else but to be yourself,” Nicole said. “The work ethic will speak for itself. If you have a strong work ethic and strong talents, you’re naturally going to use those resources and more. Everyone on our team, it’s a privilege to play for USC.
“You have to go in and be yourself but you also have to ask yourself what you want out of the experience. We don’t need a C on our chest to have a leadership role. Not necessarily act like a captain. We knew our role. But you have to have the intention of leaving the place better than you found it and carrying the culture that was set before you. That was the intention.”
This fall and spring, they will be two identical faces of the program, leading alongside Maple and Kraft. The culture that was set by Collier and sustained by Blanton? It’s one of three straight NCAA Championships, the only women’s program in USC history to do so. Where such stages feel normal.
“It literally felt like any other match. I felt so weird,” Nicole said of the 2023 NCAA final. “I was in shock after because I don’t even know what happened because it felt so normal. It wasn’t this heightened thing.”
It was just USC being USC.
The Nourse twins being the Nourse twins.