NCAA beach countdown: No. 2 USC looks to blend old with new under Dain Blanton

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USC beach volleyball 2/18/2020-Haley Hallgren
USC's Haley Hallgren celebrates an Alexandra Poletto block/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

LOS ANGELES — Dain Blanton is sitting in his palatial office at the University of Southern California, and it is a place that both runneth over in nostalgia and thick with the new. He is taking over the house that Anna Collier built, and there are endless signs and mementos to prove it.

Here is a bracket from the 2017 NCAA Championships, which USC won, making it three in a row.

There is a picture of Sara Hughes and Kelly Claes, the indomitable duo whose record for most wins in a row may never fall.

Here is a picture of Nicolette Martin (now Arnitz), another of Collier’s recruits in one of the greatest classes in college beach history. There are the three straight national-championship trophies, directly behind where Blanton is sitting.

And, most importantly, there is Blanton.

The second coach in USC’s storied history is not new in Los Angeles, but he is new at the position. He volunteered for Collier for four years, extending a friendship that had been nearly 20 years in the making. He and Collier knew one another when Blanton and Eric Fonoimoana were making their run at the 2000 Olympics. Collier was coaching Jenny Johnson Jordan and Annett Davis. Both would make the Sydney Games; Blanton would go on to win an unexpected gold.

Fifteen years later, Collier called Blanton: Was he interested in coaching at all? Because there was a spot waiting for him at USC.

“I met Sara and Kelly, Sophie Bukovec, Nic Martin, Allie Wheeler, just real class acts, all of them,” Blanton said. “They were fired up, professional, and I said ‘This is pretty cool. Let’s try this.’”

He tried it to unprecedented success: Three national titles in four years as a volunteer. He stepped away for a season when ESPN offered him more commentating gigs, but when Collier abruptly retired this past spring, going for that job was a no-brainer.

“It was a surprise when I heard that Anna was retiring, and as soon as I heard the news, I knew everything would be accelerated because she always told me for 2021, 2022 that she would stay around,” he said. “So it was shocking to me, and everybody wants a job at SC, arguably the best collegiate program out there.

“It’s a great gig, and I did everything I could to position myself prior to the job opening, and fortunately the stars aligned and certain people were pulling for me but when you get to collegiate sports and hiring, it’s challenging. It’s been perfect.”

USC beach volleyball 2/18/2020-Dain Blanton-Eric Fonoimoana
Eric Fonoimoana and Dain Blanton earned gold medal success in 2000/VBM photo

Now he is sitting in the chair that Collier once sat, running the program she ran to historic success. Dain Blanton is not Anna Collier. He is not attempting to reinvent a program that is in no need of reinvention. But already, his mark is being made, in his own subtle ways. There’s new sand at Merle Norman Stadium. The sound system is being upgraded. There are discussions to add more courts to the three currently on campus. The coaching style is a little less the tougher aspect of love, and a little more of, simply, love.

Blanton is overseeing a team of mostly Collier’s recruits, but as a volunteer in 2017 and ’18, he has also worked with almost all of them. So while the roster may look unfamiliar to some, without Abril Bustamante (No. 1 last year), Terese Cannon (No. 2), and Alex Poletto (No. 3), as well as Tina Graudina (No. 1), the Latvian who is redshirting after qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics, it is by no means a rebuilding year.

He knows what he has in starters Sammy Slater, a junior from Ventura (24-9 with Cannon); and Haley Hallgren, a junior from Southlake, Texas (32-4 with Poletto); Joy Dennis, a senior from Cypress, California (22-14 in 2019); and Maja Kaiser, a junior from Bulverde, Texas (22-14).

He landed arguably the biggest graduate transfer of the season in former Long Beach State star Hailey Harward, who already has a top-10 AVP finish to her name. His first recruiting class includes the 5-foot-11 Nourse twins from Newport Beach, Audrey and Nicole, who made two AVP main draws in 2019, along with five on the FIVB, as well as Harper Hallgren  a freshman from Southlake, Texas, and the same Carroll High School as Hallgren, and Kyla Doig, a freshman from Redondo Beach. Blanton praised the freshmen for their work in the fall.

“That’s the way college sports is, you get heavy and you get light,” Blanton said. “I’m not looking at this year as a rebuild, you gotta have expectations, and ours are high. I don’t have my lineup in stone yet.”

For that matter, nobody does. So Blanton, like everyone else in the first half of the season, will experiment. He’ll toy with this and that.

Finding the right blend between the old and the new.

College beach countdown:
No. 12: Cal is on the cusp of an historic season
No. 11: Can South Carolina be the giant killers of 2020?
No. 10: Stetson is no longer satisfied with just getting to Gulf Shores
No. 9: FIU hopes to be too good for the committee to ignore
No 8: LMU continues to build off of historic WCC title
No. 7: Hawai’i has a new face to the program: Morgan Martin
No. 6: Cal Poly hopes to be ‘one of the biggest forces’ 
No. 5: Florida State uses technology to remain sharp
No. 4: Everyone’s bought in at Pepperdine

No. 3: Nuss, Coppola set to lead LSU’s championship push

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