Audrey Nourse jumps for joy as she and Nicole win their match and turn to their teammates/Matt Smith photo

Underdogs? USC was ranked No. 4 in the nation in the AVCA preseason poll, was up to No. 2 for six of the next seven weeks, and finished in the No. 3 slot.

No one was sleeping on USC.

But, yes, it was a new team and the way that the top-seeded UCLA and second-seeded TCU rosters were so loaded, you had to consider third-seeded USC a mild long shot to win a third NCAA National Collegiate Beach Championship in a row.

But things don’t always go to form in the annual gathering in Gulf Shores, Alabama, where the only thing that appears certain is that either UCLA or USC will be the ones swimming in the Gulf of Mexico at tournament’s end.

“We brought in some amazing girls and we already had an amazing base,” USC coach Dain Blanton said. “We brought in 10 new players this year and everyone said it was going to be a rebuilding year. But they didn’t think that.”

Certainly not when Sunday’s title dual got underway, because USC won on courts 2 and 4 to take a 2-0 lead.

Then the 1s, 3s and 5s hit the sand.

UCLA won on 1 and 5 and it was tied 2-2.

It was winner take all on court 3, where the USC senior identical twins, Nicole and Audrey Nourse, were playing their old teammate, Haley Hallgren, and Rileigh Powers. Hallgren was part of the USC squad that won the beach title in 2021 before heading to Michigan to play indoors. Powers was part of the UCLA team that won it all in 2018 and 2019.

The Nourses and Hallgren-Powers were headed to a third and national-title deciding third set. 

“I’ll say it again and again, if it’s on the line, I want the twins on the court,” Blanton said. “They are the most competitive, they are the most reliable. We have so many reliable teams, but they really embrace the spotlight and the pressure. And wow. One game in a third set to 15 for a national championship and they embraced it.”

The final: USC won 21-18, 19-21, 15-11 when Powers attack sailed long.

The Nourses were mobbed by their teammates.

“Oh, my gosh, they fought. And UCLA was amazing,” Blanton said. “After being up 2-0 they came back and almost pulled off the reverse sweep. It could have gone either way. And these girls came together, played as a team the whole year and I can’t believe it. It’s a three-peat.”

And then Blanton screamed, “Three-peat!”

It marked the 21st time USC and UCLA had decided a national championship — UCLA leads 12-9 — in any sport, and the fifth time USC has won the beach volleyball title since it became an NCAA sport in 2016. USC won in 2016 and  2017. UCLA won in 2018 and beat USC in the 2019 final. The event was canceled in 2020, and USC won in 2021, beating UCLA. USC beat Florida State in last year’s final.

“It’s the grit, the competitiveness, the fire,” Audrey Nourse said. “We are our own biggest opponents. If I’m not picking up the slack, she’s pushing me to do it. Ultimately it’s about our love for the game and our love for each other.”

USC finished 31-5, which included three defeats to UCLA. The other losses were to TCU and Cal.

USC’s Jenna Johnson (3) and Ashlyn Rasnick-Pope celebrate in the Gulf/Stephen Burns photo

The play began Sunday with courts 2 and 4.

On 4, the USC pair of Ashlyn Rasnick-Pope and Jenna Johnson beat UCLA’s Marlie Monserez and Jess Smith 22-20, 21-14, putting an exclamation point on Rasnick-Pope’s career. The graduate student from Dallas played her first four years at LSU, where she had a strong career but never made it to the NCAA final.

Then on 2, Pepperdine transfer Madison Shields and freshman Madison White won a fierce battle over UCLA’s Abby Van Winkle and Peri Brennan, 24-22 — after trailing 20-19 — 21-23, 15-9.

Madison Shields (33) embraces USC teammate Madison White after their victory/Matt Smith photo

UCLA had to go 3-0 on courts 1, 3 and 5.

The Bruins came close.

They won on No. 1, when Lexy Denaburg and Maggie Boyd thumped USC’s Megan Kraft and Delaynie Maple, 21-17, 21-13.

At almost the same time, Devon Newberry and Jaden Whitmarsh were finishing off Olivia Bakos and Gabrielle Walker on No. 5, 21-18, 21-19.

And just minutes before, court 3 had finished its first two sets and all eyes were on the Nourses and Hallgren and Powers. Hallgren was hoping to become the first player to win NCAA beach titles at different schools.

UCLA’s season ended 40-4. Two of those losses were to USC and others to Florida State and Stanford.

This was a different tournament with 17 teams, nine more than in the past, and a single elimination format. UCLA advanced with wins over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Cal and Florida State. USC ousted Georgia State, Loyola Marymount and TCU.

A year from now, the odds are that USC and UCLA will be back in the hunt in Gulf Shores for its last year on the white sands of the Gulf of Mexico before the tournament moves to Huntington Beach.

And neither will be underdogs.

Which is not to say what USC did this year wasn’t special

USC lost quite a few great college beach players, not the least of which were Latvian Olympian Tina Graudina and current pros Julia Scoles and Hailey Harward.

But in the end, USC was the top dog.

“Being the underdog and winning three in a row,” Blanton said, “it’s just amazing.”

No. 3 USC def. No. 1 UCLA 3-2
Records: UCLA (40-4), USC (32-5)
1. Maggie Boyd/Lexy Denaburg (UCLA) def. Megan Kraft/Delaynie Maple (USC) 21-17, 21-13
2. Madison White/Madison Shields (USC) def. Abby Van Winkle/Peri Brennan (UCLA) 24-22, 21-23, 15-9
3. Audrey Nourse/Nicole Nourse (USC) def. Haley Hallgren/Rileigh Powers (UCLA) 21-18, 19-21, 15-11
4. Jenna Johnson/Ashlyn Rasnick-Pope (USC) def. Marlie Monserez/Jessie Smith (UCLA) 22-20, 21-14
5. Devon Newberry/Jaden Whitmarsh (UCLA) def. Olivia Bakos/Gabby Walker (USC) 21-18, 21-19
Order of finish: 4, 2, 1, 5, 3*
Jaden Whitmarsh goes all out for UCLA against USC/Matt Smith photo


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