GULF SHORES, Ala. — One year earlier, Terese Cannon watched from outside the court, then a sophomore from Rochester, N.Y., not able to crack the USC starting five.
And suddenly Sunday, in an instant after the National Collegiate Beach Volleyball Championship matches were tied at 2-2 between top-seeded USC and third-seeded Pepperdine, it was all on Cannon and senior partner Nicolette Martin.
It seemed hard to imagine that anything could top Saturday’s final elimination match, when Hawai’i got past Florida State by winning 27-25 in a third set to 15 points on Court 5.
But this was something else with the national title on the line.
The final started with Pepperdine’s No. 4 of Anika Wilson and Deahna Kraft beating USC’s Abril Bustamante and Joy Dennis 21-14, 21-17, while at No. 5, USC’s Jenna Bolton and Jo Kremer beat Sarah Seiber and Nikki Lyons 21-18, 21-15.
It was tied 1-1 and became a best of three.
On Court 2, Pepperdine’s Corinne Quiggle and Brittany Howard prevailed over Sophie Bukovec and Allie Wheeler in a fantastic match 21-18, 16-21, 15-13.
And in the center of things, on a day when the attendance was announced as 2,077, USC’s No. 1 pair of Kelly Claes and Sara Hughes had to battle back to beat Delaney Knudsen and Maddy Roh 19-21, 21-13, 15-10.
So the national championship came down to Court 3, where USC won the first set 21-19, Pepperdine’s Skylar Caputo and Heidi Dyer the second 21-18, and it was tied 10-10 in the third.
USC took a 12-11 lead when a double was called on Dyer. Then Martin’s shot hit the net and rolled over, but Dyer responded with a kill and it was 13-12 USC.
Cannon made it match point with a big kill, but Dyer scored again to pull the Waves to 14-13.
Finally, on the last point, Cannon had a big dig and Martin a perfect set.
“As soon as I set it, I said to myself, ‘It’s over.’ I literally did in my head, but I don’t know what happened after that. I know at 14-12 and 14-13 and I looked at her and said we just need to side out like we do in practice. That’s all we do in practice, practice siding out. And we did and I kind of blacked out after that.”
Well, for Martin’s memories, Cannon went to an open spot to her left and the Trojans’ dogpile was on. Their team had completed a 38-1 dream season.
“Next thing I know everyone is tackling us and we won the national championship,” Martin said with a laugh.
Cannon, who played exhibitions at No. 6 last year, looked stunned.
“I don’t know if I was relieved or excited. I don’t know,” she admitted. “I wasn’t surprised, but I was like, ‘We did it.’ ”
For the third year in a row, at that. Two years ago it was the AVCA national championship and a year ago in the inaugural NCAA event.
As has become tradition at this event, post celebration the respective teams get their trophies and then the winners run into the Gulf of Mexico. But when Hughes grabbed the hand of her coach, Anna Collier, Collier face planted in about a foot of water.
“She’s a true sport and I’m happy she went into the water with us,” Hughes said.
“I thought I was going to stop,” Collier said with a laugh. “I didn’t want to go in. I tried to stop.”
Too late. Not that Collier was complaining. She was clearly enjoying both being wet and another national title. And this one with her group of seniors, the ones she called the “Fab Five,” and clearly she will miss them, Bukovec, Claes, Hughes, Martin, and Wheeler.
“I don’t want them to go,” Collier said, clearly moved. “I would stay with these five the rest of my career. I really would. It’s so sweet because we did it, but it’s bitter, too.
“It brings tears to my eyes, but I’m that mother bird pushing them out of the nest. I think it’s scary for them and scary for me. I hope they fly.
The odds are in their favor. While their NCAA careers are over, the USC pairs of Claes/Hughes and Bukovec/Wheeler, along with Martin/Cannon and Belton/Kremer will play in Friday’s USA Volleyball Collegiate Beach Championships in Hermosa Beach.
Also competing are four Pepperdine pairs, Knudson/Roh, Quiggle/Howard, Caputo/Dyer and Wilson/Kraft.
Much of the focus will be on Claes and Hughes, clearly the benchmark of college beach volleyball the past four years. Earlier this season they had a winning streak of 103 matches broken. And right after next weekend’s event, they head to Rio for an FIVB competition.
They reveled in Sunday’s victory, taking photo after photo with family, friends and teammates. It was a clear contrast to their nail-biter of a match, especially when Claes, clearly irritated with some calls that went against her, went off from the middle of the second set on and took it out on the volleyball.
“They came out really hard in the first and we were going back and forth and we were kind of waiting to flip that switch,” Claes admitted. “We were paying attention to other courts.
“And in the second set I was kind of like, ‘Screw this, let’s find our rhythm.’ And I felt like we did and then I got really pissed off. Nets, doubles, I’m sorry, no.”
Hughes was glad Claes got fired up.
“She was really crushing some balls,” Hughes said. “I’m really proud of our team. Like she said, we came out a little slow in the first set. Pepperdine played absolutely flawless. They were such an amazing team to play in the finals. But we came out with the win and we’re so happy about it.”
For Pepperdine, the season ended 27-5 and coach Nina Matthies was upbeat.
“Awesome season,” said Matthies, whose Waves lost to USC in the first weekend of the season in their only other 2017 matchup. “I love my team. We played really well and we played them as well as anyone has all year. The last two points on three courts.”
“Need I say more?”
Not really, not after a day in which everyone had given their all and was completely drained.
“This means everything,” Hughes said. “This is our senior season and I wouldn’t want it to end any way else with any other team and it’s been a family and I’m so happy.”
“It’s an unbelievable way to finish,” Claes chimed in.
Pretty much everyone on hand, save Pepperdine, would agree. Take away the wind, especially on Friday and Saturday, and NCAA beach volleyball couldn’t have asked for a better three days. And for USC, a perfect ending.
“For Terese Cannon to do what she did,” Collier said, “you can’t write a script better than that.”
Earlier Sunday, Pepperdine defeated Hawai’i 3-0 to advance to the final.
Hawai’i’s season ended 29-7 but not before the Sandbows played the match of the tournament, their 3-2 victory Saturday over Florida State that kept them alive for Sunday.
In the end Sunday, Pepperdine was too good.
“Tough match,” Hawai’i coach Jeff Hall said. “Pepperdine was better than us today for sure. They came out really sharp and we were flat. It’s hard to recover from the excitement of last night.
“It was still a great season. Proud of the effort and proud of the girls. This has been a really fun ride.”
It’s the end of the ride for one of the better players in Hawai’i volleyball history, Nikki Taylor, who played four years of indoors and beach.
Taylor is headed to Anaheim to train with the USA national team with an eye on playing professionally indoors.
“We were just in our huddle and I said that regardless of where we finished we have to look at the accomplishments over this season,” said Taylor, whose team dominated the Big West Conference.
The fifth-seeded Sandbows opened the tournament by beating fourth-seeded Florida State, lost to USC, and then ousted seventh-seeded LSU before beating FSU again.
“We have really as a program paved the way to be a real threat and a force to reckon with in the NCAA. And the only way we could have done that by accomplishing the things we accomplished here.”