The seven-team beach volleyball West Coast Conference enters its second year. Pepperdine is the heavyweight of the group, with two AVCA championships, a second- and third-place AVCA finish, and a fifth in last year’s NCAA championships.
Pepperdine: At the NCAA Championships in Gulf Shores, Ala., last May, the Waves beat Arizona (3-1) but lost to eventual-champion USC (3-0) and UCLA (3-2) to finish 20-5. Interestingly, Pepperdine opens it season Saturday with both USC and UCLA visiting Zuma Beach.
Before the NCAA gathering, the Waves won the first WCC Championship, held in Santa Monica, by beating St. Mary’s twice (3-2, 5-0) and Loyola Marymount (5-0).
As 2017 begins, Pepperdine is ranked No. 4 in the AVCA preseason poll and No. 1 in the WCC preseason coaches poll.
Veteran coach Nina Matthies returns the bulk of her lineup, including senior Delaney Knudsen (No. 2 pair, 18-6), senior Sarah Seiber (No. 5 pair, 21-4), junior Corinne Quiggle (No. 3-4 pair, 21-4), sophomore Skylar Caputo (No. 3-4 pair, 21-4), sophomore Madalyn Roh (No. 4 pair, 21-2), sophomore Kaity Bailey (No. 2 pair, 18-6), sophomore Anika Wilson (No. 4 pair, 21-2), sophomore Heidi Dyer (No. 1 pair, 16-8). And Pepperdine gets a big boost with the arrival of former Stanford indoors All-American Brittany Howard, who will likely play No. 2 pairs.
Dyer named to the AVCA All-American first team, DiG All-American first team and WCC all-freshman team. Knudsen, Bailey, and Roh received All-WCC first-team honors. Caputo and Wilson were second team honors And Matthies was the WCC coach of the year.
The Waves’ only losses were AVCA All-American/All-WCC second-teamer Taylor Racich (No. 1 pair, 16-8) and Samantha Cash (No. 5 pair, 21-4).
Matthies enters her sixth season with an 85-13 record and has added four transfers (three of them graduate students) and three freshmen .
“I think our graduate transfers have been unbelievable helping us with maturity,” Mattheis said. “All three — Brittany Howard, Katty Workman and Tiffany Morales — have all played at high level indoor for four years, in very competitive programs and with really competitive training, so they’ve brought a really new life to the team.”
“They are so excited to be on the beach and don’t have the dredge of doing something for four years – they think it’s all new and so cool. They’ve really brought a maturity and they’ve been there before. They fit right in to this whole group and are really excited to be at Pepperdine and really excited to be Waves and they make it exciting for all of us.”
Matthies said it’s been a great preseason for the Waves and she’s looking forward to the season.
“We have been training really long and hard, but really smart and I love this team right now,” the coach said. “I’m anxious to see someone else across the net besides ourselves. That is going to be exciting and fun and I think we are all anxious to see how we stack up against the rest of the country. At this time of the year, we are all ready to get out of the starting gate and I’m excited to open the door and see what they are going to do.”
St. Mary’s: The Gaels reached the finals of the 2016 WCC championships with wins over Pacific (3-2), Santa Clara (4-1), San Francisco (3-2), and Loyola Marymount (3-2) but lost to Pepperdine (5-0) to finish 17-6.
The Gaels are ranked second in the WCC preseason coaches’ poll and got one first-place vote. They return all of their players except Dalas Dodd, and those returners include WCC defensive player of the year Mary Hernandez and 2016 WCC all-freshmen teamers Lindsey Knudsen and Payton Rund. New Mexico State transfer Alexsa Parker will add depth.
Loyola Marymount: The Lions finished third in the WCC Championship with a 7-18 record and this year are ranked No. 3 in the WCC coaches’ preseason poll.
Seven players return, including Lindsay Carr (5-20), Kristen Castellanos (9-16), Sara Kovac (9-16), Veronica Nederend (7-20), Tatiana Schlange (6-21), Kekai Whitford (4-6, WCC all-freshman team), and Erin Williams (1-11). Redshirt Sarah Sponcil, also an LMU indoors standout, will rejoin the team from 2015 after competing internationally, finishing fourth in the U21 world championships with UCLA’s Torrey Van Winden.
Second-year head coach John Mayer (7-18) has some key losses in All-WCC first teamers Rachelle Suaava (12-10) and Avery Bush (13-14), as well as Nicky Kevorken (3-9) and Jamie Lea (5-20).
“Our program is going in an exciting direction,” Mayer said. “This is the first season where we’ve had players only playing beach and they will make an impact right away. Adding this component will help us with our depth and help us pull out some of the tough 2-3 losses we’ve endured in past seasons.
“With that being said, the heart of our team is still comprised of players who play both beach and indoor. We believe in this model as it has worked so well for many of USA’s top beach volleyball athletes like Karch Kiraly, Misty May, and Betsi Flint (current LMU assistant). We are fortunate this season to have athletes like Sarah Sponcil and Savannah Slattery who can play both disciplines at a very high level. Look for them to be one of the top pairs in the country.
“We’ve put in the work and are excited to see how we match up with all the top teams in the country. I think we’ll be competitive.”
Santa Clara: The Broncos had their best year in 2016, finishing fifth in the WCC Championships, defeating Portland (4-1) and losing to St. Mary’s (4-1).
Santa Clara ended up 11-5 and had three players named to the All-WCC conference team: Nikki Hess and Kirsten Mead to the first team, Sabrina Clayton to the second.
The WCC preseason coaches’ poll has the Broncos tied for third. Coach Jon Wallace enters his fifth season 25-20. He returns key starters Nikki Hess, Jensen Cunningham, Kirsten Mead, and Hailey Lindberg, but will have his hands full replacing Lacey Maas, Dani Rottman, Sarah Vaccaro, Sabrina Clayton, Madison Dutra, Katrina Inch, and Mary Shepherd.
“I like our talent,” Wallace said. “We’re more athletic than we have been in the past. We lack experience but our girls are getting better every day. They understand the game. We’re excited going into this weekend to see how we respond to some good competition.”
“We have quite a few new players to the game. The group has picked it up quickly and advanced quickly. Our veterans — Nikki Hess, Tatiana San Juan and Hailey Lindberg — have helped our younger players to come along fast on the sand.
“Compared to last year, we have more depth and net players that can really grow from Nogzi Nwabuzoh to Allison Kantor to Laura Willems. We have a great leader with Jensen Cunningham showing them the way; she is playing really well right now. We can be pretty big at the net. Our backcourt players in Taylor Laugero and Tatiana San Juan are advanced with what they can do. Overall, we are more skilled and more athletic, and those qualities are pushing this group forward.”
“Nikki Hess and Allison Kantor will start out as our top pairing. Kirsten Mead and Jensen Cunningham will play at No. 2. Those two teams are both very good and can flip flop.”
“Our mentality with this young group is not to worry about where we’re at; it’s to compete as hard as we can and go for it on the court. I’m anticipating that everyone will play a match or two this weekend just to see how they respond to competition. Stanford’s facility is so nice. Going up against beach-only players in a team like Cal motivates us and we’ve had some good success against them. To see our WCC foes before the conference championships will give us some good information.”
Portland: The Pilots, looking for the first victory in their history, are entering their second season after finishing sixth in the WCC Championships, dropping a 5-0 decision to San Francisco, and a 4-1 dual to Santa Clara.
Portland is ranked sixth in the WCC preseason coaches a year after going 0-9 overall, 0-3 in the WCC.
First-year head coach Jeff Baxter inherits 10 players from last year’s squad: Brittney Markwith, Djurdjina Milovic, Lauren Naatz, Katie Sullivan, Morgan Robinson, Katie Barker, Cali Thompson, Sarah Savoca, Monica Gajda, Hannah Troutman.
The Pilots lost only Maddy Mandon and Makayla Lindburg, and will add Reghan Pukis, Izzy Guzik, Tani Stephens, and Emma Scanlan.
San Francisco: The Dons finished third in last year’s WCC Championship, defeating Portland (5-0) and Pacific (4-1) but succumbing to Saint Mary’s (3-2). USF finished 16-5 overall, the second highest WCC total. The program finished the year 13th in the DiG final poll.
USF is ranked seventh in the WCC preseason coache’ poll and first-year head coach Vicki Brown returns only three players: junior Kim Gutierrez (2-2 overall with Madison Murtagh, 4-11 overall with Jessica Keenan), senior Emily Reed (16-5 overall with Courtney Sabahi) and sophomore Dane Miller (0-2 overall with Murtagh).
The Dons lost: Jurja Vlasic, Madison Murtagh, Katarina Pilepic (All-WCC second team), Sara Staengle, Courtney Sabahi, Kiara McKibben, Jessica Gaffney, Oluoma Okaro (All-WCC first team), Jessica Keenan, Kellie Hirotsu.
“The goal will be to enhance the culture to position the program for overall success,” said Brown, also the indoors coach.