LSU’s Emily Meyer with the one-handed dig against UCLA/Stephen Burns photo

For the second day in a row, LSU made the biggest waves at the NCAA’s National Collegiate Beach Volleyball Championship, pulling off the most spectacular upset in the tournament’s history.

But when the sand in Gulf Shores, Alabama, had settled on Saturday, the nationals had returned to normalcy. The two overwhelming favorites had taken care of business and created exactly the matchup everyone expected.

The title dual on Sunday (ESPN, 11 a.m. Eastern) will have an all-too-familiar look when top-seeded USC meets second-seeded UCLA. The proud programs from the disbanding Pac-12 will reprise their battles from the NCAA finals of 2019, 2021 and 2023.

Seeded No. 11 in the field of 17, LSU had rewarded its vocal fans with an epic rally in the quarterfinals that took down third-seeded Stanford 3-2, creating more fabulous TV for a national audience on ESPN2. That came on the heels of the Bayou Bengals’ 3-2 stunner against sixth-seeded TCU on Friday.

But sustaining that momentum in 80-degree heat and 83% humidity with roughly a 60-minute turnaround proved a bridge too far against UCLA in the semifinals. The Bruins (35-6) put a 3-1 end to LSU’s Gulf Coast magic-carpet ride.

Jaden Whitmarsh and Tessa Van Winkle at the 4s outscored Amber Hayes and Skylar Martin by a combined 41-20 margin. UCLA’s crack top pair of Lexy Denaburg and Maggie Boyd got past Gabi Bailey and Ellie Shank 21-19, 21-14. And 3s duo Jessie Smith and Kenzie Brower tallied the clinching point against Ella Larkin and Aubrey O’Gorman 21-19, 21-19.

The noteworthy exception for Coach Russell Brock’s feisty underdogs was the 2s team of Parker Bracken and Reilly Allred, the never-say-die heroines of their wild win over Stanford. (More about that below in our recap of the quarterfinals.)

Parker and Reilly took IVs to rehydrate and then soldiered through a 23-21, 21-18 victory over Bruins second-team All-Americans Peri Brennan and Devon Newberry. LSU’s 5s had won the first set of that unfinished match.

The Sandy Tigs had taken down two higher-seeded opponents, “so we knew it was going to be a dogfight,” said Smith, a 6-foot junior who is 24-11 overall and 3-0 in the tournament teaming with Brower.

Meanwhile, USC (36-5) maintained a laser-like focus in its quest for a fourth consecutive NCAA beach title. The Women of Troy disposed of fifth-seeded Cal Poly (31-7) in the semifinals 3-0 in such workmanlike fashion that the result never seemed in doubt.

Their decorated No. 1 pair, Megan Kraft and Delaynie Maple, improved to 35-4 on the season with a 21-13, 21-16 victory over fellow first-team All-Americans Ella Connor and Izzy Martinez. The dependable Nourse twins, Audrey and Nicole, took down Lindsey Sparks and Quinn Perry 23-21, 21-17 at the 3s, leaving the clincher to LSU grad transfer Grace Seits and freshman sensation Ashley Pater, who ground down Piper Naess and Logan Walter 21-17, 28-26.

“From the first game we had together, I knew we would be a pair to mess with,” said the 6-foot-2 Seits, who is 31-5 overall and 11-1 with Pater. “Ashley might be a freshman, but she knows what she’s doing. I’m really proud of Pater. She holds us together.”
Cal Poly might not have put a “W” on the scoreboard, but the Mustangs didn’t go down quietly. The unfinished matches at the 2s and 5s were in third sets. USC is 10-0 all-time against Coach Todd Rogers’ program, including a 3-2 victory on March 2 in the Battle for L.A. competition.

Another USC-UCLA confrontation in the NCAA final seemingly had been in the offing since the season-opening Outrigger Duke Kahanamoku Classic in Hawaii. The Trojans beat the Bruins 4-1 during pool play in the first match for both, only to have the tables turned when UCLA won the gold-medal dual.

Since then, Coach Dain Blanton’s Women of Troy have split four duals with Coach Jenny Johnson Jordan’s squad from Westwood. UCLA took a 3-2 victory  in the Center of Effort title tilt and USC won 3-0 in the Pac-12 tournament final. USC has been ranked No. 1 in the AVCA coaches poll for six weeks during the 2024 season, including the last two. UCLA held the top spot for the other five weeks and has been no lower than No. 2.

USC is 9-0 in concluded matches through its three victories leading into the final. UCLA is 9-1. The Trojans lead the all-time series with their SoCal archrival 26-20.

Last, but not least, the only teams to win NCAA beach titles since the sport received sanction in 2016 are USC (2016, 2017, 2021, 2022 and 2023) and UCLA (2018 and 2019). But you knew that.

Saturday’s quarterfinals 

LSU 3, Stanford 2: The last quarterfinal produced an Incredible finish and the biggest upset (in terms of seeding disparity) in beach-tourney annals when LSU stunned the third-seeded Cardinal (32-6). On Friday, the Cinderella Sandy Tigs had stolen the spotlight by bouncing sixth-seeded TCU.

After Stanford went up 2-0 with a sweep at the 4s and a three-set victory at the 1s, LSU took over. The Bayou Bengals’ Ella Larkin and Aubrey O’Gorman at the 3s prevailed 16-14 in their tiebreaker and Emily Meyer and Yali Ashush at the 5s took their third set 15-13.

But the clinching point came in a marathon 2s match that saw CCSA pair of the year Parker Bracken and Reilly Allred survive six opposing match points and fail to convert on six of their own before winning the third-set tiebreaker 24-22 over Taylor Wilson and Ruby Sorra.

Unforced errors contributed to the downfall of the Stanford pair that had been named second-team All-America by the AVCA. Freshman Sorra served into the net to give the LSU team a 23-22 lead. Then in an usual bang-bang finish, Allred’s return of a driven ball flew into the net, with Bracken’s close-to-the-sand second contact flying over the net. Sorra tried to send it back over on one with her platform, but the ball sailed well wide. That sparked a spontaneous celebration by the Sandy Tigs. who mobbed their intrepid 2s pair.

Bracken explained their perseverance this way: “We always say ‘Lock in,’ and we really just turn a different mindset in our brains. This could be our last game, so it’s all or nothing, we just need to keep going forward. That’s the thing that keeps us going.”

Allred added: “The doubt people had on us coming back after losing 11 players (during the offseason), that just fired us up.But we knew we could beat anybody if we put our minds to it.”

USC 3, Loyola Marymount 0: The Women of Troy marched into the semifinals while expending minimal energy on Saturday morning, spending less than 45 minutes on the white sand while summarily dispatching the eighth-seeded Lions (28-14). AVCA national player of the year Megan Kraft and back-to-back first-team All-American Delaynie Maple set the tone on the No. 1 court, blowing out first-team All-Americans Vihelmiina Prihti and Michelle Shaffer 21-11, 21-11. USC also recorded sweeps at the 5s and 2s by non-threatening margins. The Lions’ history of futility against their Los Angeles rival was extended to 0-for-31 all-time, including four losses in 2024.

Cal Poly 3, Florida State 1: The Mustangs assured themselves of their highest NCAA-tournament finish ever by scoring a mild seeded upset over the fourth-seeded Seminoles (31-8). The victory put Cal Poly into the semifinals, topping its fifth-place effort in the 2021 NCAAs, which had a field of eight and was contested using double elimination. It also marked its first over FSU in 11 meetings and avenged a 3-2 defeat during the regular season in its Center of Effort Challenge. The Mustangs took this one with sweeps at the 3s, 2s and 5s, with those teams allowing just 11, 12 and 12 points, respectively in their second sets. Their 3s duo of grad transfer Lindsey Sparks and freshman Quinn Perry gave up only 22 points. Florida State’s top pair, Alexis Durish and Maddie Anderson, nipped Ella Connor and Izzy Martinez 22-20, 21-19 in a highly entertaining tussle.

UCLA 3, California 0: The Bruins moved into the semis by topping fellow Pac-12 member Cal (22-14), seeded seventh, in a dual that was tighter than the score indicated. UCLA’s 2s (Perri Brennan-Devon Newberry) and 3s (Jessie Smith-Kenzie Brower) weren’t particularly threatened in their sweeps, but the clincher for top pair Lexy Denaburg and Maggie Boyd over Sierra Caffo and Alexandria Young-Gomez was won by 21-19, 21-18 scores. The Bears, who dropped to 0-for-17 all-time against UCLA, took sets at the unfinished 4s and 5s matches.

TV coverage, weather

The championship dual on Sunday will air on the flagship ESPN channel, starting at 11 a.m. Eastern, piggy-backed on the streaming ESPN+ subscription platform. Each court also will have separate streams on ESPN+.

The Weather Channel forecast for Gulf Shores calls for temperatures in the low 80s, with 76% humidity, a minimal 7% threat of rain and 8 mph wind off the water from the east-southeast.

Ashley Pater of USC gets after it against Cal Poly/Mark Rigney photo


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