USC dogpiles/Mark Rigney photo

The official tally of the national-title dual was 3-0, but little came easy for USC against UCLA.

USC’s Nicole Nourse stuffs UCLA’s Kenzie Brower to win the match/Mark Rigney photo

The wonder Women of Troy completed an unprecedented four-peat in the NCAA Beach Volleyball Championship on Sunday in Gulf Shores, Alabama, with the clinching point recorded for a second year in a row by the battle-hardened Nourse twins at the 3s. When Nicole stuffed an overpass to the sand to put an exclamation point on a third-set victory, her teammates were sent into a well-deserved celebratory frenzy.

A sun-kissed crowd packing the Redneck Riviera venue and a rapt national audience tuning into ESPN were treated to a bevy of nail-biting moments. The score aside, all five matches were extended to tiebreakers, the first time that’s happened in an NCAA final.

That pretty much was to be expected when these SoCal giants – the preeminent programs in collegiate beach volleyball – squared off for the fourth time for an NCAA title after splitting their six previous meetings during the 2024 season.

USC’s 3s notched the decisive point, but the credit for the team’s being able to take another joyful collective dive into the Gulf of Mexico was equally shared by its duos at the 2s and 4s. Both stepped up in clutch time during an eventful and tone-setting first flight to pull out three-set victories after they had fallen into 1-0 holes.

The top-seeded and No. 1-ranked Women of Troy (37-5) enjoyed a wealth of veteran leadership from high-profile returnees such as seniors Megan Kraft and Delaynie Maple (the nation’s top pair) and fifth-year standouts Audrey and Nicole Nourse, plus the savvy lent by grad transfers Madi Kriz (Stanford) and Grace Seits (LSU), both of whom made vast contributions to their new team.

USC charges to the Gulf/Will Chu Photography

“Unbelievable the way (our players) handled the pressure,” Coach Dain Blanton said. “We don’t talk about it, but it’s everywhere – it’s the elephant in the room. Four in a row. A three-peat, that’s been done a lot, but four is unthinkable.

“The squad that we have, the grad students, the seniors, let’s talk about that for a minute: Maple and Kraft and the twins, four years, four national championships as starters. It’s incredible what they have done.”

But the single player who most influenced the result of the championship dual against second-seeded and No. 2-ranked archrival UCLA (35-7) was a freshman, the much-ballyhooed Ashley Pater. Given every reason to cave under relentless serving pressure from Jaden Whitmarsh and Tessa Van Winkle during an air-tight match at the 4s, the 5-foot-8 Pater became a scoring machine in the tiebreaker.

After the rangy 6-foot-2 Seits created a working margin of 8-5 with a stuff block and a pokey off her soft block that landed within a couple feet of the endline, Pater tacked on six points while utilizing hard spikes, knuckle-pokes and nifty off-speed shots to close out the set 15-8. Suddenly stupendous Ashley rang up the match-winner on a deft soft roller that just cleared the net.

Whitmarsh and Van Winkle erased a 20-17 deficit in the first set to win 26-24. Seits’ play at the net mitigated her younger teammate’s jitters as they survived multiple match point to pull out the second 25-23, with Grace rejecting Tessa to ice it.

The complexion of the second flight with the 1s, 3s and 5s would have been far different if Pater and Seits had not given USC the breathing room of a 2-0 cushion.

“That first set, being up three points and not being able to close it (out) was really hard mentally,” Pater admitted. “We also were down 8-4 in the second, but we were able to stay so mentally in it. I’m really, really proud of ourselves. (From there) we had nothing to lose and we let it all out.”

The veteran Seits remained calm and collected even when they fell behind, knowing that “either one of us could take over the game at any time,” and saying that she “had full trust in Pater behind me.”

The first point put on the scoreboard by the Women of Troy was equally harrowing.

UCLA’s AVCA second-team All-American pair of Devon Newberry and Peri Brennan had put the hammer down on sophomore Madison White and Kriz at the 2s during a 21-14 opening set. But White and Kriz bounced back to take the second 21-19 and played the Bruins duo even through the first 24 points of the tiebreaker.

A kill by Kriz provided a one-point edge, then a bizarre and ill-timed miscalculation gave the Trojans the crucial late two-point separation. A dig by Kriz on Newberry’s hard spike sailed high over on one, fortuitously (for USC) landing untouched near the sideline just a few feet from the net and right in front of Devon, a fifth-year player.

A thunderous cross-court spike by the uber-athletic White put the finishing touch on a 15-13 victory.

“We’re taught to always go out swinging and that’s what it came down to,” said White, who went 31-6 on the season with five partners at the 4s, 3s and 2s.

USC then won two of three first sets when the second flight hit the sand, putting UCLA farther behind the 8-ball.

The Nourse twins squeaked by Kenzie Brower and Jessie Smith 22-20, but then went down 21-15 in the second set. A spike by Audrey put them up 13-11 in the third, Nicole followed with an ace and Nicole’s straight-down rejection of an overpass closed out the tiebreaker 15-11.

Four-peat in the books, all coming on the Nourses’ watch.

“We could not be here without our teammates,” Nicole said. “This was a team win. We just happened to be the court who finished it.”

Blanton was effusive in his praise of the fiery Nouse sisters.

“I have so much faith in them,” he said. “They had a tough second set, but I knew that they would come around. One of the best teams of all time, the twins. They just work so hard. All of the coaches know that when you have a duo like that, it makes your job easy, because they are so focused, so tenacious.”

When the horn sounded to signal the end of the competition, Kraft and Maple held an 8-4 lead in the tiebreaker over fellow first-team All-Americans Lexy Denaburg and Maggie Boyd at the 1s, and USC’s 5s pair of sophomore Mabyn Thomas and 6-foot-2 freshman Madison Goellner (who projects a huge upside) were up 4-2 in the third against Ensley Alden and Natalie Myszkowski. USC finished 12-0 in completed matches during the 2024 NCAAs and improved to 27-20 all-time against UCLA.

The Women of Troy earned their sixth NCAA title in the eight tournaments held since beach volleyball was sanctioned as a sport in 2016. Named the 2024 national player of the year by the AVCA, Kraft went 35-4 and won 91.2% (125-12) of her matches during USC’s four championship seasons.

Blanton, the 2000 Olympic gold medalist who succeeded beach-volleyball foundational legend Anna Collier at the USC helm during the COVID-abbreviated season of 2020, was honored as the AVCA coach of the year.

“It’s bittersweet to lose (the team’s longtime stalwarts), but that’s the state of college athletics,” Blanton said. “There’s freshmen coming in and seniors going out. But what we did here was history and a tribute to these student-athletes.”

[1] No. 1 USC def. [2] No. 2 UCLA, 3-0
RECORDS: USC (37-5), UCLA (35-7)
1. Megan KRAFT/Delaynie MAPLE (USC) vs. Maggie BOYD/Lexy DENABERG (UCLA); 21-16, 18-21, 8-4 DNF
2. Maddi KRIZ/Madison WHITE (USC) def. Peri BRENNAN/Devon NEWBERRY (UCLA); 14-21, 21-19, 15-13
3. Audrey NOURSE/Nicole NOURSE (USC) def. Kenzie BROWER/Jessie SMITH (UCLA); 22-20, 15-21, 15-11
4. Ashley PATER/Grace SEITS (USC) def. Tessa VAN WINKLE/Jaden WHITMARSH (UCLA); 24-26, 25-23, 15-8
5. Madison GOELLNER/Mabyn THOMAS (USC) vs. Ensley ALDEN/Natalie MYSZKOWSKI (UCLA); 17-21, 23-21, 4-2 DNF
Order of finish: 2, 4, 3*
Soaking it in, literally/Stephen Burns photo


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