USC beach volleyball begins its season on Thursday as they look to build on the success of last season. A season in which the Trojans finished with an incredible 30-4 record alongside a national championship victory. This season they are returning 13 players including eight out of the 10 players who played on the 2021 championship team.
News flash: that’s good. Like very good. With so much experience and depth returning, USC is ranked No. 1 in the AVCA Collegiate Beach Preseason Coaches Poll.
The talent on this team is unreal, and they are certainly deserving of that No. 1 spot. They have five All-Americans and are led by team captains senior Tina Graudina, graduate Julia Scoles and graduate Sammy Slater.
Graudina is a three-time All-American and one of the best players in college beach volleyball. She is 91-8 all-time at USC, and almost all of those matches have been at the No. 1 position.
She also finished fourth in the 2020 Olympics representing her home country of Latvia.
Slater has played at USC for her entire career and is 89-28. She played primarily at the No. 2 position last season and scored the clinching point in the national championship game.
Scoles was Slater’s partner at the end of last season, and was also sensational. In her first season with USC, she went 25-4 and didn’t lose a match in the NCAA tournament.
USC also has more incredible players such as graduate Hailey Harward, sophomore Megan Craft, graduate transfers Caroline Schafer and Sunny Villapando, who were both named to All-Pac-12 teams last season, sophomore Delaynie Maple and junior twins Nicole and Audrey Nourse.
All of these players are outstanding and could play at the No. 1 position for other schools.
As defending national champions and with so much talent on the roster, this team is bound to be considered title favorites. But as Scoles knows it will be an arduous task.
“Anyone who is a defending champion has a target on their back, but each year is a clean slate.”
Third-year head coach Dain Blanton echoed that sentiment saying, “the matches last year aren’t gonna win us matches this year.” This team is fully focused on this season and is looking ahead rather than backward.
“Last season was last season, and it really doesn’t have anything to do with this season,” Maple said. “Our expectations are the same as last year, leaving the season with the national championship.”
With such high expectations, pressure is inevitable, but this team isn’t concerned.
“We handled business last year, but now it’s time to go out and prove it once more,” Scoles said. “Control what you can control, and the results will take care of itself.”
Blanton shared that confidence in his team saying, “They know what they’re capable of doing. It’s a matter of going out and executing every time and proving every time you’re the best.”
Due to COVID, everyone got an extra year of eligibility, and that’s why this team has so many graduate players. They don’t take that for granted, and as Blanton says, “a lot of the girls having this extra year realize how special it is.
“Blanton is excited to have so many graduates and older players, calling their maturity and leadership “invaluable.”
“We have a really mature team, a really special group that I love coaching,” Blanton said.
Scoles, as one of those super seniors, is happy to be here. “It’s such a gift to have a healthy body to be able to come out here and grind and put in work, and I don’t necessarily view it as a chore but a complete blessing.”
USC has the talent, mindset and chemistry to repeat as national champions.
As Maple put it, “this season is just something special.” It certainly looks like it will be special, and it will all start Thursday on the road against No. 15 Long Beach State.