USC Women's Sand Volleyball 2014 Season Outlook

    USC senior Kirby Burnham

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    March 7, 2014

    LOS ANGELES - The third time is the charm.

    Set to open its third season, the USC women's sand volleyball team has its sights set on winning the school's first championship. In year one, the Women of Troy sent several pairs to the AVCA championships. In 2013, USC earned its first team bid to the championship and advanced to the semifinals. Kirby Burnham (Newport Beach, Calif./ Newport Harbor HS) and Stevi Robinson laid claim to the program's first pairs title and were each named All-Americans.

    The Trojans start 2014 as the nation's second-ranked team, but they are more concerned about where they finish.

    "One thing that we talk about a lot is getting into the finals of the national championship," said head coach Anna Collier. "The first year, we had pairs of teams represent us. In the second year, we went as a team and ended up third. Now, we talk about let's just get in the finals and then see what happens. It's a journey and we've got a lot of work to do, but we know where we want to be at season's end."

    Last season, the Women of Troy unveiled the Merle Norman Stadium, the new on-campus home of the sand volleyball program. USC went 7-3 in home matches en route to a 16-8 overall record. Though the Trojans came up short in eight matches, four were 3-2 decisions that went down to the final points of the third set in the deciding match. What's more, the Trojans' losses in those epic battles came against national champion Long Beach State four times, Pepperdine three times, and once to Florida State.

    Despite how close USC has come to dethroning the sport's perennial powers, the Trojans aren't satisfied with being close. The team is seeking change as it improves and expects to see those changes take shape this season.

    "The biggest difference is that our freshman class has some true beach volleyball players," said Collier. "In our first two seasons, we relied heavily on converted indoor players. The added experience on the sand helps with competition and elevates the intensity at practice because they've actually been playing sand volleyball much longer by the time they arrive on campus. In fact, this year, we can do some drills that we wouldn't have considered doing even as recently as last season."

    While the new-look Trojans are far more comfortable on the sand, the challenge still exists for the USC coaching staff to develop the talent into a collegiate contender.

    "It's both a good thing and a bad thing that our newcomers arrive with added experience," said Collier. "They come in with some beach development, but sometimes, that means they started so young that they don't have their full heights or their full strength yet. Sometimes we have to re-teach something as basic as an arm swing. It's really almost harder because you have to change what these players have learned or were able to get away with in junior tournaments and transfer that raw talent into a collegiate player and then hopefully a professional player for some of them."

    USC welcomes a pair of the top recruits in the nation, but it won't have to rely strictly on youth to get the job done this season. The Women of Troy bring back one of the top collegiate players to the lineup as senior All-American Burnham prepares to defend her 2013 AVCA pairs title, this time with a new partner.

    "Kirby is going to do as well, if not better, than she did last year," said Collier. "Last year, she kept building and building to the national championship. This season, I think she'll come out and win more of those early matches than she did last season. We expect her to contribute as a leader to this team, and hopefully, also as a repeat national champion."

    The Women of Troy also benefit from the return of seniors Sam Hirschmann (Manhattan Beach, Calif./Marymount HS) and Brooke Fournier (Redondo Beach, Calif./Arkansas) who each were solid contributors a year ago. Perhaps one of the most intriguing stories to come out of the USC squad is that of graduate student Natasa Siljkovic (Uzice, Serbia/School of Economy) who just a year ago was a converted middle blocker from the indoor game. Siljkovic has made incredible strides since she moved over to the sand and is expected to score major points for the Trojans this season. USC also welcomes graduate student Mary Buckingham (Newport Beach, Calif./California) to the lineup. Buckingham played indoor volleyball for California.

    "Natasa is incredibly improved," said Collier. "She has completely engaged herself in the sand game and was so impressive this fall when she advanced to the semifinal of the CBVA."

    In the boiler room, USC's junior and sophomore classes have something to prove as well. Juniors Bria Russ (Long Beach, Calif./Long Beach Poly HS) and Eve Ettinger (Santa Barbara, Calif./Santa Barbara HS) can play anywhere in the Trojan lineup and gave USC some valuable dual points last season. Kati Duddridge (Santa Ana, Calif./Foothill HS) and Alexa Stonish (Stony Brook, N.Y./Stetson) each also return and could be factors in the Trojan lineup. Each of USC's sophomores are first-year transfers. Lauren Sieckmann (Omaha, Neb./Pepperdine) will sit out the season per NCAA transfer rules, but Alexa Strange (San Clemente, Calif./Nebraska) will crack the opening-day lineup and will be counted on to produce right away.

    "Bria is an extremely talented athlete," said Collier. "She has now been out here for a couple years and is really learning the sand game. As a transfer, we expect a lot from Alexa who was on the No. 1 Nebraska team. She also is going to be a huge contributor. Alexa was on the junior national beach team, so she brings a lot of experience to our program."

    It's no secret that the Trojans will lean heavily on their youth this season, but Collier expects a solid foundation to be built and it begins with this freshman class.

    In 2012, despite being one of the country's top indoor players and winner of Orange County Player of the Year honors, Sara Hughes (Costa Mesa, Calif./Mater Dei HS) announced that she would focus solely on a collegiate sand career at the expense of giving up her indoor career. Hughes was the year's top sand volleyball recruit and has since proven why she was so sought after as winner of the 2013 NORCECA beach tourney in Puerto Rico, and both the 2013 CBVA tourney and EVP Huntington Beach tourney; the latter two with Burnham as her partner.

    "Sara Hughes is the most exciting young player to come through the USA system," said Collier. "She's going to be one of those players that people will love to watch play. Sara is definitely someone who comes along just once in a lifetime. Kirby and Sara are amazing as a pair. I think right now, they would be in the middle of the top pack professionally. They have all the skills. They see the court and they have the knowledge to compete on the top level. Bringing in a talent like Sara is a game changer for our program."

    The Trojans also welcome another pair of what most would consider undersized players in Allie Wheeler (Saratoga, Calif./Archbishop Mitty HS) and Nicolette Martin (Anaheim, Calif./Canyon HS) as part of a freshman class that is expected to provide an immediate impact. The youngest player in the program is Kelly Claes (Placentia, Calif./El Dorado HS) who graduated from high school a semester early to join the Women of Troy. Claes was tabbed one of Volleyball Magazine's 2014 Girls' Fab 50 players and is the nation's top sand volleyball recruit. The Trojans' freshman class also includes Sevana Dvorak (Laguna Beach, Calif./Laguna Beach HS), Paige Hines (Encinitas, Calif./La Costa Canyon HS), and Alexx Murphy (Laguna Beach, Calif./Laguna Beach HS), all hailing from California.

    "Allie and Nicolette are scrappy, true beach players, said Collier. "I think people will like them as they rise through the ranks and become top players. Kelly arrived in the second semester so we had some catch-up work to do with her, but her power and strength, and pure aggressiveness are going to attract a lot of fans to the courts."

    This season, the Trojans will also make a noticeable upgrade on the sidelines as three-time Olympic beach volleyball gold medalist Misty May-Treanor joins the staff as a volunteer assistant coach.

    "So much has changed," said Collier. "I don't think there are words that describe what a benefit Misty May is to a coaching staff. She brings so much playing experience with her, but she has a great eye for not having a long coaching resume. She really understands where she is, whom she is coaching, and what it takes to make these players better. She also brings a different level of respect with her. I'm also very pleased with Andrew Fuller, who has grown tremendously as a coach. He now also coaches a women's professional team, and is getting some high-level international experience that he brings to the court."

    USC opens the season away from home in a neutral match against collegiate volleyball's newest program Cal State Northridge on Saturday, March 8. Later on the same day, the Trojans must face top-ranked Pepperdine, which is 34-1 all-time. USC hosts Bakersfield for its first home match on Thursday, March 13, the first of three-straight days of volleyball at Merle Norman Stadium. The Women of Troy welcome No. 4 Florida State, Loyola Marymount, and No. 6 UCLA for duals on March 14 and pool play on March 15.

    The Trojans hit the road for matches in Honolulu (March 19-22) and will face off in duals against first-year program Arizona, No. 5 Hawaii, and No. 7 Nebraska. When USC returns to the mainland, it will take on Pepperdine once more, this time at home on March 25.

    The Women of Troy will appear on national television on two home dates, this season. On March 27, USC's matches against CSUN and Oregon will be broadcast live by the Pac-12 Networks. Then on April 3, the Trojans host Loyola Marymount and UCLA for duals that will also be carried by the Pac-12 Networks. USC will make the short hop up the interstate for a dual at Bakersfield (April 5) before taking part in the USAV Invitational (April 12-13) and the first-ever Pac-12 Invitational (April 19-20) in Santa Monica, Calif. The Trojans close the regular season at Arizona on April 26 and will also face Boise State in a neutral match in Tucson, Ariz.

    Participation in sand volleyball has grown incrementally since the inaugural season in 2012, and now, more than 40 schools are expected to field programs this season. Such rapid growth makes sand volleyball the fastest-growing Emerging Sport in NCAA history. All teams including USC will start this season with the same goal in mind: earning a berth in the 2014 AVCA Collegiate Sand Volleyball National Championships in Gulf Shores, Ala., May 2-4.

    "I'm so excited about our schedule," said Collier. "We're playing Nebraska, Oregon, Boise State. The sport has really opened up and expanded. We're getting to play other schools in the Pac-12, in the middle of the country, and even from the south, and that is so exciting. We have a solid schedule and I want to play the top-ranked teams. That is what competition is all about. Now, it's time to go out and do it."

    For up-to-date information on the USC women's sand volleyball team and a complete schedule, please visit Fans can follow the team on Twitter (@USCSandVBall), Instagram (USCSandVBall), and on Facebook (USCSandVBall).