Season Outlook: Women of Troy Look Forward in Year Four

    USC sophomore Kelly Claes

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    March 12, 2015

    LOS ANGELES - The USC women's sand volleyball team has its sights set on the grand prize as the Women of Troy prepare to open the books on 2015. In each of the last two years, the Trojans have advanced to the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) national semifinal match. USC's experienced core and depth of lineup are only a piece of the ingredients the Trojans hope will propel them to greater heights. For this team, improvement and a solid foot forward are the focus as the campaign begins.

    "The first thing we talk about is getting better every match," said fourth-year head coach Anna Collier. "We want to focus on getting better, match-by-match, and not just on the long-term goal of winning a championship. If we can do that, we feel that our long-term goals are certainly attainable. Whether we win or lose a match, we want to see the results of our work, and improvement is what we're looking for this spring."

    Though it is young, USC returns plenty of experience to the sand including that of the defending AVCA pairs champion Sara Hughes. As a freshman, Hughes teamed with Kirby Burnham to claim the 2014 title, an accolade that Burnham herself had won the previous year. The duo cleared a path for itself and went 21-4 in dual matches with a remarkable 21-0 record in tournaments. At 42-4, Burnham and Hughes captured the breath of the collegiate sand volleyball world and took home the ultimate prize. Burnham repeated as an All-American as Hughes received her first such distinction.

    "We are young, but we're mature," says Collier. "We were a really young team last season, but most of our team has had that full year in our system, and we had a great 2014. We may have been a little disappointed with how the season ended, but I think the experience was a great learning and maturing process for the players we now look to as veterans."

    Beyond Hughes, the Trojans also return sophomore Kelly Claes who is likely to partner with Hughes at USC's top spot. The tandem spent the summer together and made splashes on the international level. Last year, Claes paired with junior Alexa Strange to produce a 33-7 record including a 22-3 mark in duals. The Trojans expect Strange to contribute mightily to the team's success this season.

    While USC must replace Burnham, and departing seniors Sam Hirschmann, Natasa Siljkovic, and Brooke Fournier, leadership comes in many forms, and is something the Trojans won't be lacking this spring.

    "We expect that our leadership will come from Sara Hughes," said Collier. "Her growth in just one year on campus was astounding. Having won the national championship with Kirby Burnham, we feel a lot of the leadership that we leaned on from Kirby really left a lasting impression on what we now have with Sara. While it's easy for a coach to point to a title winner as a leader, Sara has shown incredible poise and maturity as a player and as a person, and leads through her demeanor, her words, and with her work ethic and play on the court."

    Among other returning players with starting experience, the Trojans bring back sophomores Nicolette Martin and Allie Wheeler who teamed up to earn 24 wins (24-5) as freshmen. Seniors Eve Ettinger and Bria Russ were solid as USC's fourth pair and finished with a 26-8 record in 2014. It remains to be seen if the pair will remain intact as 2015 unfolds, but both Ettinger and Russ figure to be prominent pieces to the Trojans' bid for a third straight postseason appearance.

    The Women of Troy will also benefit this season from added depth. Senior Alexa Stonish and sophomore Paige Hines were each contributors in 2014 and could be called upon to round out the Trojans' lineup from time to time. Senior Emily Young was a member of USC's inaugural team in 2011 but has spent the last two seasons exclusively on the indoor court. She now returns to the sand and brings experience and depth to the table. Despite the formidable lineup that USC's returners could produce, the Trojans are excited to bring in seven newcomers. Collier expects some of the new faces to compete and contribute immediately. The Women of Troy benefit from the transfer of Sophie Bukovec who was last playing on the indoor court for Long Beach State, Jo Kremer who joins the Trojans from traditional football rival Notre Dame, and Meg Norton formerly of UCLA's indoor volleyball team.

    Among freshmen, the Trojans welcome Jenna Belton who was a top sand recruit and originally signed when Claes first signed with USC. The Women of Troy also bring in Olivia Asprey, Lorna Brandt, and Marielle Bagnard to their 2015 freshman class.

    "Bukovec is a world champion who won the U21 title," said Collier. "She is a legitimate player, and we are very fortunate to have her. Norton is a player that really brings out the best in her partner. She has a confident and calming aura about her game that makes playing with her very easy. We think Jenna Belton will make an impact this year. We also like Jo Kremer who came to us from Notre Dame. It's possible that Jenna and Jo could be a great duo in the years to come. All of the transfers and newcomers we've had join our team have really bolstered this lineup and make us a true contender."

    USC opens the season at home as host to first-year program TCU on March 12. The Trojans will have seven home matches televised on the Pac-12 Networks in 2015. Among USC's opponents are perennial top 10 teams including Pepperdine, Florida State, Hawai'i, and Loyola Marymount. Beyond TCU, the Trojans will also get a taste of new programs in first-time meetings with California, New Mexico, Concordia, San Francisco, and Irvine Valley College.

    The Women of Troy will take a long trip to the islands during spring break to face Hawai'i, Cal, and Nebraska, and will also take part in the Rainbow Wahine Spring Challenge. In mid-April, the Trojans will again play in the USAV Beach Collegiate Challenge in Hermosa Beach, Calif.

    USC will close the regular season as hosts of the Pac-12 Invitational where Arizona, Arizona State, California, and UCLA will converge to crown a team and pairs champion in Santa Monica, Calif. (April 18-19). With the right amount of success, the Trojans hope to return to the AVCA Collegiate Sand Volleyball National Championship in Gulf Shores, Ala., May 1-3.

    "We always feel that you have to play the best to be the best," said Collier. "You can't have Nos. 1 and 2 square off each week, but we are excited about our schedule and know that it presents the challenges and growing opportunities we need in order to become a championship contender in May. We will face a lot of teams that we've never seen before, and I think that will test our limits and prepare us to be flexible for whomever we face."

    With a mix of new and old, the Trojans know that they can only control their side of the net. Thus, self-improvement is paramount as the season progresses.

    "Because we're facing so many new teams, our focus will continue to be on ourselves," said Collier. "With so many new programs, and not a lot of film out there to watch on players, when you line up against a team you've never seen, you really need to have your mind trained on your side of the court. If we do that, down the road, we can get into a situation where we might not know a team, but we can be comfortable with our game and still hope to win."

    With 2015 barely out of the gates, USC knows that there is a larger picture and a new horizon to reach in the near future. On Jan. 17, 2015, NCAA Division II and Division III membership approved sand volleyball as a championship allowing it to advance from the emerging sports for women list and become a full-fledged NCAA championship in spring 2016. Sand volleyball, which was approved to become a championship by Division I membership in October 2014, will be the 90th NCAA championship. The championship itself will have an eight-team bracket, which will be played in a double-elimination format.

    "The most exciting thing about the progress we've made, quite obviously, is that 2016 marks the first year the NCAA will crown a sand volleyball champion," said Collier. "It is a testament to the hard work that everyone in sand volleyball has put in over the years. This creates so many more opportunities for women across the country, and we think that many teams out there that were on the fringe will now take the next step to add what is the fastest growing sport in the country."

    Always looking forward, but focused on the immediate task ahead, the Women of Troy hope to do some growing of their own this season. The Trojans were tabbed second in the AVCA's preseason coaches poll and were ranked No. 3 in the first ever media poll conducted by DiG Magazine. Now, it's up to USC to put the best foot forward.

    For more information on the USC sand volleyball team and a complete schedule, please visit and follow @USCSandVBall on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.