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College Beach: USC's Terese Cannon

O Captain, My Captain: The Unanimous Admiration for USC’s Terese Cannon

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LOS ANGELES: You can search far and wide. To Pittsford, New York, home of Terese Cannon’s upbringing. To Georgetown University, in Washington D.C., where Cannon played a year of indoor volleyball. To Southern California, where Cannon is currently captain of the USC Trojans who, as of Sunday’s selection show, are now the No. 1 team in the country.

Heck, you can even go to UCLA, land of the most heated rivalry in California college sports.

And still: You will not find a single bad word uttered about Terese Cannon.

Sarah Sponcil tried, once. She tried to dislike her. All 2018 season long.

“It’s impossible,” the Bruins’ court two defender said, and, to wit, a few months later, Sponcil was defending for Cannon at AVP Chicago, taking third. “She’s the nicest person on the planet.”

In an age of Instagram and Twitter and a reactionary culture that has become enamored with screaming hot takes, it has become exceedingly rare to come across a 23-year-old who is so unanimously loved and respected that even her rivals become some of her most ardent supporters. Such is the character of Cannon.

“Great student. Great team member. Great values. Always does the right thing. Funny,” USC coach Anna Collier said. “All the characteristics. You really don’t get all of that together.”

Collier couldn’t have known what Cannon would become. Not when Cannon was a 13-year-old who “couldn’t walk and chew gum” at the same time during a high performance camp in Rochester, New York 10 years ago. But she saw something. She knew it. A raw athleticism. A drive. A personality that was both endearingly humble and quietly driven.  

“If you want to do this,” Collier recalls telling Cannon at the camp, “you can do this.”

There is no real reason their paths should have aligned again. Cannon was an indoor player from upstate New York; Collier one of the finest coaches on the West Coast. Volleyball, though, has a funny way of circling back sometimes. During winter break of Cannon’s freshman season at Georgetown, where she was a Big East Second-Team outside hitter, she went south, to Florida, for a high performance camp.

A future in beach volleyball wasn’t on her mind. The Cannons were just excited to “get some nice weather for a few days,” Terese said, laughing. Then she saw a familiar face, the face of Anna Collier, who said the same thing she did five years before: “If you want to do this, you can do this.”

“I knew she was at Georgetown, so I said ‘Go and do your thing at Georgetown, and if you want to do a fifth year, call me,’” Collier said, referencing the graduate transfer season indoor players can fulfill on the beach.

No need to wait, coach. Cannon was coming. She didn’t want to get into specifics over why she wanted to transfer out of Georgetown, only that a “few things went down” and a change of setting would be ideal.

“I gave Anna a call and said ‘Hey, I’m thinking a change of pace would be nice, I’m thinking I want to transfer,’” she said, and she didn’t even mean transfer to USC. Collier was the only person Cannon knew with beach experience and contacts. She was just wondering if Collier knew of any programs in need of a tall but raw beach player, someone coaches could groom and, in a few years, become a regular starter.

No need to wait, Terese. You can walk on right now.

“I got really lucky,” Cannon said.

On the evening of April, 25, Nicolette Martin was excited. Not that that’s unusual for Martin, who’s enthusiasm can typically be heard from one side of the beach to the next in most any tournament she plays. That’s mostly on the court, though, an indefatigable energy that makes you wonder where in the world it comes from. Off the court, she’s actually quite soft-spoken and reserved. Until, of course, the topic of Cannon comes up.

“Oh, my God,” she said over the phone from the Cayman Islands, where she was competing in a NORCECA. “I’m so excited you’re doing a story on her.”

These are the universal reactions when talking about Cannon. It was with Cannon that, in 2017, Martin secured the final point to win the National Championship for USC. It was Martin who partnered with Cannon to her first main draw, at AVP San Francisco in 2017.

And it was Martin, too, who was on the mic during the livestream of AVP Chicago a year ago, when Cannon and Sponcil were engineering an upset over Emily Day and Betsi Flint, 19-21, 21-13, 16-14.

“They kept serving Terese, they kept serving Terese,” Martin said. “And I was on the air and I told Kevin [Barnett], ‘I don’t think this is a good move. I’m telling you, she’s not the person to serve.’”

So don’t let that politeness fool you. Not on the court, at least. There’s no shortage of fire in there. An athlete doesn’t win 109 matches to 30 losses without an edge somewhere. Still: Collier had to dig to find that edge. Collier would watch her, noticing how Cannon would be keeping an eye on the other courts while also trying to win on her own.

And in that, Collier may have found the one flaw of Cannon: Sometimes she’s just too darn nice.

“She was putting her energy here, and there, and over there,” Collier said, shaking her head, almost incredulously that someone could be so genuinely focused on others. “And every time she did that, she’d take a piece away from herself.”

Collier helped Cannon kick the habit. She can only control what happens on court two alongside Sammy Slater. No matter how badly the captain would like to help, what Tina Graudina and Abril Bustamante do on court one and Alex Poletto and Haley Hallgren do on court three is out of her control.

“It’s kind of focus on our own matches, on our own play, then we can worry about the rest of the team,” Cannon said on April 11 after a pair of wins over Pepperdine and Long Beach State. “That’s helped a lot.”

True to her words, Cannon and Slater have won eight of their past nine matches, including the clincher to win the Pac-12 Championship over UCLA. She’s helped USC earn another berth to the NCAA Championships this upcoming weekend. She’s enjoyed a four-year career that, prior to her chance meeting with Collier during her freshman year at Georgetown, she could have never imagined.

More than that, she’s grown. Grown into a leader, a competitor, a teammate, a friend, Collier’s dream student-athlete.

“Yep, my girl,” Collier said, and she almost sounded nostalgic for her captain despite Cannon still having one more tournament left. “I’m going to miss her. That’s the one thing about this job, man: They leave. How does that work?”

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