Tina Graudina, Abril Bustamante Filling USC’s Giant Court One Shoes Just Fine
A coach. At her desk on August 31, 2014. She’s waiting. Waiting. Suddenly, an idea. The NCAA doesn’t permit direct contact between college coaches and prospects until September 1 of their junior seasons.
But does that mean September 1 in Southern California, or September 1 in Riga, Latvia, which is eight hours ahead? The coach pulled up the phone, called the NCAA.
“They were like ‘No,’” Anna Collier recalled, laughing.
Back to waiting. By the time midnight rolled around it was 8 a.m. in Riga, so it wasn’t unusual for a college coach to be making a recruiting call at what would be midnight anywhere else or 3 a.m. for East Coast prospects.
And thus, simultaneously at midnight and 8 a.m. on September 1, 2014, the recruitment of Tina Graudina had begun.
That sentence isn’t entirely true. Collier had noticed Graudina far before she waited in her office to phone the 6-foot blocker. Six years ago, Collier, now in her eighth year at USC, was the Junior National Team coach for the U.S. It’s a role that took her to Acapulco, Mexico, for a tournament that also included a Latvian blocker with remarkable athleticism and touch and a rare dose of physicality.
“I was like ‘I want this girl,’” Collier said. “And I literally then followed her, followed her, followed her.”
Her research showed that Graudina spoke English. That she was half-American and held dual citizenship. Collier left no stone unturned, finding out “everything about her from everywhere around.”
Given her talent, it is unusual how simple Graudina’s recruitment was. She skyped with Collier. She took an official visit. She liked the campus. Liked the culture. Liked the team.
She was in. Justlikethat.
At the time of her commitment, many wondered what would happen when USC’s then-No. 1 pairing, Sara Hughes and Kelly Claes, graduated. In three years as partners, Hughes and Claes would finish their careers with three consecutive national championships, 147 wins and just 4 losses.
“When Sara and Kelly graduated, everyone was like ‘How are they going to fill that one spot?’” Terese Cannon, USC’s court two blocker and team captain said.
Collier had a plan. Maybe she didn’t know it six years ago when she initially noticed Graudina, but a plan had begun to form.
Graudina is a generational talent. But generational talents also need a partner, someone who can match them well, play off of them, pick them up. That was when Graudina was introduced to Abril Bustamante.
For the previous two seasons, Bustamante had played on court four, primarily with Jenna Belton and then Joy Dennis. She put together a 52-18 record. This is, by any other standard, excellent. But when she partnered with Graudina, a new standard was set.
On court one, Bustamante, then a junior, and Graudina, in her freshman year, went 31-2. They were named All-American. All-Pac-12. All-Everything. National Pair of the Year.
“They need each other,” Cannon said. “They play so well together, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
This year has been much of the same. On court one, Graudina and Bustamante have gone 24-2. There is only one other team in the country – Nicole and Megan McNamara of UCLA – whom coaches name when discussing the top pair in the nation. Thus far this season, they’ve gone 2-1 against the twins, with a pending matchup awaiting in the Pac-12 Tournament next week.
“They’ve done just fine,” Cannon said, laughing when discussing the once-impossible question of how to replace Hughes and Claes.
There are only so many blockers, men’s or women’s, who can draw comparisons to Phil Dalhausser and it not be wrapped and smothered in hyperbole. Graudina is one of those blockers. When former UCLA assistant coach – now head coach at Santa Clara – Jeff Alzina initially made that comparison, in an interview prior to the season, it seemed a bit outrageous. And then you watch Graudina play, and you get it.
“Just watch her,” Bustamante said. “She blocks like five balls per set, so she makes me look so good up there every time we step up on the court.”
And here is the most endearing aspect of the Graudina-Bustamante partnership: Graudina doesn’t take the compliment. She turns it back on Bustamante, praising her defense, praising her setting, praising every skill for which one could possibly praise a partner.
“It’s the other way around,” Graudina said, and to her credit, sometimes she’s right: Bustamante is as good as Graudina would like you to think she is. “I put my hands up and I know she’s there.”
It is this type of alchemy, both in personality and skill, that make the two such a dream for Collier and a road block for any other court one pairing. It’s why Bustamante was there as Graudina wrestled with one of the most difficult questions she’s yet had to answer: To make a run at Tokyo or not.
“It wasn’t an easy decision for her to make,” Bustamante said. But she did make a decision. Rather than suiting up for USC next season, Graudina will be taking a gap year, focusing on Tokyo, on competing for Latvia, on making her first run at an Olympic Games.
“There’s so much uncertainty. It’s sports,” Graudina said. “You can’t see the future and say ‘Yeah, we’ll play good enough to go to the Olympics’ but I have to make the decision right now to go. I figured out that you can study at any time in your life but you can only play beach volleyball for a short time.”
Should she take a red shirt and not accept prize money, rest assured she will be able to play beach volleyball at USC as long as the NCAA allows it. Bustamante, too, has a decision to make. Collier says she could compete for Spain or Argentina or the United States, though the coach says Bustamante, who will be enrolling in USC’s graduate school next fall, is leaning towards the former. Not for Tokyo. But Paris in 2024? Los Angeles for 2028? Both are reasonable enough. Many talk about Graudina’s presence at the net but Bustamante’s excellence on defense often doesn’t get the praise it deserves.
Not that she’s worried about that. Nor is she really too focused on Paris or Los Angeles or for whom she will compete. At the moment, for three more weeks, she’s a Trojan.
“Ending on a high note would be incredible,” she said. “I’m just soaking up the last few games and times I have to be with Tina on the same side of the net.”
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