USC Wins Thrilling Pac-12 Title Over UCLA
LOS ANGELES – This whole time, the beginning was really the end.
The 60 days that separated USC’s season opener and Saturday’s Pac-12 finale were just the prelude. Oil for the hype machine. Sarah Sponcil’s words back then, on February 27, when UCLA met USC for the first time in 2019, were echoed nearly verbatim by Terese Cannon exactly two months later.
“I don’t know why,” Sponcil said on February 27, when her and partner Lily Justine beat Terese Cannon and Sammy Slater in the deciding court two match. “But you always,” finished Cannon on Saturday afternoon, “gotta be ready for that.”
“That,” meaning: All eyes on court two, with UCLA and USC split 2-2.
With one twist. Any good story needs one. Why should UCLA and USC, the biggest rivalry both on the West Coast and in the sport of beach volleyball, be any different?
Sixty days ago it was Sponcil and Justine claiming the win, igniting a streak of what would become 25 consecutive victories for the Bruins.
On Saturday afternoon, with the Pac-12 Championship on the line, with Cannon competing in Merle Norman Stadium for one last time, it was Cannon and Slater coming back, then coming back again, winning the decisive third set, 15-12, to seal USC’s third Pac-12 title in four years.
“We just talked to each other, made sure we were on the same page,” Slater said. “That was the difference, honestly.”
So many times, USC could have packed it in. The Trojans could have deflated after UCLA’s Savvy Simo and Lea Monkhouse came back from down 19-16, twice, winning both sets to claim an early dual point. The Trojans could have deflated when Cannon and Slater saw a 2-0 lead flip to a 6-3 deficit in the third set. They could have deflated when Cannon was whistled for hitting a ball on UCLA’s side of the net, and when she was whistled, again, for what any Trojan fan will claim to be a phantom net call.
They did none of that. They did none of that because this is exactly what coach Anna Collier has been preaching since before that February 27 season-opener.
“We’re going to fight,” she said after the tournament’s opening day. “We’re not going to play to play anymore. We’re playing to win.”
And one by one, each court rallied for the Trojans. Alex Poletto and Haley Hallgren, the models of consistency on court three all weekend, won quickly, decisively, 21-16, 21-18, their tenth straight win heading into Gulf Shores.
Tina Graudina and Abril Bustamante, on court one, were their typically exceptional selves, beating UCLA’s excellent pairing of Nicole and Megan McNamara, 21-18, 21-17.
All, then, descended upon court two. Cannon and Slater and Sponcil and Justine. No different than two months prior. Only this time there were throngs of fans lining the parking garage, for there were no seats or standing room left in Merle Norman. This time there were fans sneaking into the stadium over the shorter fences, the ones out of eyesight of the security guards.
“I kind of liked how the UCLA side was cheering right behind us,” Slater said. “It kind of gave me an energy. I was back there serving, like ‘Ok, I will get an ace.’”
For so long in the dual it had been UCLA with that type of swagger. It was Monkhouse and Simo rallying from down three and down three again. It was Lindsey Sparks poking her way around to a court five win alongside Izzy Carey, the consummate Bruin and winner of the Pac-12 Beach Volleyball Scholar Athlete of the Year. It was Sponcil finishing rallies with jump-bump kills.
And then it wasn’t. Then, with momentum slipping quickly, sliding downhill in favor of the Bruins, it was Cannon sealing the seam on a Justine swing, making a 10-10 switch rather than 11-9. It was Cannon, again, sealing the line on another swing, putting the Trojans up 13-12. And it was Cannon and Slater, together, weathering it all, weathering a choppy first set, weathering a few extra whistles, weathering a tremendous visiting crowd, weathering the pressure of 15 points to the Pac-12 title.
“We were so tight-knit by the end of that game,” Slater said, and though she was talking about her and Cannon, that same sentiment could be applied to the Trojans as a whole. As Collier planned it, USC is peaking, both physically and spiritually, at the perfect time.
On court one, Graudina and Bustamante have won 18 of their last 19; Cannon and Slater eight of nine; Poletto and Hallgren ten straight; Joy Dennis and Maja Kaiser seven of eight on court four.
“This is what you practice for,” Poletto said. “I remember turning to Haley yesterday during our match [against UCLA] and saying ‘This is so much fun.’ No matter what happens it’s just so awesome to be in this type of competition.”
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