The moment the ball left Sammy Slater’s left hand, the USC senior thought something was off. Her serve on championship point floated to the back corner of the court, drifting to her left as she watched it sail.
“Out, out, out,” a UCLA player called. The ball dropped in. The Trojans were national champions.
Slater’s ace on championship point clinched USC’s third NCAA beach volleyball title and first since 2017 in a 3-1 victory over No. 1 UCLA in Gulf Shores, Ala., on Sunday. The win gave USC its 108th NCAA title overall and Dain Blanton his first national championship as a head coach after he took over for Anna Collier, who retired in 2019.
Blanton won two NCAA titles as a volunteer assistant coach for the Trojans from 2015-18. In 2019, he worked on ESPN's NCAA tournament broadcast when the Bruins beat USC in the final. Moving through different roles across college beach volleyball helped Blanton see the talent throughout the sport, but he knew that this year’s team could reach another level.
“There’s no question that I think our squad from one through five is the toughest squad that I’ve seen at the collegiate level,” Blanton said. “But it doesn’t matter if you don’t go out and prove it every day.”
The Trojans (30-4) did that Sunday.
They got straight-set wins on courts three, one and two. Before Slater and Julia Scoles won 26-24, 21-15 to clinch the title on Court No. 2, USC’s Haley Hallgren and Hailey Harward grabbed a 21-14, 21-17 win at No. 3 against UCLA’s Lindsey Sparks and Abby Van Winkle, and Tina Graudina and Megan Kraft defeated Lexy Denaburg and Savvy Simo 21-16, 21-17 on the top court.
UCLA’s lone point came from Rileigh Powers and Jaden Whitmarsh with a 21-13, 26-24 win over Audrey and Nicole Nourse on Court No. 5.
The Bruins, the two-time defending champions, took the long route to Sunday’s championship final, having lost to Loyola Marymount in the second round. UCLA (32-5) worked through the contenders bracket and avenged the loss in the semifinal Sunday morning to advance to the championship for their sixth match of the weekend.
USC, in its fourth match of the tournament, felt fresh, senior Joy Dennis said. This was the precise position envisioned when the graduate student signed on for a fifth year. After helping the Trojans win a national championship as a freshman, Dennis was one of the captains for this year’s run.
“I told my team at the beginning of the season I did not come back to lose,” said Dennis, whose match Sunday on Court No. 4 did not finish because the Trojans had clinched the title.
With USC’s maturity and talent, UCLA head coach Stein Metzger knew his team had to play great to win. The Bruins played well, he said, just not well enough for the young team to knock off the Trojans.
UCLA had 13 freshmen or sophomores on its 17-player roster. In March, UCLA lost 5-0 to USC. It was the first time the Bruins had gotten swept since 2018. Two months later, they beat USC twice in the Pac-12 tournament, showing how the group had come together.
“By connecting that well, they really put themselves in a position to win,” Metzger said. “We just came up short in the last one. I couldn’t be prouder of the progress of this team.”
One of UCLA’s promising freshmen, Devon Newberry, paired with junior Leah Monkhouse to help UCLA claim the Pac-12 championship by getting wins over Slater and Scoles. Disappointed, but not deterred after that weekend, Slater thought back to 2019 when the joy of clinching USC’s Pac-12 title over UCLA was overshadowed by the pain of losing to the Bruins in the national championship.
The senior was determined to reverse the roles this year.
“To win on an ace," Slater said, "was just such a sweet feeling [against] our crosstown rival."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.