The NCAA sanctioned women’s beach volleyball last season, and the sport continues to grow on the collegiate and youth levels.
Now the top collegiate duos are heading to Hermosa Beach, California, to take part in the USA Volleyball Collegiate Beach Championships, which run Thursday to Saturday and are free to attend. Twelve men’s teams will compete along with 24 women’s teams, with winners qualifying to compete in international events.
The event is also part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Comcast, which also includes events later this summer in track and field, swimming and diving. Most events will broadcast on NBC or NBC Sports Network, and Saturday’s beach women’s final will broadcast live from 6-7:30 p.m. EST on NBCSN, with a tape-delayed men’s final showing after the women’s final.
With the recent developments on the collegiate level and below, there exists a real possibility that a U.S. women’s team could qualify for the Olympics without playing predominantly indoor volleyball before transitioning to beach.
This weekend’s event could play a big role in that.
“This is part of our journey to the road to Tokyo  and hopefully Los Angeles 2024,” said Megan Burgdorf, manager of beach high performance for USA Volleyball. “Our mission is to find the next Olympic hopefuls who can train with elite coaching and then compete internationally.”
The USA Volleyball event comes on the heels of the NCAA women’s championships, which were last weekend in Gulf Shores, Alabama. The difference is that eight schools qualify for the NCAA tournament, whereas this event has the top duos from around the country nominated by college coaches.
USC and Pepperdine combine to represent a third of all women’s participants this weekend as each school has four teams. It’s no surprise as the two California schools met in the NCAA championship last weekend, with USC winning its second title in as many years the sport has been sanctioned by the NCAA. The Women of Troy fought tooth-and-nail to win the championship 3-2 over the team that’s been their toughest competitor over the last two years.
The NCAA doesn’t have sanctioned men’s beach volleyball, but Burgdorf said USA Volleyball hopes the positive vibe created by the women’s events and the recent successes in the high performance program could potentially lead to inclusion of a men’s division in college.
Here are some of the teams to watch in Hermosa Beach this weekend.
Sara Hughes and Kelly Claes (USC)
This duo won the world university championships in Estonia last year and hasn’t slowed since then. They helped USC win another title over the weekend, and now they’re the team to beat this weekend and favorites to leap into the senior level circuit when both graduate after this year.
“They’re the it team,” Burgdorf said. “They’re a fantastic pair. They’re the team to watch and the team to beat.”
Madison Witt and McKenna Witt (Arizona)
The sisters were the silver medalists behind Hughes-Claes at last year’s world university championships.
“What they’re experiencing is a product of the training,” Burgdorf said.
Sarah Sponcil and Savannah Slattery (Loyola Marymount)
Sponcil, who chose Loyola Marymount because it was “right by the beach,” was a fourth-place finisher at the FIVB U21 World Championships in Switzerland last year. Slattery is a natural beach player having grown up in Malibu and gone back and forth from indoor to beach over the years.
Delaney Knudsen and Madalyn Roh (Pepperdine)
The top pair at Pepperdine led the Wave to the NCAA championship match but fell just short to Hughes-Claes of USC. Knudsen and Roh did take a set in the championship match, though.
Jackson Bantle and Hagen Smith (UCLA)
These two have one to school and played together the last 15 years. They have also been competing and training in the beach high performance program. Bantle took ninth at the FIVB U21 World Championships in 2014 and Smith is the son of beach legend and International Volleyball Hall of Famer Sinjin Smith.
Lucas Yoder (USC) and Michael Saeta (UC Irvine)
This pair will train with the men’s national indoor team this summer in addition to their beach success.
Louis Richard and Matt Butler (Long Beach State)
Long Beach State has one of the top men’s indoor programs, and this pair has played the beach together for a number of years. They have trained as part of the beach high performance program. Richard played beach volleyball for Team USA at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games.
Brett Rosenmeier and Colton Cowell (Hawaii)
This pair represents another top-tier men’s program and will use their high performance experience to challenge the competition.
Scott McDonald has 18 years experience in sports reporting. He was named the State Sports Writer of the Year in 2014 by the Texas High School Coaches Association. McDonald is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.