All-Americans find unique path to the beach

first_imgFor USC beach volleyball players senior Alexa Strange and junior Sophie Bukovec, the journey to the University of Southern California has been anything but ordinary. Despite multiple detours, the two upperclassmen somehow ended up together in the same city, at the same school and on the same side of the net.Strange, a 6-foot senior, is originally from San Clemente, California, while Bukovec, a 6-foot-1 junior, hails from Toronto, Canada. The duo currently make up the No. 2 pairing on the top-ranked USC beach volleyball team and are in their final season playing together after being named AVCA All-Americans in the Trojans’ undefeated run to the 2015 AVCA National Championship. This season, they’ve helped guide the Women of Troy to a 26-2 overall record while touting an impressive 29-8 record of their own as a pair. However, though they now share the same sand, the routes they took to get to Troy greatly differed.For Strange, a former indoor prep All-American as a senior out of San Clemente High School, playing collegiate volleyball was always in the plans. Whether that was beach or indoors, however, was another story.Beach volleyball wasn’t yet an official collegiate sport at the time, so Strange decided to look for schools around the country to play solely indoors. She had initially pledged to play at the University of Colorado, a program that was entering a rebuilding phase. However, upon realizing that she wanted to play on a competitive team in college right out of the gate, Strange decided to reopen her recruitment. One school that intrigued her was the University of Nebraska, a traditional volleyball powerhouse known for its passionate fan base and sold-out arenas. After finding out that a scholarship was open for her, Strange immediately accepted their offer and signed to play for the Cornhuskers that fall.So, off Strange went on the 1,516-mile trip across the country to the Midwest, trading the warm weather of sunny Orange County for the cold and unpredictable climate of Lincoln, Nebraska. During her freshman season in the fall of 2012, Strange appeared in 25 matches indoors as a reserve setter and opposite hitter. Luckily for her, the following spring semester would also be the first ever season that Nebraska would field a beach volleyball team. So, Strange transitioned to the sand in the spring of 2013 as part of the Huskers’ No. 1 pairing for the rest of the season.Over time, however, Strange found herself wondering whether or not playing and living in Nebraska was really the right fit for her. During a trip to Los Angeles in which Nebraska took on USC at Merle Norman Stadium, Strange reconnected with current USC head coach Anna Collier, a figure she had known since the age of 14 through the USA Volleyball circuit. That meeting with Collier would prompt Strange to reevaluate what it was she wanted out of her college experience.“When we came to play USC my freshman year, I saw Anna and she told me, ‘I can’t believe you’re at Nebraska — you never seemed like a Nebraska type of girl!’” Strange said. “And in the back of my mind, I was like, ‘I couldn’t agree more … I really don’t know what I’m doing here.’”Eventually, the Midwestern lifestyle wasn’t one that Strange could see herself living in any longer. To her, nothing could match the sunny weather and beautiful beaches in California. So, in 2014, she decided to give up the indoor game at Nebraska to join a beach-only program.Through her connection with Collier and with the desire to play closer to home, USC became the easy choice for Strange.“I’m a California girl and a beach baby at heart, and that’s ultimately what brought me back here,” Strange said.Bukovec’s decision to further her volleyball career coming out of high school was also plagued by some initial indecision. While playing on the beach was what she preferred, Bukovec wanted to experience what it was like to play indoors collegiately, so she decided to stay local and play at McMaster University in Ontario.She made an immediate impact for the Marauders, leading her team to an unexpected conference championship and garnering Rookie of the Year, Final Four MVP and conference First Team All-Star honors in just one season. But, while the success and accolades poured in after that first year, Bukovec knew she wanted something more for herself.“Playing indoors at McMaster was great, but the volleyball wasn’t too phenomenal, so I decided to reach out to schools in the States,” Bukovec said. “I looked at a few different schools like Columbia and Indiana, but I wanted to play both beach and indoor, so I narrowed down to schools in California.”After finding out that Long Beach State University had a full scholarship available for her, Bukovec decided to pack her bags and make the long trek down North America.In her first season at LBSU, she appeared in 27 matches, helping the 49ers to a 27-5 overall record and a second-round NCAA tournament appearance. However, the issues she had with the coaching staff made Bukovec question whether or not she was truly happy, so she requested her release from LBSU after the indoor season and looked for another destination.Without much luck, Bukovec was set on going back home to Canada. However, she decided to check with USC just in case anything might have been available there for her.“As soon as I got released, I contacted Anna to see if they had a scholarship available, and she said we could make it work, so that’s really all I needed,” Bukovec said.She joined the Women of Troy the following season and made her debut in the spring of 2015.All in all, the game of volleyball has taken Bukovec and Strange to great distances in their short time as student-athletes, and with a fair share of miles logged between them, some would call it crazy that they both ended up playing together at USC last year. Interestingly enough, however, their paths had crossed much earlier — in a different country.The first real meeting between the two happened in the summer of 2013 at the U21 FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships in Croatia. The two faced off against each other in pool play, with the then 17 year old Bukovec playing for Team Canada and the 18 year old Strange playing for Team USA. The match would ultimately go in the Canadian’s favor, but not before the two would connect on a personal level, turning from opponents to friends.The two would meet once again in Cyprus one year later for another international tournament. It was during that very summer that Bukovec was looking to transfer from LBSU, and knowing that Strange had just arrived at USC, Bukovec reached out to her to get some more information.“When I wanted to transfer, I was curious about life at USC and if it would be a good fit, so I asked Alexa what it was like there,” Bukovec said.Strange added that Bukovec reached out to her on Facebook and asked for her honest opinion on the school.“I explained what the culture was like around here and how good and competitive the team was, and I think those facts made it a pretty easy sell,” Strange said.Sure enough, that was all the push Bukovec needed to commit to USC, as “Alexa really put the cherry on top.”Whether it was by fate or pure coincidence that their paths somehow crossed and brought them together, what matters is that Bukovec and Strange have now found their way home at USC together. And while this season may be the last time they ever get to play on the same side of the net, the two look to make the most of it as they gear up for one last run together in hopes of winning the first-ever NCAA Beach Volleyball Championship.“Winning the National Championship again would be a perfect ending for us, and especially winning it in Alexa’s senior year,” Bukovec said.Strange too hopes to go out with a bang in her final season donning the cardinal and gold.“The number one goal is to just win that National Championship,” Strange said. “We’ve been preparing literally all year for this moment and it’s all we can think about and all we can see, so all my energy just goes to wanting to win it all and do it with Sophie.”last_img

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