The most dominant youth beach volleyball player in the United States is a 16-year-old who strolled back to her house barefoot half an hour after winning a gold medal.
Four days after taking home the AAU Beach National Player of the Year award, Erin Inskeep doubled down Sunday by winning the AAU Beach 18U national championship alongside teammate Ashley Pater of Florida.
“This whole day, we literally played insane,” Inskeep said after the medal ceremony. “Like, out of our minds.”
In one sense, it was just another weekend at the beach for the Manhattan Beach Mira Costa High incoming senior. She lives just down the street from the Hermosa Beach Pier, where the AAU tournament was held.
“I was just born on the beach,” Inskeep said.
She defended her home with gusto, showcasing her stellar all-around game. She wasn’t dominant as much as she was precise — digging out attacks fast and shallow to Pater, dropping in perfectly placed hits to every zone.
By the time the two had dispatched Marymount’s Julia Capps, Stanford commit Kelly Belardi and Cal commit Jenna Colligan, it was clear Inskeep couldn’t be stopped. Facing Santa Ana Mater Dei’s Grace Hong and teammate Madison Goellner of Texas in the final, Inskeep and Pater set each other in sync for kill after kill en route to a 28-18 win.
The match was all but over at 15-11, when Hong and Inskeep both leapt for a dying ball in the middle of the net and Inskeep tapped it past Hong for an easy block kill.
“I didn’t have any expectations on that [play],” Inskeep said. “I was just like, ‘Ahhh, OK. I’m just going to try and not net and not do anything wrong.’ “
She is as happy-go-lucky off the court as she is an unstoppable force on it. She didn’t even “think it was possible” to win the player of the year, Inskeep said, because she was just 16.
If there’s one weakness in Inskeep’s game, it’s putting on sunscreen. Her nose was peeling a couple of layers of skin deep. But such is par for the course when you’re a child of the sand.
“I’ve been out here like every day this month,” Inskeep said. “Literally every day.”
Sunday was the most triumphant yet.
Watch out for Huntington’s
There’s a fairly concrete tier of elite teams in the Southern Section — Marymount, Mater Dei and Mira Costa, with a couple more slots reserved for programs such as Harvard-Westlake, Sierra Canyon and Redondo Union to duke it out.
It might be time to add Huntington Beach to the mix. The team is young — it went 28-7 last season — and two of its rising juniors, Danielle Sparks and Haylee LaFontaine, just won the 16U AAU national beach championship Sunday.
“I’m just looking forward to bringing the program up and putting it on the map,” Sparks said after her win with LaFontaine.
Their championship victory overshadowed even the crowning 18U event, as Sparks and LaFontaine duked it out in a back-and-forth thriller with Claire Sun (Los Altos Hills) and Logan Tusher (Belvedere). As the score extended past the winning mark of 28 in a win-by-two situation, a large crowd gathered along the Hermosa Beach beach to watch the pairs’ desperate dives and exhausted claps.
Up 33-32, LaFontaine told Sparks: “Dani, we’re getting this next point. We’re ending the game.”
They did, 34-32, and are looking forward to carrying the beach momentum into the fall indoor season.
“I think within the next couple of years,” LaFontaine said, “we’re going to do a lot of great things.”
The biggest winner Sunday, ultimately, might have been USC beach volleyball coach Dain Blanton.
Out of four players in the girls’ 18U final, three — Hong, Pater and Goellner — are committed to USC.
Two more who made it deep into the final Gold Bracket on Sunday, Delaney Karl (San Diego) and Zoey Mitchell (Montana), will also join them as Trojans. Karl is in USC’s class of ’26, but Mitchell, Hong, Pater and Goellner are all part of a stacked ’27 class.
Hong, Pater and Goellner gathered together after the final for a USC-specific picture. For a Trojans team that went 37-1 and won the national championship in 2022, the future looks bright.