Sand volleyball: Strike up the sand; Cats win in sport's debut

2014-03-08T00:00:00Z Sand volleyball: Strike up the sand; Cats win in sport's debutBy Zack Rosenblatt Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

When Sean Miller draws up a play, he uses a whiteboard.

Steve Walker draws lines in the sand. Count him as the only Arizona Wildcats coach that, in the midst of a contest, walks around barefoot, sand in his toes. And before that, in flip-flops.

Walker sits in a folding chair, wears sunglasses, has an umbrella for shade, and a cooler of refreshments by his side.

There’s music playing in the background, people crowded around the sand. Towels laid out, tents set up. About 30 lawn and beach chairs scattered around four volleyball courts. There’s just no ocean, and certainly no boardwalk.

McKale Center is across the street, though.

It’s beach volleyball, without the beach. Just 1,250 tons of sand.

Arizona’s sand volleyball team made its debut Friday against Arizona Christian. Walker, mixing his sports metaphors, called the day “a home run.”

The UA swept all its pairs matches in a 5-0 win. The crowd at “Wildcat Beach” was good, too — close to 200 people showed up to watch, and cheer, as the school debuted its 20th sports program.

The day opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new sand venue, located where the UA football team used to practice before moving next door to Kindall/Sancet Stadium. Walker joked, “I’ve never held a pair of scissors that big before.”

“It was a great turnout from our fans,” he said. “For us, I think it was a good first match to get under our belt, to get comfy in front of an audience.”

Here’s a look at what to expect going forward for the sand volleyball team. The Cats will play two more home matches today: against Grand Canyon at 10 a.m. and ASU at 4 p.m.

Similar to indoor VB

Collegiate sand volleyball is a cross between team tennis and indoor volleyball.

There are kills, digs and sets.

Five pairs from each team face off. Since each duo is also trying to qualify for the national tournament individually, the overall match doesn’t end until all the pairs have played, unless there’s a forfeit. Each set is played to 21, and the first to win two takes the point.

Ronni Lewis and Rachel Rhoades kicked off the match — and the season — nicely, winning 2-0 (21-16, 21-13).

“I’m excited to see the program grow,” said Lewis, a junior and a libero on the indoor team. “I want to put Arizona on the map. It’ll be cool to be the first group talked about.”

Beach connections

Lewis grew up with a connection to beach volleyball, even if she never really played competitively.

“I got to watch the best player in the world play,” Lewis said, “It just happened to be my cousin.”

That would be Kerri Walsh Jennings, one-half of what’s considered the greatest women’s beach volleyball team of all time. She won gold at the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics.

“I’ve put a bug in Ronni’s ear multiple times,” Walker said. “If Kerri is ever in town, she’s more than welcome to come and speak to the team. She’s such an inspiration.”

Walker has a similar connection — he’s close friends with Misty May Treanor, Walsh Jennings’ volleyball partner. Treanor is an assistant with USC’s sand team, so he’ll see her when they face off with the UA on March 15 in Hawaii.

And Arizona’s Jane Croson, who is paired with Madi Kingdon on the Wildcats’ No. 1 team, already has a history with sand volleyball from her time at the University of Hawaii. Croson won a gold medal in 2010 at the FIVB Youth (under 19) Beach World Championships in Portugal and was an All-American as a freshman at Hawaii.

Walker said Croson is already good enough to play professionally.

Croson and Kingdon were dominant Friday, winning their match 2-0 (21-12, 21-6).

The crossover

Most of the Wildcats playing in the sand consider themselves multi-sport athletes.

Nine of the 13 players on Arizona’s sand volleyball team also play indoor volleyball in the fall for Dave Rubio. That includes Kingdon, an All-Pac-12 player indoors.

“Most of these players never came here expecting to play multiple sports,” Walker said. “I told them ‘hey, it’s a pretty rare deal, a neat opportunity to say I’m a multi-sport athlete at a Pac-12 institution.’ ”

There are four sand-exclusive players: junior Allie Cook, freshman Sarah Seiber and freshman twins

McKenna and Madison Witt.

“It’s so cool,” Madison said. “I never even thought I was going to play sand. I was committed to an indoor team. One thing led to another; now I’m here playing beach with my sister.

“We love the beach, we love the sand, and we love playing in the sand.”

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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