As Ronni Lewis walked off the sand for the last time this season on Saturday, a passerby mentioned a yellow card she received in her final match, against Boise State.
“I think it was our first one of the season,” she said, smiling. “I got a little mouthy; it happens.”
Teamed with Madi Kingdon, Lewis won her last match, as did the Wildcats as a team, beating Boise State 4-1.
With that, the inaugural season of sand volleyball at the UA ended. But still, Lewis was relaxed, smiling, happy.
“It was a lot of fun,” Lewis said. “I love the team, love the coaches, love learning everything new. The atmosphere out here is really relaxed so it makes it fun and easy to play.”
The Wildcats’ final record: 8-12.
Not too shabby for Year 1, said Steve Walker, the program’s first-year head coach.
“I couldn’t be happier,” Walker said. “Certainly, it was not free of turbulence, just like any season. At points during it there was a little bit of crisis, and I think we managed that relatively well. Again, in your first year, all first-year programs look pretty similar, scratching and clawing for wins. I thought we did that, and we did a nice job.”
The season is short — it started in March, and ended in April — but, as freshman McKenna Witt said, “It was short, but it was long.”
Here’s a look back at the first season on “Wildcat Beach,” with a look ahead to what’s next.
Saturday morning, the Wildcats faced off with top-ranked USC. That’s USC, the No. 1-ranked sand volleyball team in the country that finished its regular season 22-1 and, to top it off, has Olympic gold-medalist Misty May-Treanor on its staff as a volunteer assistant coach.
The Wildcats weren’t going to beat the Trojans, especially not in Year 1. In the end, they lost 5-0. They also lost 5-0 to Pepperdine, the No. 2-ranked team; Hawaii, No. 3; and 4-1 to Long Beach State, ranked No. 5.
But still, Arizona laid the groundwork and still competed pretty well for a rookie program.
“If you look at some of our losses, you look at two or three points in some of the matches that could’ve went either way,” Walker said. “Our record could’ve easily been turned on its head. But, record aside, I’d consider it a successful first season.”
Notably, the Wildcats kept it close with No. 8-ranked Loyola Marymount, losing 3-2, and lost to Nebraska, ranked for much of the season, 3-2 as well.
And against the Trojans, Arizona’s Nos. 2, 3 and 4 pairs lost sets, on average, by only 3.8 points.
On the road
The season was short and, in turn, time spent at the Wildcats brand new sand volleyball facility, located at Jimenez Field, was minimal.
Arizona had eight weekends of competition, only three of them spent in the Old Pueblo.
Of course, traveling to various parts of California and Hawaii to compete on an actual beach isn’t the worst thing in the world.
Still, Walker would like a few more home matches.
“I’m going to try,” Walker said. “I already put some feelers out for next year. ‘Wildcat Beach’ is a great environment. Everyone’s more comfortable playing at home, we still had excellent crowds. I’m going to do my best to lock in as many home events as I can next year.”
To start his tenure as the sand coach, Walker — a longtime assistant for indoor coach Dave Rubio — had to fill his roster.
He added three “sand-only” recruits — twins Madison and McKenna Witt, and Sarah Seiber — and filled the rest of his roster with crossovers from the indoor program.
To start, there were 10 crossovers. By the last match, due to injuries and Rubio’s need for some of his players for indoor spring competition, Arizona didn’t even have enough people to send out five pairs, forfeiting points to both USC and Boise State.
Walker added a team manager — Jazmine Campas, a Catalina Foothills product — to the club’s roster later in the season.
In the fall, Walker had only his three sand-only recruits to practice with. None of that should be a problem next year.
For starters, the Witt twins — who led all UA pairings with 13 wins — will be back, as will Seiber, and Allie Cook — who switched from full-time indoor to full-time sand. Walker added two sand-only recruits last week in Olivia Macdonald from new Zealand, and Hailey Devlin from San Diego.
Monday, Walker added two sand-only transfers: Kaitlyn Leary from Ohio State, and Kendall Polan from Yale. Both will be eligible for the 2015 season.
Plus, there will still be some indoor crossovers, such as Lewis, who sported an individual record of 14-18, and Kingdon, who was 19-15.
“I don’t have to start from the baseline anymore,” Lewis said. “We can just hopefully pick up where we ended, fix the loose ends, and then go from there.”