The NCAA Championship in the books, the Arizona Sand Volleyball team returns to Tucson ranked No. 6 in the Nation out of 65 teams.
The Arizona Sand Volleyball team was not only able to compete in the Pac-12 Championships finals; they were also acknowledged for their successful season by being named one of eight teams that traveled to the first ever NCAA Beach Volleyball Championships this past weekend in Gulf Shores, Alabama.
The team entered the double-elimination tournament as the six seed and played their first match of the tournament on Friday vs. No. 3 Pepperdine.
A championship team in the making, the Sand Cats had an all around impressive season. The team also beat UCLA for the first time. They ended up losing to No. 5 seed Hawaii, 0-3 in the quarter-finals and say goodbye to their seniors: Jianna Bonomi, Katarina Schulz, Nikki Attea and Kalei Mau.
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Arizona’s twin duo, Madison and McKenna Witt (ranked No. 10 in the nation all season), earned 2016 AVCA All-Americans and Pac-12 All-Conference First Team honors. In addition, Arizona’s No. 2 team, Jianna Bonomi, and Katarina Schulz, were selected onto Pac-12 All-Conference Second Team. The Witt sisters ended the season ranked No. 6!
Walker’s Sand Cats (20-7) made history when they were selected to participate in the first-ever NCAA Beach Volleyball Championship. Coach Steven Walker was recently voted Pac-12 Coach of the Year. The Cats surprised the Nation and will only get better year after year.
What was most impressive is that TruTV picked up the air coverage of the championships and broadcasted the tournament on Friday and Saturday. TBS aired the championship match on Sunday, and there was live streaming coverage of every court in each match of the tournament.
The amount of coverage this new NCAA sport received way surpassed indoor volleyball. And with the Olympics coming, up the timing was perfect for gaining the fans interest.
In our second year covering this fun and exciting new NCAA sport, ZonaZealots was fortunate to get the opportunity to catch up with Head Coach Steven Walker to get his thoughts on the season and what’s in store for fans and the team next season.
ZonaZealots: How will recruiting change for this upcoming 2016/2017 season if at all? Do you think you the great success you had this year will help in recruiting?
This seasons’ success won’t necessarily change or aid in our 2016-2017 recruiting classes as recruiting happens 2-3 years out now. But it should surely give us more opportunity to the high profile players in the sophomore and freshman high school classes.
ZonaZealots: Is your program completely separate from indoor volleyball? Or is it one big program?
Coach Walker: Although we are a fully funded beach program, we are not separate from the indoor program with regard to utilizing multi-sport athletes. In the spring semester, we may have 1-3 of the indoor players join us for the spring season. It’s done on a need and case by case basis. The indoor team and players can really stabilize our teams’ depth and often bring a good deal of that PAC-12 athletic ability to the table.
ZonaZealots: What do you think was the secret ingredient to this season’s success?
Coach Walker: No real secrets. I think adding another year of experience and another recruiting class was the main reason why we had the success that we had this year. The players did a really good job of investing in the program on a daily basis and were committed to getting better every day. And we had to, based on the fact 70% of our starters were new this season.
ZonaZealots: What were your goals going into this season, and did you meet or exceed them?
Coach Walker: We only had one goal, with stipulations. To qualify for the 1st ever NCAA Championship. And the reason that was the goal was because I felt that if this team could make the tournament, we would have to be playing very well at the end of the season (as we were).
Unfortunately, we had an untimely injury in one of our key spots and that really hamstrung our chances at the NCAA’s. But it was a great experience for all of our players, young and old.
ZonaZealots: What are your take-a-ways from the NCAA tournament now that you have seen up front what all the other schools bring to the sport?
Coach Walker: That we are now a lot closer to breaking into and becoming one of the top 3-4 of programs in the nation. We have to continue to add and develop high-level sand only athletes, stay healthy and simply stay on the path we are on. We turned a lot of heads this past season and the traditional power programs now know there’s a new player, and we are loving the climb to get there.
ZonaZealots: Are any of your players going to be playing in the Olympics? Is this a goal at all at Arizona?
Coach Walker: Hopefully in future Olympic Games. If the Witt twins can continue to stay hungry and continue to improve in all aspects of the game, there’s no reason they can’t get there in 2020 or 2024.
ZonaZealots: Did you install any new rituals or any new mantra’s this season?
Coach Walker: Attack the opposition, or go down trying. After our 1st contest of the season, I didn’t particularly like our approach to that match. There was too much of a feeling out of what the other team was going to do.
“This 2015-2016 wasn’t assembled just to participate in the sport of beach volleyball, but to contend for championships” – Coach Steven Walker
I had a very clear message to the team the next morning that this 2015-2016 wasn’t assembled just to participate in the sport of beach volleyball, but to contend for championships. Credit to the team, they loved hearing that and really competed well in virtually every match this season.
ZonaZealots: Anything else you want to say to fans and future fans about the sport? Your team? Things to look forward to next season?
Coach Walker: We are looking to host the PAC-12 championships (the bid is in) and barring health, we will have a very good team next year that can contend once again. It’s the best spectator sport on the planet, so come out to BEARDOWN Beach next spring!
You heard the coach! Next season get our your lawn chairs and umbrellas, wear your shorts and flip-flops, and go to BearDown Beach across from the McKale Center to relax and take in this Olympic and now official NCAA Sport! BearDown Ladies and beardown Coach Walker! Can’t wait for next season!