Young UA volleyball squad gets NCAA Tourney invite

The Wildcat volleyball team met expectations this year.  Right on the nose, in fact.

Arizona’s squad was picked to finish seventh in the Pac-12 this season, and seventh is right where it has settled in.  The Cats finished up with a 19-12 overall record and 11-11 in the conference.

But it turns out that was good enough to get an invitation to the NCAA Tournament.  Arizona was among seven Pac-12 teams that got a berth in the tournament, which begins tomorrow in Texas.  The Cats open against Michigan State.

The NCAA selection committee picked 64 D-I teams to fill out the 2011 field.  Arizona will be making its 24th trip to the tourney since 1981, and has been invited the past three years running.

A local standout who has enjoyed an impressive freshman year will make the trip to Austin and help get the program past the opening round, which is where the Cats ended their tournament run the last two years.

They lost to Northwestern (3-1) last season and to Texas A&M the year before.

Madi Kingdon, who was the Gatorade High School Volleyball Player of the Year at Sunnyslope High School last year, was one of two Wildcats named to the Pac-12 All-Freshman team.  The 6’1″ outside hitter led the Vikings to three straight state titles.

She finished the regular season at ASU with 343 kills, 242 digs, and has a team-high nine double-doubles.

Her teammate, Chloe Mathis, joined her on the All-Freshman team.  Mathis is a 5’11” setter from La Jolla, Calif., who was named a National Player of the Week by MaxPreps during her senior year.

Emily Helm, a sophomore from Hamilton High School, is the other local athlete on the Arizona roster.  She played in all 31 matches this year and has recorded 216 digs, including seven matches with double-digit totals.

Arizona has been starting four freshmen in a line-up that beat UCLA when the Bruins were ranked No. 2 in the country.  They had mixed results when playing for the Territorial Cup, splitting with rival Arizona State.  The Cats won in Tucson, 3-1, but lost the final game of the season in Tempe to the Sun Devils by a similar score.

Now they take on a Michigan State team that is 21-11 on the year and also coming off a season-ending loss.  The Spartans dropped a home match to No. 9 Penn State, 3-1.

These two teams haven’t met since 1990, when Arizona hosted MSU at McKale and beat them, 3-0.  But the Spartans have been tournament-tested over the past seven years under head coach, Cathy George.  They have appeared in the NCAA Tournament four of those years, including a Regional semi-final appearance four years ago.

Arizona teams have been to the NCAA Tournament 15 times during the 20 years that David Rubio has directed the program.  They made it to the Final Four in 2001 and also have appeared three times in the Elite Eight and three times in the Sweet 16.

This year’s edition is a young team which isn’t likely to match up to one of those teams from the past that have gone deep into the tournament.

But getting past the first round would be a step forward.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)