Sand volleyball gets the green light as new UA program

It looks like the Wildcats are planting a ‘Bear Down’ flag in the soft Sonoran Desert sand.  The University of Arizona has just added sand volleyball as a women’s varsity sport.

You can’t really call it beach volleyball because the closest beach is about 350 miles away in San Diego.

The Tucson university is following in the footsteps of a pioneering effort led by the state’s high schools.  In 2011, Arizona became the first state in the nation to decide to add sand volleyball as a recognized varsity sport in its high schools, serving as a test case of sorts for other states that hopefully would follow (See Phxfan articles 10/20/11 & 3/29/12).

Last year was the inaugural season for the new prep program.  It was set up to accommodate 32 teams; five entered the one-game-a-week league that ran in the spring.

Then Grand Canyon University, a small Division II school in west Phoenix, jumped on the bandwagon. The Antelopes announced in August their plans to add sand volleyball to bring the school’s NCAA athletic offerings to 22 teams.

The ‘Lopes were one of 15 colleges around the country to begin a sand volleyball program, which got a start at the college level in the 2011-12 season.  The list of participating schools ballooned to 29 this year.  Arizona would begin competition next spring.

But the UofA program marks the first Division I school in the state to join the party.  And the only academic institution on that side of the state to take the plunge, since there were no Tucson-area high schools that joined the prep movement.

The Arizona volleyball program went 16-15 this year and 19-13 the season before, which is somewhat under-achieving for a team that has, in recent years, made five Sweet 16 appearances, four Elite Eights, and a trip to the Final Four in 2001.

But sand volleyball is a different animal.  The courts are smaller than indoor volleyball courts, the ball is bigger and lighter, the scoring is based on a best-of-three games instead of the standard five sets in the indoor game, and there are five two-player teams ranked by ability.

The women’s indoor volleyball program was added to the Wildcat line-up back in 1994 and has enjoyed success at the national level under head coach David Rubio, who has been at the helm for 21 years after resurrecting it from a win-less conference record the year before he took over.

Rubio selected his associate head coach, Steve Walker, to become the first head coach for the sand volleyball program, which will be the first new sport added at Arizona since 1998 when the women’s indoor track & field joined the fold.

“We’re fortunate to have Steve as our first head coach,” said Rubio at the announcement of Walker’s selection to run the new program.  “He has a strong background in sand volleyball, and will put us a step ahead of many programs right from the start.”

Walker not only had a distinguished college career in the indoor game, but also excelled at beach volleyball.  He played at Long Beach State, where he was the starting setter for two seasons and led the NCAA in assists per game in 1995, and then was a AAA-rated player who won numerous Arizona Beach Volleyball Association tournaments from 2003-2006.

He then served as an assistant coach on the Wildcat bench for three seasons before taking a head-coaching job at UC Davis, and then returned to the Arizona program in 2007.

For awhile at least, the two programs will likely be sharing some of their talent as several players will suit up for both programs – which is a good thing since it will mean those players will get additional training.

But it’s going to take more than Arizona’s arrival to get the program included as an official Pac-12 sport.  Right now there are four Pac-12 members that offer sand volleyball – UCLA, Stanford, California, and USC.

But there needs to be six teams to get the program accepted by the conference.  The list is one school short right now.

Are you listening, Arizona State?

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)