Xavier Prep saw an opportunity three years ago to get on board early in the movement to introduce a new sport at the high-school level. And now it’s turning out to be yet another opportunity to build a dynasty.
The Gators were one of five Arizona high schools to field a sand volleyball team in the spring of 2012, as this state became the first in the nation to test the idea of adding the sport as a recognized varsity sport. With success in this state, the Arizona Region of USA Volleyball, which originally proposed the idea, hoped the pioneer effort would spread to other states.
Xavier, which was the only one of the original group that could be considered a power at the indoor game, has quickly become the dominant program in the new sport. The Gators just won their third straight state championship by beating Scottsdale Prep, sweeping through the semi-finals and finals with 5-0 victories.
This is not the first time that talk of dynasties has been associated with Xavier. The small Catholic school in central Phoenix has been the dominant program in girls’ golf, cross country, and swimming & diving for years. The Gators have been the golf state champions for the last 14 years and were just upset in cross country after holding that title for six years running. And coming into this season, they had strung together 181 consecutive match victories in golf.
And now they are extending their reach to the sand courts.
However, that hold on the sport is going to get more difficult if sand volleyball continues to attract more participants. The field increased to eight teams last year and had a dozen in the fold this season.
All of the original teams were located in the metro Phoenix area, but this season drew the first school from outside the Valley when Coconino High School decided to test the water by putting together a team for what it is calling an exhibition season. The Panthers played just four games on an abbreviated schedule, but were encouraged by a turnout that drew 11 players, just one short of the maximum 12 allowed.
Coconino was a No. 7 seed in the state tournament and won its first game, beating Northland Prep, 5-0, before getting eliminated by Scottsdale Prep in the quarterfinals.
Scottsdale Prep is one of the original five teams and worked its way up to play for the title. The first two years it was Fountain Hills High School – also among that pioneer group – that battled with Xavier in the championship game.
But Xavier has showed its dominance year after year, winning every match it has played over the past three years. The two games they lost this season were their first, despite the fact that many of their players were from the school’s indoor squad that won the Division I state championship this year.
This year’s state championship teams included: (No. 1) Natalie Braun & Claire Coppola, (No. 2) Lexi Ham & Kristen Largay, (No. 3) Cierra Flood & Kelly Andrew, (No. 4) Kasie Thompson & Alexandria Giannini, (No. 5) Ainsley Ramsey & Macy Gordon.
Sand volleyball provides indoor players an opportunity to tune up their game in the off-season, so many play in both programs. The sand game also helps with physical conditioning, since it’s harder to move around in the sand and each team has two players that have to cover the entire court.
Each school fields five two-person teams and is offered only for girls because one of the incentives for schools to offer the sport is that it increases the number of girls participating in sports to help meet their compliance with the Title IX law that requires gender equity for school sports programs.
And now there’s another motivation for schools to consider adding a sand volleyball program. According to the Arizona Interscholastic Association, three of the state’s universities – University of Arizona, Northern Arizona University, and Grand Canyon University – have decided to offer scholarships in the sport.
Xavier’s head coach for the sand program, Jeff Rogers, has said publicly that he hopes more of the major volleyball programs will get involved in the sand game to crank up the competition level. A chance to earn a college scholarship might be the impetus that was needed to bring those schools on board.
But Rogers may wish he hadn’t extended the invitation. Right now, he has it pretty good.