To get an idea of the kind of competition that faces volleyball teams in the Pac-12, just take a look at the NCAA Tournament field that begins play this week. Ten of the 12 programs are included in this year’s field of 64 teams ready to take a run at a national title, including No. 1 Stanford and No. 5 Washington.
Both Arizona schools are included, and both are also nationally-ranked as they enter play Thursday.
No. 14 University of Arizona will host the first two regional rounds in McKale Center, taking on Yale in the opening game, while No. 22 Arizona State travels to Texas to meet the Texas A&M Aggies, the No. 2 team who will be hosting the Minnesota Region competition at their own Gregory Gym in Austin.
The Sun Devils are making their third consecutive appearance in the tournament, but haven’t made it out of the opening round in the first two trips. Last year they took BYU to five sets before bowing out.
Arizona earned a No. 11 seed and selection as a tournament site after a 23-8 regular-season record and third-place finish in the Pac-12. The 23 wins are the most since 2000 when the Cats finished with 25.
The downside to hosting: Arizona is 9-0 in NCAA Tournament games played in McKale.
And the Sun Devils will be scratching for their first tournament win since 2006.
The Wildcats are coming off an emotional high after sweeping their final match of the season. ASU (19-13, 9-11) is trying to overcome a psychological let-down – they were the team the Cats swept to close out the regular season.
That match may also be something of an indicator as to which program has progressed through the season and perhaps better prepared for post-season play. Less than a week ago, Arizona needed just three sets to steal a win on ASU’s home court, and spoil the Devils’ Senior Night in the process. But back in September, the Devils stood toe-to-toe with Arizona in a game played in Tucson and weren’t counted out until the final point of the fifth set, in which the Cats pulled out a thrilling 15-13 win.
Both teams have shown they can play at a high level, as both held their own against Stanford in mid-October, each taking a set from a team that was undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the country. They have both also beaten N o. 17 UCLA and ASU split with No. 13 Oregon.
But that’s old news. Tomorrow they both begin on a new journey, against unranked opponents in their opening games.
ASU will play Texas A&M (21-8), which is riding a six-game win streak and closed out the regular season with a pair of road wins. If the Devils manage to get past the Aggies, they would likely have to beat No. 3 Texas to get out of the regional; the Longhorns open against Northwestern State. Shelby Sullivan fuels the Aggie attack with 2.86 kills per set and a total 317 kills on the season.
Arizona will match up with Yale (18-7, 12-2) in its opener, a team that earned an automatic berth after winning its fifth straight Ivy League Championship. Should the Cats get past the Bulldogs, they will either have to deal with the No. 12-ranked BYU Cougars (25-4), who were given an at-large berth by winning the West Coast Conference championship, or 28-7 Seton Hall.. The Bulldogs are led by Mollie Rogers, who averages 4.30 kills per set and Kelsey Crawford, who runs the offense and has posted 843 assists this season.
Several All-Conference players will lead the Arizona teams into action. UofA placed two players on this season’s Pac-12 All-Conference Team, senior outside hitter Madi Kingdon and sophomore setter Penina Snuka. ASU’s representative is junior outside hitter Macey Gardner, her third selection.
Kingdon, a local from Sunnyslope High School, is averaging 5.21 kills per set to put her second in the Pac-12, and also leads the nation with 15.09 attacks per set. Snuka, a Gilbert native, leads the team and is fifth in the conference with 10.84 assists per set.
Gardner, from Gilbert High School, is the Devils’ point leader this season with 629 and holds the school record for points in a single match (33). She is also working her way up the career all-time list with 1,643 kills, which puts her at No. 4 with a year to go.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)