The number of Arizona high school teams participating in sand volleyball has grown considerably in the four years since the sport was introduced at the prep level. But the results at the end of each season haven’t changed at all.
Xavier Prep still owns the sport.
Xavier won that first state title in 2012, when the Arizona Region of USA Volleyball convinced the Arizona high schools to begin a pilot program that would lead to making sand volleyball a recognized girls’ varsity sport. The field that year included five teams.
This year, 18 high schools participated. And Xavier topped the field once again for the Gators’ fourth straight title.
It was one of the newcomers to the field that made if far enough to get a shot at knocking off Xavier, but didn’t have enough left at the end of its tournament run to keep the Gators from extending their string.
Gilbert’s Highland High School, which plays in Division I with Xavier during the indoor season and finished last season with a 19-22 record, worked its way through the tourney to earn the right to play Xavier in the championship game, but was swept by the Gators in the first two games of the best-of-three match.
Highland was counting on its No. 1 doubles team, which was ranked No. 1 in the state, to slam the door on the title effort. And they did win their match. But, by winning the early matches, Xavier made it a moot question before the final match began.
Sienna Sawyer and Sierra Gibson earned the win over Xavier’s No. 1 doubles team, Natalie Braun and Macy Gordon, by staging an impressive comeback after falling in the first game, 13-21. They went on to win the next two, 23-21 and 15-5, for the win that sealed an undefeated season for the duo and sent the Hawks home feeling better about their effort – but without the hardware.
It was Xavier’s No. 2 doubles team of Caroline White and Kassie Thompson and No. 3 team of Kristen Klein and Emma Strouse that closed out the win early.
Braun is getting to be an old hand at this sand game. This was her third straight appearance in the event, and the first time she’s lost. The last two seasons, she paired with Claire Coppola and easily won their matches to help the Gators begin building a new dynasty of sorts. The small Catholic all-girls school in central Phoenix has been a dominant force in girls’ golf, cross country, and swimming & diving for years.
But the Gators’ grip on this sport will get increasingly difficult to maintain as the program expands. That group of five teams that got the ball rolling four years ago – Xavier, Fountain Hills, Valley Vista, Westwind Prep, and Scottsdale Prep – grew to eight the next year and then to a dozen. Six more were added this season.
Initially, the only Division I participants were Xavier and Valley Vista in Surprise. Fountain Hills played D-III, and the other two schools played in a variety of smaller divisions, depending on the sport. Fountain Hills served as Xavier’s main nemesis the first two years, but was no match when it reached the championships. And Scottsdale Prep tried its hand at taking away the title last year, but the Gators rolled over them in the title game.
But now, some of the larger schools with high-profile sports programs, like Highland, Queen Creek High School, and Scottsdale’s Chaparral High, are starting to test the waters. And more are expected to take the plunge next year. It’s a low-cost sport that lets more girls get involved in the game, and it helps schools meet the Title IX compliance requirements.
When the idea for sand volleyball in the high schools was originally proposed, the organizers envisioned a program that could eventually accommodate 32 teams. So there’s plenty of room to grow.
And Arizona agreed to become the first state in the nation to take the idea out for a test drive that would hopefully lead to an eventual national roll-out. Victory Lane Sports Park in Glendale stepped up and donated court time to help the program get off the ground.
Games are still being held at Victory Lane. And Xavier Prep is still winning a state title each year.
But who knows what Year 5 will hold? Hey, that’s part of the fun and excitement of starting something new.