Here’s a good way to start off a new coaching job….beat your in-state rival in just the third game on the schedule.
…and on your rival’s home court…when your rival is ranked No. 6 in the nation.
Brad Keenan wasted no time in getting his Arizona State beach volleyball program off to a hot start. The former professional beach volleyball player was hired last May to direct the program that began three seasons ago and had been run by the indoor volleyball coach doing double-duty.
ASU opened its beach volleyball season this weekend by traveling to Tucson to participate in the Arizona Invitational, hosted by University of Arizona. The event provided an early test for the Sun Devils since they were matched against two top-10 programs, No. 5 Hawaii and No. 6 Arizona.
The Sun Devils struggled in the opener against Hawaii, losing 4-1, but came back later in the day to defeat Jacksonville by reversing the score in their favor.
But the final match on Saturday morning against Arizona turned out to be one for the school’s history books. The victory over the No. 6 Wildcats marks the first time in the four-year history of the beach volleyball program that ASU has knocked off a team ranked among the top 10 in the nation.
And it was also the first time since 2014 that the Sun Devils have beaten their rival to the south.
Yesterday’s match offered all the drama of a hugely-important contest. The deciding point came down to a duel between the No. 1 pairs.
After ASU won the No. 2 and No. 5 pairings, and Arizona came out on top in the No. 3 and No. 4 pairings, it all came down to the match between ASU’s senior duo of Bianca Arellano and Whitney Follette against McKenna Witt and Madison Witt.
The Witt sisters opened the match with a 21-19 win in the first set, but Arellano and Follette came back to win out, 21-13 and 15-10 for the 3-2 upset of Arizona and a half-point toward the Territorial Cup standings.
Last year, Arellano and Follette finished the season with 18 wins, the most in the short history of the program. Arellano was recruited out of Xavier College Prep in Phoenix , where she was named the Gatorade Arizona Player of the Year in 2011.
Arizona, under third-year head coach Steve Walker, is coming off its best season in program history with a 20-7 finish in 2016, and returned eight letter-winners from the squad. Walker who was named Pac-12 Coach of the Year after the Cats finished last season with a tie for fifth place at the national championships.
“It’s obvious to me that the rest of the country is getting a lot better,” he said after losses to Hawaii and ASU. The sport exploded in popularity following the last Olympic Games, when beach volleyball got a lot of media exposure. UofA was the first college in the state to add the sport back at the start of 2013, and ASU came on board that summer.
“We’re going to have to train harder, be willing to work harder, and push a lot harder and focus on what we’re doing,” Walker added.
For the Sun Devils, yesterday’s win over their hated rival was also a chance for revenge. ASU, seeded fifth in last season’s Pac-12 Championship Tournament, was on a roll after beating No. 8 Oregon – but were dropped from the tourney after a 5-0 loss to Arizona.
Arizona will soon gets its chance at revenge. The action shifts to Tempe, where the Wildcats and Sun Devils will meet again on March 11 in the Sun Devil Challenge.
The Devils finished 12-13 last year, but it’s beginning to look like they could be on their way to a much-improved season.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics/ Stan Liu)