Perry High School will have its toughest challenge so far in the beach volleyball state tournament tonight when it faces off against No. 1-seeded Sandra Day O’Connor High School in the Division I semifinals.
(*Update: Not only did Perry beat O’Connor in a dominating 5-0 victory, but then went on to defeat Millennium High, 4-1, in the Division I title game. Fountain Hills HS won the D-!! championship by beating Valley Christian, 4-1.)
But regardless of how that match turns out, the Gilbert school has already accomplished something no other Arizona team has been able to do.
Perry, the No. 4 seed, beat No. 5 Xavier Prep in the quarterfinals to halt Xavier’s run to another state championship. The Gators have won the last six state titles, which means they have won every state big-school championship since the sport was introduced at the high school level.
That was in 2012 when the Arizona Region of USA Volleyball convinced the high schools in this state to begin a pilot program that they hoped would lead to making sand volleyball a recognized girls’ varsity sport.
There were only five schools that took up the challenge that inaugural year. This year, there are more teams playing semifinal games than there were in the entire league that first season.
And the name of the sport has since been changed from “sand” to “beach” volleyball to provide consistency with the nomenclature used at the college, professional, and Olympic levels. After the high schools took up the sport, four of Arizona’s colleges jumped on the bandwagon: Arizona State, University of Arizona, Grand Canyon University (the first to add it), and Arizona Christian University, which offers it as a club sport.
Yes, the original name would have been more appropriate for a program in the middle of the desert. But that wasn’t Arizona’s choice to make.
Three years after Xavier and the other four pioneers in the sport – Fountain Hills HS, Valley Vista HS, Westwind Prep, and Scottsdale Prep – got the pilot program off the ground, the field had expanded to 18 high schools. This year there are 54 schools participating, separated into two divisions based primarily on enrollment size.
From that original group, all but Westwind are still fielding beach volleyball teams.
Arizona was the first state in the country to test the idea of beach volleyball at the high-school level and the Arizona Interscholastic Association, the state’s governing body for prep sports, sanctioned it as a varsity sport in November of 2012. The growing popularity in this state has encouraged other states to add leagues and other organized competition, most notably California, Florida, and Texas.
And the parity that is beginning to develop here can only serve to increase interest. A new Division I state champion will be crowned for the first time in six years, and the four teams still standing include a No. 7 seed, Corona del Sol High School in Tempe.
Corona has the thinnest resume coming into the playoffs with an 8-4 overall record and the third-ranked team in Section III. But the Aztecs knocked off No. 2 Salpointe Catholic, 4-1, in order to get its semifinal match-up with Goodyear’s Millennium High School, the tourney’s No. 3 seed that has yet to lose a match this year and finished the regular season as the top team in Section IV.
Tucson’s Salpointe was Xavier’s victim in the 2016 title game, while Millennium lost to the Gators in last year’s championship match.
On paper at least, the match-up between Perry and O’Connor shows what should be an evenly-contested encounter. Top-seeded O’Connor is 12-0 overall, undefeated, and ranked No. 1 in Section II. Perry is 12-1, undefeated, and ranked No. 1 in Section I.
Perry’s head coach, Fred Mann, has put together a team that blends players who have committed to beach volleyball with a group from his indoor volleyball team that advanced to the semifinals in the 2017 season. Many are also playing club volleyball, juggling schedules to be able to help the Pumas make this run at a state title.
So far, Mann’s concoction has yielded impressive results. But the real test still lies ahead.