For a school that sits smack-dab in the middle of a desert, the University of Arizona has taken to the sport of beach volleyball like a surfer takes to the waves.
And this year’s team has pushed the game to the next level.
The Cats just finished their regular season by sweeping their fourth consecutive tournament to post a 24-4 record. Their previous tourney sweep, against New Mexico and Santa Clara during the Wildcat Spring Challenge, gave them 21 wins to set a new program record for most single-season wins.
Pac-12 rival Arizona State sweetened this year’s success when the Wildcats traveled to Tempe at the start of the month and went back home to Tucson with a 4-0 sweep of the Sun Devils. And in the process, earned the program’s 100th victory.
Last weekend’s Boise State Beach Classic provided the final three wins of the regular season as Arizona begins preparations for the Pac-12 Championships that will run April 25-27 at USC.
The Wildcats didn’t adopt the sport until January of 2013, becoming the first Division I school in the state to join a trend that was growing nationwide. ASU followed six months later. Grand Canyon University in Phoenix had actually preceded the Wildcats by several months in adding beach volleyball to its offerings of women’s sports, but GCU was a D-II school at the time.
There were 30 college teams participating when the Wildcats jumped on the beach volleyball bandwagon, not enough to trigger the need for a national tournament. But, by 2016, the sport had reached the 40-team threshold and the California schools started collecting titles. USC won the first two and UCLA was last year’s national champion.
Head coach Steve Walker, who was the associate head coach for Arizona’s indoor program when he was tapped to start the beach program, has managed to successfully blend nine veterans from last year’s squad with half a dozen newcomers to build a team this season that could qualify as his best product yet.
Last year’s squad finished 20-12 and closed out the season ranked No. 14 nationally. This year the Devils have been very consistent. They entered the season ranked No. 13, moved up or down the rankings ladder no more than a few rungs all season, and ended where they started, at No. 13.
Natalie Anselmo, a junior defender from Los Angeles, and Madison Rigdon, a 6’0″ blocker from Texas, combined to post a perfect pairs record this season. Anselmo and Rigdon, a graduate student, finished the 2019 season 20-0.
Rigdon joins Jordan Abalos, Ainise Havili, and Mia Mason as the only seniors on this year’s squad. Abalos is the only local athlete in the group, and one of only three locals on the roster. The 5’10” split blocker is from Safford High School.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)