Friday, Mar. 28
Grand Canyon, at Phoenix, Ariz. 12:00 p.m.
Nebraska, at Phoenix, Ariz. 2:30 p.m.
Saturday, Mar. 29
TBD, at Phoenix, Ariz. 10:00 a.m.
Expectations dictate that a brand new collegiate program will struggle. Fighting against established opponents is frequently a losing battle, and recruiting is often done with a goal of reaching respectability in the long-term future. More often than not, the result is years of mediocrity, with only the slightest hopes of one day reaching the ranks of the prestige.
Arizona’s first sand volleyball team has yet to receive that memo.
The Cats started the season 5-0, winning both the Arizona Invitational and the Wildcat Spring Challenge. Now sitting at 5-2, their only two losses have come at the hands of perennial powerhouses, No. 2 USC and No. 3 Hawaii.
For being in its infancy, the team is packed with experience, starting with head coach Steve Walker and flowing down to the No. 1 pairing of Jane Croson and Madi Kingdon.
Walker played pro/am beach volleyball in the California Beach Volleyball Association series from 1997-99, reaching the highest possible classification along the way, an AAA rating. He was later an Arizona Beach Volleyball Association tournament winner from 2003-06.
For Walker and the Cats, his expertise as a player is turning into valuable insight as a coach.
"I try to best use my knowledge as a player to help them along the way,” said Walker. “I just try to put myself in whatever position they're in and what they're going through at that moment. Just looking at what worked out for me and what didn't work out for me."
Good coaching can only go so far, as ultimately the match comes down to how the players perform on the sand. Fortunately for Arizona, they’ve got high-caliber players to go along with such a decorated coach.
Croson, a University of Hawai’i transfer, was a highly recruited sand volleyball player coming out of high school winning the FIVB Youth (U-19) Beach World Championships in Portugal alongside partner Summer Ross. The duo became the first U.S. pair to ever win the event.
Croson didn’t relent at Hawai’i, as she was named an AVCA All-American for sand in just her sophomore year competing for the dominant Rainbow Wahine.
That kind of background has been essential for the young Wildcats, helping them acclimate to the new sport and new opponents.
"My experience has helped me get a sense of what the competition is like already,” said Croson. “I know what I have to deal with and compete with. I know what the game is about."
While Croson is undoubtedly prepared for the season, perhaps more crucial is the effect she’s had on the team.
"Some of the players don't really know her background and how decorated a sand player she is,” Walker said. “They pick up on things from her. She's been invaluable. The younger players can use her as a model everyday in practice."
Often a leader is vocal, acting as the coach on the court but Croson prefers a different approach, guiding the team by her actions while remaining verbally subtle.
"Jane leads by example,” Walker said. “Just her innate ability of ball placement, whether it's setting, serving, or blocking, she can place the ball wherever she likes. She makes it look effortless like she just walked off the street, but it's because of years and years of hard work."
Leading by example has proven effective for the rest of the Wildcats, as indoor players like All-Pac-12 junior Kingdon have been able to make a smooth transition.
“Playing with Jane is great,” Kingdon said. “She's such an experienced player and we learn a lot watching her. She makes it look flawless."
Having Croson’s guidance along with playing in summer sand tournaments has accelerated Kingdon’s development as she has successfully translated her indoor command to dominance on the sand.
"The summer tournaments were great preparation for Madi,” said Walker. “She's been tremendous in practice. She's an outstanding leader for all the players."
Croson echoes the sentiments, recognizing Kingdon’s first-rate play.
"Madi knows the game really well,” Croson said. “I don't need to help her with anything."
Despite their recent beginnings, the Wildcats have proven they have the talent to compete,. With a 5-2 start under their belt and a potential yet to be fulfilled, Arizona Athletics’ newest sport could quickly become one of their best.