It was a statement weekend for the No. 14 Arizona beach volleyball team at the Pac-12 South Invitational on March 27-28. Even though they were defeated by No. 18 Stanford by a match score of 3-2, the Sand Cats were not phased. They went on to defeat Oregon 5-0, Utah 5-0, and rival Arizona State 4-1 at Bear Down Beach.
Saturday, March 27: Match one vs. No. 18 Stanford
The Sand Cats got their first taste of Pac-12 play against Stanford, and it did not go according to plan. Four out of the five pairs for Arizona lost their first set, putting the team in an early hole.
The Sand Cats who found a rhythm were defenders Olivia Hallaran and Hope Shannon. Shannon and Hallaran were the only pair to close out their opponents in two sets by scores of 21-16 and 21-19.
Defender Natalie Anselmo and blocker Carly Lowry were the other pair who managed to pull out a victory for the Sand Cats. After losing the first set 21-18, Lowry and Anselmo pushed back to take the final two sets 21-17 and 16-14.
Arizona only needed one more point to defeat the Cardinal, but every other pair fell in two sets. One pair that struggled was defender Brooke Burling and split blocker Sarah Blacker. While usually a dominant pairing, Burling and Blacker were unable to find their footing, dropping both sets 16-21 and 18-21. Blacker felt that each pair was not talking enough to each other to figure out what was going wrong.
“I think we could have communicated more,” Blacker said. “[Head coach Steve Walker] is always telling us to communicate. Our coach says that we need to serve, pass and set. Those are our main three goals that we have.”
Blacker also felt that the Sand Cats were caught off guard by how well Stanford was serving.
“A lot of teams are trying to push their serves back,” Blacker said. “Every team wants to [push] the receiver back to the line. I feel that is another good serve I have seen Stanford doing, which is something that we can work on too.”
Saturday, March 27: Match two vs. Oregon
After a narrow defeat to No. 18 Stanford, Arizona made sure to fix the mistakes that Blacker talked about after the defeat. This time, Arizona was ready.
Every pair won their first set in dominating fashion. Burling and Blacker were clearly communicating more, winning their game in two sets 21-17 and 21-16. Lowry returned with a new Sand Cat, defender Makenna Martin. The change may have helped because Lowry and Martin crushed their opponents 21-14 and 21-7.
It was a closer match for defender Dana Parker and blocker Mady Noble, but the Sand Cats edged the Ducks 21-15 and 21-14. Parker credited the team's strong start to their success.
“There were a lot of times that [Noble] and I got served and we were able to put the ball [over the net] on the first rally,” Parker said. “I think being able to put the first ball down right away and move onto the next point sooner [really helped us.]
Parker noted that the strong start on offense fueled their defensive presence as well.
“I felt that our defense improved in this game,” Parker said. “We were getting a lot of defensive touches and we were able to capitalize on those a lot and put the ball down for a point.”
Sunday, March 28: Match three vs. Utah
The final day of competition began against Utah. After sweeping Oregon the previous day, the Sand Cats were hoping to find that momentum again to end the match early with Utah. Arizona did just that.
Four out of five Arizona pairs held their Utah opponents to under 10 points in their first set. Defender Jonny Baham and split blocker Abby Russell got things going for the Sand Cats and crushed their opponents in the first set, 21-8, and won the second set 21-14. Shannon and Hallaran made sure their sets were not even close, winning by scores of 21-7 and 21-6.
One pair that bounced back was defender Alana Rennie and blocker Alex Parkhurst. After dropping to No. 18 Stanford in two sets, they returned the favor against Utah, dropping their opponents in two sets 21-9 and 21-15. Parkhurst knew that an aggressive start was her key to her and Rennie playing well.
“We came out ready,” Parkhurst said. “Our second [set] could have been better but are always going to have to compete with these teams. We had a great connection.”
The Sand Cats were very aggressive at the net against Utah. Parkhurst felt her blocking was better than in previous matches.
“Against Utah, I felt very confident in my block,” Parkhurst said. “I was reading where the set was … and I think we just played straight up and that helped us a lot.”
Sunday, March 28: Match four vs. Arizona State
It was a fitting match to end the tournament against heated rivals Arizona State. Even though ASU is not ranked, they gave Arizona a lot of trouble early on.
Lowry and Anselmo looked as if they would take their first set after tying it up 20-20. ASU had other plans and scored the next two points to take the set. The Sand Cats locked in and defeated the Sun Devils in the second set 21-12 and escaped the third set 15-8.
On court four, Noble and Parker dominated ASU, winning in two sets 21-17 and 21-10.
With the Sand Cats up 2-0 in the match, they only needed one more team to win to get the coveted victory against the Sun Devils. All eyes turned to court five, where Shannon and Hallaran were in the third set looking to close out the match for the Sand Cats. It came down to single digits, but Shannon and Hallaran snatched the set 15-11 and secured the match victory for Arizona. While there was a lot of pressure on these Sand Cats to get the victory, Shannon knew it was important to stay focused and keep it simple, even in that tight final set.
“It goes back to taking it one ball at a time,” Shannon said. “Focusing on each and every point and not rushing plays to get the rally over with. ASU is a really good team … and we focused on our side of the net and where to put the ball.”
When asked if victories against ASU matter more than other teams, Shannon’s answer was as honest as ever.
“Well, I mean … yes,” Shannon said. “Every game matters, whether we are playing other teams or our rivals. Honestly, just communicating with one another will help us win games.”
The Sand Cats will be back at Bear Down Beach for the Arizona Invitational on April 2-3. They will face UC Davis on Friday, April 2, at 1 p.m. MST and Grand Canyon at 4 p.m. MST. For the final day of the invitational, Arizona will face Missouri State on Saturday, April 3, at 10 a.m. MST and Pepperdine at 1 p.m. MST.
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