It was a rough day at Mapes Beach on Friday, April 30 for the No. 8 Arizona beach volleyball in Los Angeles. The Sand Cats were swept by No. 2 UCLA 3-0 and later were upset in an elimination game by No. 11 Cal 3-2.
Friday, April 30: Match one vs. No. 2 UCLA
UCLA had the advantage from the beginning as Mapes Beach is their home court. The Bruins are also the defending back-to-back national champions from 2018-19, with 2020 being canceled because of the pandemic. Though Arizona was the No. 3 seed in the tournament, they needed a miracle to top the juggernaut No. 2 seeded Bruins. It did not happen.
The trouble started on court two with Sand Cats Carly Lowry and Natalie Anselmo taking on sophomores Abby Van Winkle and Lindsey Sparks. Even though Lowry and Anselmo are both fifth-year seniors, it was the sophomore Bruins who looked like they had all the experience.
Van Winkle and Sparks dominated the Sand Cats in every aspect. Sparks was a stone wall at the net, while Van Winkle sent thunderous kills over the net that Lowry and Anselmo could not stop. The Bruins looked invincible in the first set and the Sand Cats fell 11-21.
It was just as bad for the Sand Cats in the second set. Van Winkle and Sparks were beaming with confidence, smiling throughout the set knowing they had the Sand Cats right where they wanted them. Lowry and Anselmo had no answers for the Bruins and went down 15-21.
With UCLA now up 1-0 in the match, defenders Olivia Hallaran and Hope Shannon were hoping to swing the momentum back for Arizona on court three. The Sand Cats went up against freshman Rileigh Powers and redshirt freshman Jaden Whitmarsh. The Sand Cats found no rhythm in the first set, falling 16-21.
“We usually rely on our serving, and I know there were a lot of missed serves,” Hallaran said. “If our serving game was better, then maybe we would have had a better chance.”
With their backs against the wall, Shannon and Hallaran fought for every point in the second set. However, multiple serving errors and overpasses by the Sand Cats put them in a tough spot with the score at 19-19. In the end, UCLA got the two points they needed and finished off Hallaran and Shannon for a 2-0 match lead.
“Walking away from the game we knew we could have done some things differently,” Hallaran said. “We think we could have taken them to three [sets] if we had tightened up our game a little bit. It did not feel like our normal game that we play, but at the end of the day we gave it our all.”
The final pair to face off for the Sand Cats were blocker Alex Parkhurst and defender Alana Rennie on court one. Rennie and Parkhurst were going up against graduate student Savvy Simo and freshman Lexy Denaburg.
Parkhurst and Rennie put up a good fight in the first set, but the Bruins ran away with it in the end and the Sand Cats lost 16-21. Throughout the second set, it looked as if it could have gone either way. The Sand Cats were able to get within one a few times, but it was not enough, and they lost the set 17-21 and the match 0-3.
Since tournaments only play to result, defender Brooke Burling’s match did not count even though she and split blocker Sarah Blacker had won their first set. As Burling watched her teammates go down one by one from the sidelines, she acknowledged the power of UCLA.
“UCLA is the defending back-to-back national champions, and they are number one right now,” Burling said.
Nevertheless, Burling stood by her teammate’s performances.
“I was very proud of how the team came out and fought,” Burling said. “At the end of the day, they outplayed us. [UCLA] was solid … but watching the games I was really proud of how we played.”
Friday, April 30: Elimination game vs. No. 11 Cal
However, all hope was not lost. Now forced to play another match due to their loss to UCLA, the Sand Cats would face No. 11 Cal in an elimination game for the opportunity to play either Stanford or ASU to determine who would finish third or fourth at the Pac-12 tournament. The Sand Cats needed to defeat Cal to make their case to be selected to play in the national championship tournament later in May.
Anselmo and Lowry were back for the Sand Cats on court two. They looked like a completely different team against senior Alexia Inman and freshman Ava Mann. Lowry and Anselmo overpowered the Golden Bears in the first set 21-17. The second was close, but the Sand Cats were edged 19-21. With elimination on their minds and potentially playing in their last match ever, Lowry and Anselmo were not ready to call it quits. They punished the Golden Bears in the final set 15-3, giving the Sand Cats a 1-0 match lead.
Even with the momentum of that win, it could not carry over for Hallaran and Shannon on court three. The first set went back and forth with each team leading at some point, but it was Cal who walked away with the 21-19 victory. It was a quick turnaround for the Sand Cats having to play after their loss to UCLA, but Hallaran did not feel it was a factor.
“We did not put that pressure on ourselves,” Hallaran said. “It was more like let’s boot up and give it our all for the next game.”
The second set did go much better for the Sand Cats, winning comfortably 21-12. The third set would determine if Arizona would go up 2-0 in the match of being tied 1-1. Hallaran and Shannon played from behind in most of the set, but they were able to push it to extras and tie it 15-15. Sadly, a few unforced errors cost them the next two points and they lost 15-17.
“Those unforced errors were really painful,” Hallaran said. “With me and [Shannon’s] game that is where we are at. We had minimized those errors and that is why we were so successful in the second set … but those errors really got to us.”
Things only got worse for Parkhurst and Rennie on court one. They faced seniors Mima Mirkovic and Caroline Schafer, who were relentless in ending their match early against the Sand Cats. Parkhurst and Rennie were swept in two sets 17-21 and 11-21. They were the only Sand Cat pair swept against Cal and now Arizona was down 1-2 in the match.
To the rescue as usual were defender Dana Parker and blocker Mady Noble on court four. Since Arizona was swept by UCLA, Parker and Noble did not play for very long against the Bruins. Senior Maddie Micheletti and freshman Maya Gessner may have thought this would be an advantage, but Noble and Parker are fierce competitors who operate on rest or no rest. They swept the Golden Bears 21-12 and 21-17, evening the match at 2-2.
It all came down to the final match on court two. It was Burling and Blacker for the Sand Cats and junior Jordan Polo and sophomore Ainsley Radell for Cal. The Sand Cats took a close first set 21-19 and then lost a close second set in extras 20-22. It was the third and final set that would determine who would stay alive in the tournament.
From the opening serve, the Sand Cats dug themselves into an early hole, being down by four most of the set. They were never able to recover and lost 11-15, ending their hopes of trying to finish higher in the Pac-12 tournament.
“Sometimes the ball just does not go your way,” Burling said. “It does not fall the way you want it and honestly, that’s what happens. That’s how the game goes and that is also what we love about it.”
With the future of the team going to the national championship unknown, Burling and Hallaran may have played their very last matches as Sand Cats.
“I want to highlight how amazing our coaches were,” Burling said. “It’s hard to have a tough loss like that, but we were able to come back together. [Coach Walker] had such a great speech and he said how much he loves the seniors, how amazing this year has been, and this team will go down in history. We broke so many records and we could not have asked for a better final year.”
If this was their final match as Sand Cats, Hallaran is thrilled with the team’s performance this season and is happy to finally call it a career.
“It is totally not in our control,” Hallaran said. “How they pick who goes, whatever the system is … we’re proud of how we finished.”
Arizona will watch the NCAA selection show on Sunday, May 2 at 7 p.m. MST to see if they get the call for the tournament.
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