I know that I sound extremely biased by saying that I think the University of Arizona is the best place for athletes to come and play sports. Sure, the university has amazing stadiums and top-of-the-line workout facilities, but that is not what makes Arizona the place to play.
After covering many sports teams and talking to a lot of the athletes, I realized it was the culture and respect that the teammates had for themselves and their coaches.
It really struck me because it is so easy to develop egos and make the show about you, the athlete. From what I have seen, none of the athletes or teams I have covered do that. I want to share my experiences with some of the teams and tell you a bit about what I have seen that makes me think this way.
Arizona beach volleyball
This is by far my favorite team at the school. With a record of 21-4, the SandCats have the best record of any team at the school this year. They wrapped up their season against ASU and took them down by a match score of 4-1 and are heading to California to compete in the Pac-12 championship.
I believe the reason they have gotten so far is because of how united they are. I have spoken to many players on the team, and no matter what question I ask them, they always look for an opportunity to give their team credit. When I spoke to defender Brooke Burling in a past interview via Zoom, she raved about the super seniors and how adversity brought them closer together.
“When the pandemic hit, me, [Olivia Hallaran,] [Natalie Anselmo] and [Carly Lowry] took some time and trained over the pandemic because everyone wanted to come back,” Burling said. “We were hungry as ever, and I think having all four of us in the lineup has helped because we have a lot of experience.”
The pandemic not only united the super seniors, but it brought the younger players together as well. Head coach Steve Walker and assistant coach Emily Kiser have done a great job teaching their players what it means to be a team.
“Even for the younger players when their season got cut short, they were hungry as ever,” Burling said. “We have been able to come together as a team. [Walker] and [Kiser] have put out some awesome pairs, and we have been able to get the job done. What separates us from the years past is our mentality.”
Although many SandCats will graduate this year, including Anselmo, she is not worried about her team’s future.
“[Arizona] is such a professional place,” Anselmo said. “It fosters an environment where you can find your potential and grow as a person and a player. It was such a positive experience for me.”
Fellow fifth-year senior Lowry agreed with her teammate.
“It is such a supportive program, and I have never felt more support than I have here,” Lowry said. “I am grateful to [Walker], [Kiser] and all of my teammates. The culture here is really positive and energetic.”
Men’s swimming and diving
Coming off a successful national championship in North Carolina, I was curious to learn more about this team. Since many of the events are individual, it would not be too surprising to hear players talk about themselves. When I spoke with senior Brooks Fail, the All-American spoke of the good times he has being around his teammates.
“It is the brotherhood that we share with one another,” Fail said. “I get to hang out with my best friends for 20 hours a week at the pool.”
While many people view being an athlete as constant work, Fail sees it as an opportunity to grow as a team.
“A lot of people might see college athletics as a daunting experience where you are just constantly training,” Fail said. “I have grown to have a lot of fun with it. Every member of the men’s team can say it with their chest that the 20 hours we get to spend together is my favorite time of the week. I think that is very rare to find that in other programs.”
I feel it is safe to say that I am one of the GymCats’ biggest fans. Seeing this team grow from a winless start, then going to regionals and ending the season with sophomore Malia Hargrove competing at the national championship in floor exercise was picture perfect.
Even with their early-season struggles, head coach John Court did not give up on his team. Court would share a message of encouragement about how the team was getting better rather than harp on losses. I believe he wanted to engrain an attitude of not quitting and focusing on the positives.
This message was recognized by freshman Caroline Herry, who spoke to Arizona Athletics about why she chose the UA.
“I chose Arizona because the coaches and staff here were super helpful,” Herry told Arizona Athletics. “I knew it was going to be a place that I could succeed athletically and academically.”
Herry is not the only GymCat who felt this way. Sophomore Sirena Linton, one of the breakout stars for Arizona this year, chose the UA because of the culture that Court created.
“I chose Arizona because of the loving staff and faculty, and it felt like home here,” Linton said told Arizona Athletics.
Moreover, Court signed a contract extension that will keep him at the UA through 2024. After accomplishing so much this season, I am excited to see how Court’s message is received with current and future GymCats.
How could I talk about Arizona sports and not talk about the women’s basketball team? I could argue that the culture surrounding the program and head coach Adia Barnes makes this team the most appealing women’s program in the NCAA.
Just a few years ago, the women’s basketball team was in shambles. Before Barnes took over, the Wildcats had not had a winning season since 2010 and had not played in the tournament since 2005.
Even when Barnes took over, the Wildcats still were not that good. In superstar Aari McDonald’s first year with the team in 2017, the Wildcats finished an abysmal 6-24. All coach Barnes needed was more time, and what came next was worth the wait.
After the 2017-18 season, all of coach Barnes’ teams have finished over .500. In 2021, the women’s basketball team finally made the tournament for the first time in 16 years. The Wildcats bulldozed every opponent in their way, including powerhouse programs Texas A&M, Indiana and the giant of all giants, UConn. They made it to the championship game for the first time ever and fell short against rival Stanford by a tough score of 54-53.
Even though they did not win the tournament, the journey did not end for McDonald and forward Trinity Baptiste. On the evening of the 2021 WNBA draft, McDonald was selected third overall by the Atlanta Dream. This was the highest draft selection by an Arizona women’s basketball player. Baptiste was also drafted No. 24 overall by the Indiana Fever.
This year will go down in history not just at Arizona but in the NCAA storybooks. A program that nobody talked about or respected became the biggest story of the year. Before the women headed to San Antonio, Texas for the tournament, I had the pleasure of speaking with the woman who I feel made this all possible, coach Barnes.
When I asked Barnes the recipe for success at the tournament, she gave me an answer that echoed the message of every athlete and coach that I have written about so far.
“It is more about us than it is about the opponent,” Barnes said.
It was about them, and it is about everyone who wears a Wildcat uniform here at the UA. Every coach treats each player equally, and every player treats one another and their coaches with respect.
Though I did not mention every team, I can guarantee that they all share the same message. For any athlete out there who is still looking for a college to call home, you will not regret choosing the UA.
Follow Sean Fagan on Twitter
Sean (he/him) is a business administration major from California. He enjoys playing video games and watching Disney+ in his free time.