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Taking Stock: How Arizona beach volleyball is looking under coach Steve Walker

Cal vs. Arizona in the Pac-12 Conference Beach Volleyball Championships at Bear Down Beach. April 27, 2022. 
Photo by Mike Christy. Courtesy of Arizona Athletics.

The offseason is here, with all of Arizona’s sports done for 2021-22 and the 2022-23 campaigns still a little ways away.

Which makes this a great time to step back and see how all of the Wildcats’ programs are doing.

Over the next few weeks we’ll take a look at each of the UA’s 19 men’s and women’s programs to see what shape they’re in and what prospects they have for the near future. We’ll break down each team and evaluate how it is performing under its current coaching staff, looking at the state of the program before she arrived and comparing it to now while also looking at this season and beyond.

Next up: Steve Walker’s beach volleyball team.

How it looked before

There is no “before Steve Walker” for beach volleyball. This has been Walker’s program since its inception in 2013, and it’s been a fairly successful one.

The team played its first season in 2014, going 8-12. At that time, the sport was still part of the NCAA’s “emerging sports for women” and didn’t have a formal NCAA championship. Instead, the national championship was operated by the AVCA.

The sport also wasn’t a Pac-12 sport. The only other Pac-12 schools Arizona competed against in the sport were USC and ASU.

In 2015, Arizona was already playing in the AVCA national championship tournament. The Wildcats featured indoor star Madi Kingdon and the twin powers of McKenna and Madison Witt that season.

They were so dominant that season that in one pairs tournament, three of the top four teams were from UA. The Wildcats went 16-1 in the regular season and finished second in both the Pac-12 Team Invitational and the Pac-12 Pairs Invitational.

At the 2015 AVCA National Championship, Arizona had two pairs in the Sweet 16. Kingdon and Kaitlyn Leary advanced to the Final Four, becoming All-Americans.

In 2016, the NCAA held its first beach volleyball championship tournament. Arizona was back, advancing to the third round before being defeated by Hawai’i.

The NCAA tournament is a different format than the AVCA tournament had been. It focuses on complete teams instead of pairs. Until 2022, only eight teams were included and they were limited by region or conference. With all six national titles going to either UCLA or USC, coming out of the West and, specifically, the Pac-12, has been difficult. Arizona has not been back to the NCAA Tournament since 2016 despite going 113-48 over that period and having three seasons with single-digit losses.

In its history, the Wildcat program has been in the final AVCA top 20 poll every year since 2016. Heading into the 2022 season, Arizona had been ranked 64 times, placing it 10th in AVCA poll history. As is typical of the program, it was ranked every week in 2022 beginning with the preseason and extending through the final poll.

The problem is that beginning in 2017, UA has been consistently just outside looking in at the NCAA Tournament field despite being one of the sports’ top programs year in and year out. That has little to do with Arizona and everything to do with the way the postseason is structured in NCAA beach volleyball.

From 2016 through 2021, the sport’s postseason had just eight berths. Those berths were distributed based on geography with a few at-large bids mixed in. Despite the West Coast dominating the top of the sport and winning every title ever contested, both the east and the west were guaranteed three berths. Two more berths were given to at-large teams.

Where things stand now

The Wildcats went 19-12 last season. For them, that’s a “down” year. They have only had double-digit losses three times in their existence and have never lost more than 12 match-ups.

It was once again a case of coming up a dollar short even though the postseason was finally expanded to 16 teams in 2022. This doesn’t help the teams in the West much, especially those in the Pac-12. With USC and UCLA being the only teams to ever win a title, the conference is at a disadvantage when it comes to the automatic qualifier.

Beginning this past season, each of the eight conferences that sponsor the sport gets an automatic qualifier. Of the remaining eight positions, there are still two guaranteed to eastern teams and two for the West. The last four berths are at-large. Only two eastern teams (Florida State and LSU) have ever reached the final four, with the two combining for five of the possible 24 final four finishes since the tournament began.

Arizona ended the 2022 regular season ranked No. 17. Despite 16 teams finally getting berths in the NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats were once again left on the outside. The automatic bids combined with the limited number of total bids have kept many talented western teams out over the years, though, so at least they are in good company.

It will be a more experienced team that tries to get Arizona back to Alabama next season. The team had just three players listed as seniors last spring and one graduate student. Next season, they should have at least seven seniors including two-time All-Pac-12 performer Alex Parkhurst.

Eight members of the team were either freshmen or sophomores in 2022.

One big question

The biggest question for Arizona is whether it can get back to the NCAA Tournament. The tournament will continue to be held in Gulf Shores, Ala.—its home for the entirety of its existence—for the next two years. After that, the West Coast, which has dominated the sport, will finally get to host a national championship as the tournament moves to Huntington Beach, Calif. The Wildcats would certainly like to be there by then if not sooner.

Arizona will have to overcome the disadvantage of being in the Pac-12, though. Like most women’s sports, the Conference of Champions is an accurate description of beach volleyball. With so few teams qualifying for the national championship tournament and so many bids tied to conference affiliation or geography, coming from the only conference and region to ever win a national title hurts.