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Arizona volleyball notes: On the Cactus Classic, outside hitters, liberos, and more

COLLEGE VOLLEYBALL: OCT 19 Colorado at Arizona
Makenna Martin
Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Arizona volleyball will officially open the 2019 season on Friday morning, when it hosts Appalachian State at 10 a.m. MST to begin the program’s annual home tournament, the Cactus Classic.

The 24th-ranked Wildcats will then take on Loyola Marymount later that evening before facing Samford on Saturday at noon.

Last year, the UA went 3-0 in the Cactus Classic, setting the tone for a season that culminated in a fifth NCAA Tournament appearance in six years, and head coach Dave Rubio and his team will be hoping for more of the same this time around.

Before all of that however, several members of the squad addressed the media on Wednesday morning to talk about the state of the program as it gears up for a new season and just the upcoming campaign as a whole.

Here is who spoke and what they said.

Assistant Coach Greg Whittis

*Whittis stepped in for an unavailable Rubio on Wednesday

On the team’s maturity and experience being an asset: “As kids get older and matriculate through the program they begin to understand the process of improvement. And then they get experience which also contributes to becoming better. The game slows down and all of those things contribute to confidence and being more assured. To me (having so many older players) is a really big thing for us.”

On the libero position and the team’s defense: “We have five really good liberos. Erin Williamson and Malina (Kalei Ua) just had maybe their best practices today. So the group of defensive specialists that we have is really good and I think it’s probably the best group that we’ve had since 2016. And in 2016, we were really one of the better floor defensive teams in the country.”

On outside hitters being a key area for Arizona’s success: “Matches are won and lost on the left. The serve and pass game and then your ability to take big swings at crucial times. And a high percentage of those swings come in crunch time, when it’s 20-20. And in the Pac-12, it seems like every set is 20-20 so your ability to score on the left on the pin is crucial. We have some kids on the team this year that can hit the ball hard. Maybe they don’t have the vision, range, or what I call third contact control—the ability to put your hand on the ball and make it go where you want, with the spin that you want. All those things are pretty nuanced, but really important for a left side. And so those things will get better.”

On Paige Whipple’s role in that outside hitters group: “Paige leads the outside group for sure. She’s going to be entering her third year of the program and she’s started since she’s been here. She’s played a lot of volleyball and so she’s experienced. Her floor game, her ability to defend and middle block and her ability to serve, she’s a terrific blocker. All of those things contribute to the player that she’s become. Last year she scored over three kills a set, and so that’s a legitimate number. We need for that to be better this year and I think it will be.”

On middle blocker Devyn Cross: “Devyn is as good as just about anybody out there. Terrific.”

On differences between this year and last year: “Last year, in the preseason practices, it became pretty obvious that Kendra (Dahlke) was about her business and was going to be a different player from her junior to her senior year. But I think we had more question marks away from Kendra. This year we’re way ahead in other areas and other positions on the court. I think we’re way ahead with our defensive players. Our middles are outstanding. We have three middles that are legit and I think we’re a better serving team. And then I think the team is tighter. We’ve got a really good group and the trip in Europe was terrific for this group to have that experience and the opportunity to be together. The opportunity to take the new players with us on that trip was big. Because of it, they’ve kind of hit this preseason, these double days, just kind of hit the ground running, There is no, ‘oh well they’re new and what are we going to do with them?’ All of that got handled in Europe. The bond, the chemistry, all that stuff is terrific. And I think leadership from Julia (Patterson) and Paige, they know what to do and know what to expect and what’s expected. They know the standard.”

Junior middle blocker Shardonee Hayes

On how she’s grown as a player since her freshman year: “I think the biggest improvement from my freshman year until now is I’m confident in my game. I believe in myself now and know that I deserve to be here because of all the hard work I’ve put in.”

On the team’s preparedness for a new season: “I’m ready and I think we’re ready. We’ve been preparing for this all preseason and our trip to Europe really was a big thing to get ready for our season.”

Senior Libero Makenna Martin

On her goals for the season: “Just being there in whatever situation for the team and always putting up numbers and executing during games and practice. And then the team goal is I want to go as far as we can. We can go pretty far this year with the talent that we have and the cohesion that we have as a team.”

On the team’s cohesion this year: “I just think we’ve all grown, we’ve been with each other for almost three years now and there’s not a lot of new people. So it just comes along with time and being with each other every day.”

On what the team expects from itself this weekend at the Cactus Classic: “Just trying to, for the first time, run this offense, perfecting that communicating and having fun. Really just honing in on that new offense and kind of getting comfortable with it during competition.”