Her first year as the head coach at her alma mater hasn’t been what Rita Stubbs hoped for, but it only takes one class of recruits to get things turned in the right direction. A class that includes two AVCA All-Americans, including Prep Volleyball’s No. 1 recruit in the country, should be just what the doctor ordered.
Carlie Cisneros out of Kansas City, MO became Arizona’s highest-ranked recruit ever by being the kind of player former head coach Dave Rubio used to call a “unicorn.” The outside hitter from Liberty North High School is a “true six-rotation player,” according to Stubbs. Stubbs gives Rubio a great deal of credit for the class that is headlined by Cisneros, who in addition to being ranked first by Prep Volleyball is ranked No. 7 by Prep Dig.
“I can’t claim this as my first [class],” Stubbs said. “I think 25 will be my first...because Dave was a part of every kid that’s coming here. Avery [Scoggin] and Carlie were committed prior to Dave leaving. And I don’t remember which trip it was, but I left a road trip after we played last year to go watch Adrianna [Bridges], so sort of kinda call her mine because Dave was like, ‘Okay, Rita, you’ll be the reason why we take her or not take her,’ so maybe her type thing. But the 25 class, that Dave didn’t really have a role in except for one kid...so I’m going to claim 25 as more of my own, but 24’s a collaboration.”
When Rubio’s retirement was announced, the committed players were concerned. Cisneros and her parents were some of the first people who called Stubbs to try to find out if she was taking over. Fortunately for Stubbs and the recruits, that period of uncertainty was very brief. Cisneros is just glad that everything is now signed, sealed, and delivered for both her and Stubbs.
“It’s a relief,” she said. “I mean, honestly, I knew I was gonna go there, but it just feels so much more real now that it’s official.”
Cisneros has been watching from afar this year. Despite the UA’s record in Stubbs’ first year at the helm, she never had second thoughts about moving across the country and becoming a Wildcat. In fact, watching the team go through their struggles made her feel like she could really help. In many ways, Cisneros sounded like former Arizona women’s basketball player Cate Reese who came to the Wildcats as the first female McDonald’s All-American to ever play for the program and helped them reach the 2021 national title game.
“There was never a moment,” Cisneros said. “I’ve never had any doubt about going to Arizona. I mean, I knew from when I took my official visit that that was the place I was going to eventually call home. And watching them play, it got me really excited because I know what an impact I hope to make on that team.”
Cisneros’ ability to pass is the most important skill she will bring to Arizona. It’s a huge need for the Wildcats, who have struggled in serve receive this season. That, in turn, leads to problems for setter Ana Heath.
“It’s taken Jaelyn [Hodge] and Sofia [Maldonado Diaz] four years to learn how to do it and it’s still not done in stone type thing, and it’s one of those things,” Stubbs said. “It’s kind of like the setter. You need to be in that position the entire time to understand the ins and outs of it and fine tune things that are necessary to be successful. And that’s the same thing about the six-rotation player because at the end of the day...the game is won and lost on your ability to have an outside hitter. And if you’re not able to pass the ball, you better have some big sticks out there who can terminate. But if you look at the teams that have played in the Final Four and the Finals in years past, even they have struggled if they don’t have that true passer out there.”
Becoming good at that aspect of the game is something Cisneros has focused on since she was very young.
“I mean, the amount of hours I put into it, it’s a crazy amount,” Cisneros said. “Ever since I was, I think, 13, I realized that if you want to play and if you want to make an impact on the court, the one thing you have to be able to do is serve receive, because that is the biggest game changer. I was in the gym. Every practice, I knew that’s what I wanted to focus on. And every time I had a private lesson, I always worked at least 30 minutes on that. So I was working on serving three times a week ever since I was 14, and I still work on it every day because it’s such an important skill in volleyball, and it gets overlooked sometimes.”
Her coaches impressed upon her that if she was serious about the sport and being a good outside hitter, it was the most important thing she could do.
“I was lucky to be surrounded by very smart coaches, ones that played in college and ones that have just been around the game for a really long time,” Cisneros said. “And I remember saying I want to be the best and I want to be able to help out my team any way I can. And they told me that if you want to help out your setter, you serve receive. And if you want to help out your hitter, you serve receive. If you want to help the game, you serve receive. And honestly, I was told that when I was 12, 13 years old, and ever since then it never left my mind because serve receive and out-of-system hitting are the two most important things outsides need to be able to do in order to be effective in all aspects of the game. And those were two things I was able to really dial in and focus on and it really just kept growing as I grew.”
One of the coaches who helped lay the foundation for her game was Cisneros’ mother Carrie Kempf, who coached her until her early teens. Kempf played middle blocker at the University of St. Mary in Leavenworth, Kan.
“She’s the reason why I play this game,” Cisneros said. “I mean, both my parents. My dad pushed me when it came to private lessons and he was like, ‘Let me know what you need and I got you. I will help you. Just tell me what you need and I will take care of it. I will get you what you need because I know your goals.’ And my mom is the reason I started playing. She played in college and she always told me that she wanted me to be better than her, and that was honestly my goal. And it happened when I was in like eighth grade. She coached me when I was eight years old until I was 13 and was ready to advance and go to Dynasty. And she’s still been so supportive and a major part of it, and so has my dad. I’m very grateful for them both.”
Cisneros is Liberty North’s first AVCA All-American first-teamer. She’s not the only member of the 2024 Wildcat class who was named an AVCA All-American on Wednesday, though. Scoggins, a setter out of Middle Creek High School in North Carolina, was named to the second team.
“She’s a natural leader,” Stubbs said of Scoggins. “She rallies the troops. She understands the game. [Assistant coach] Steven [Duhoux] and I were watching film today. It was kind of funny. In the match, she was playing and she literally saw the free ball come across the net and then she called her play and hid behind her jersey and stuff. You just don’t see that very often. So, she understands how the dynamics of the game change.”
The pair join Adrianna Bridges, a middle blocker out of Florida who is ranked No. 33 overall in the Sunshine State and No. 7 among Florida middle blockers by Prep Dig. The trio has already bonded.
“It’s amazing,” Cisneros said. “Honestly, we’re all just really excited. We meet up at tournaments. There were one or two tournaments last year, I believe, that we were all at together. I’ve never played Adrianna and definitely not Avery because she’s in the class above. She was playing 18s last year. But we definitely all meet up. We talk about our future and how excited we all are to play with each other. And me and Avery talk about rooming together, as well.”
The trio should all have big impacts on the program, but Cisneros is the big coup for Arizona. She was one they were surprised to get.
How does a coach sell a program like the Wildcats, which has struggled just to finish above .500 in recent years? In many senses, it was like the recruitment of Sofia Maldonado Diaz.
“A lot of people were surprised that Carlie chose Arizona,” Stubbs said. “It was like, ‘Oh, why Arizona?’ Well, she liked the weather. She liked the coaching staff. She liked how Dave did a lot of things. But Dave was surprised when Carlie committed...He was like, ‘There’s no way.’ And I was like, ‘She did.’ She committed to him, although she was talking to me the entire time, so there’s a great sense of respect there.”
Volleyball fans from around the country were especially curious because of the distance between Tucson and Kansas City. It wasn’t even like Arizona grabbed her from the neighborhood, where Rubio has picked up a few high school All-Americans in the past. She’s coming across the country to play for a program that last made the NCAA Tournament in 2018. As it turns out, she will get to play close to home after all as the Wildcats move to Big 12 and compete against Kansas.
“I would have been completely fine staying in the Pac-12 because I love that area and I’ve been watching the Pac-12 since I was a little girl,” Cisneros said. “So it would have been nice to stay, but moving to the Big 12 is amazing because my family can watch. And my great-grandparents, they wanted me to go to KU as long as I can remember. And now I get to play at KU so they’ll see me and it’s a really great feeling because we will be 30, 45 minutes away from home if I play at KU. So, everybody can come out and watch and I’m really excited.”
She’s ready to get things going. Cisneros will be graduating from Liberty North a semester early and enrolling at Arizona in time for spring tournaments. It’s something she’s been working on since she committed.
The time she gets to spend with her family is growing short. She said that they will be her focus the next few weeks. She will arrive in Tucson on Jan. 5, 2024.
Her fellow members of the class are accomplished players who fill real needs for the Wildcats. Scoggins just led her high school team to the North Carolina State championship. She will help push Heath and Kasen Rosenthal, and possibly find her way into the starting lineup sooner rather than later.
One advantage that Scoggins has is that she runs the kind of offense that most college programs, including Arizona, run. That system is known as the 5-1. It has just one setter who sets the ball whether she’s in the front row or the back row.
Arizona’s past two starting setters—Heath and Emery Herman—ran a 6-2 in high school and club. In the 6-2, there are two setters on the floor. The one in the back row is the setter in any given rotation. The one in the front row turns into another hitter. Stubbs said that this is common in Texas prep volleyball where both Heath and Herman learned to play. She said that there are so many hitters in the state, the coaches turn some of them into setters and run a 6-2.
Getting the setting and passing squared away are just two of the things Stubbs is focused on to improve the team next season. Middle is a huge area of need. Arizona has three middles on the roster right now, but medical concerns have kept freshman Journey Tucker from traveling with the team or playing for the past several weeks. With just two healthy middles, practice becomes more difficult.
Bridges is one of the answers in the middle, but Stubbs said that she will need development to get used to the pace of the college game.
“Adrianna is going to bring a lot to the table as a blocker,” Stubbs said. “She’s not used to playing at a fast pace just yet, but she’s a great athlete and she has the desire and willingness to learn, which for me is huge. Coachable and accountable. Life is great.”
It’s not uncommon for Arizona to bring in players like that, especially at middle blocker. Recruiting great athletes and training them to be good volleyball players was a hallmark of Rubio’s program. Stubbs will not completely turn away from that. However, she knows the Wildcats need experienced help now. Arizona also needs numbers.
“We’re gonna go after a transfer, a middle,” Stubbs said. “We need to get another middle in here. Just having two the latter part of the season has been rough and hard on the two that we have just from a training aspect and getting better, and then just the competition behind it. It’s one of those things that we’re actively talking to a couple kids right now. And now it’s a matter of the right dynamics.”
Stubbs’ other portal focus is a libero. Arizona has patched that position together this season, but it has not been a completely successful patchwork. While the casual fan may not realize how vital the position is, like a six-rotation outside hitter, the libero is a player who sets an offensive attack in motion by being a highly skilled passer. She’s also the linchpin of floor defense.
Getting those two positions filled and possibly bringing back both Hodge and Maldonado Diaz could have an effect on some of the other players currently on the team, though. Women’s volleyball has 12 full scholarships to offer. In addition, teams carry walk-ons, usually at the defensive specialist position. How many walk-ons a team has depends on how many players a conference allows to travel, how much money the athletic department commits to volleyball, and the personal preferences of the coach.
The Pac-12 allows teams to travel with 16 players. The Big 12 allows 18 players to travel. If a team has more than that on the roster, the coach must determine who gets left behind for away matches. In addition, Arizona has 18 lockers, and Stubbs does not like the psychological impact of telling a few players that they won’t get one. She may not travel with the full 18 players, but she said that 18 will be the maximum number of roster spots for the Wildcats next year.
Arizona currently has 15 players on the roster who are freshmen, sophomores, and juniors. Hodge and Maldonado Diaz are seniors, but both will be welcomed back if they choose to use their extra pandemic-related year at Arizona. There are three incoming freshmen for a total of 20. If Stubbs can find the experienced middle blocker and libero she wants from the portal, the total would climb to 22. That leaves four current players as the odd women out. In addition to those four, the Wildcats would also lose senior libero Joy Galles, who could transfer elsewhere if she wants to use her extra year of eligibility.