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Arizona volleyball looking to return to the NCAA Tournament in 2018

Kendra Dahlke and Julia Patterson try to lead Coach Rubio’s program back to the NCAA tournament

Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

The college sports landscape has changed over the years, and it’s not just in the revenue sports. The increasing tendency of athletes to transfer has affected coaches’ ability to maintain consistency in their programs.

Arizona volleyball coach Dave Rubio believes that was a major reason the Wildcats struggled last season.

Whether it’s looking for playing time or to be closer to home, the loss of athletes can devastate an entire recruiting class. Last year was a prime example of what happens on a program’s down swing, when transfers and injuries conspire to halt the team’s progress.

Prior to last year, Arizona had not won fewer than 19 matches in a year since 2012. That was also the last year that the Wildcats didn’t place a single player on one of the AVCA All-American teams.

After a successful 2016 season when Arizona went 20-15 and placed two players on the third team, they plunged to 11-18 in 2017, only winning five matches in conference play. It was the first time the team had finished under .500 since 2007. Lack of experience and key injuries were the main culprits.

Arizona’s senior class consists of three players, one of whom is a junior college transfer and another who has seen limited action in her previous three seasons in Tucson. Of the 2015 freshman class, only outside hitter Kendra Dahlke has both remained at Arizona and played a significant role on the court.

Over the last four years, Rubio has watched a stream of players transfer out or stop playing. Sarah Dixon, Prep Volleyball’s No. 30 recruit in the 2015 class, became another kind of Wildcat when she transferred to Kansas State after her freshman year. The next year, Dixon was joined at KSU by fellow 2015 recruit Reilly Killeen.

Meghan Buzzerio was off to Iowa in 2016. Tyler Spriggs spent three years playing indoor and one playing beach before transferring to Long Beach State for her senior season. So, the responsibility of being a leader has landed on Dahlke’s shoulders.

“I thought [she] hung in there last year, but it was a struggle for her in the role that she had to shoulder last year,” Rubio said. “She had a difficult time. I mean, just emotionally--physically she was okay, but the brain controls all your body parts and I thought it was a little up and down for her. Again,I think that year has really taught her a lot and as a result we see much more calm and more confident and a much better leader than we did last year. I think we’ll see that throughout the year.”

Fortunately, the core of the 2016 class is still with the program, giving the Wildcats a much stronger group of experienced players than they had last season. Starting setter Julia Patterson returns after an injury hampered her at the end of last season. Devyn Cross, the team’s leading blocker for the past two years, is ready to go. Makenna Martin returns after serving as the team’s primary libero last season.

Along with Dahlke and the juniors, middle blocker Shardonee Hayes and opposite/outside hitter Elizabeth Shelton—both redshirt sophomores—lead a group of players who are entering either their third or fourth years in the program. Rubio believes that experience will have them better prepared for the rigors of facing PAC-12 competition.

“It’s really a process of trying to get the players to develop the skills to be able to compete at that level of the conference,” he said. “Going through a year like we did last year certainly allows us to go through that. As much as you don’t like it, sometimes I think they will benefit from last year this coming season.”

The team will need to stay healthy and put that experience to good use if they want to be competitive in the Pac-12. The preseason AVCA poll includes seven conference teams in the top 25, with two more turning up in the “others receiving votes” category.

For Dahlke, being competitive in conference isn’t enough. She wants to win.

“I have really big expectations, especially coming off of last season, I think we’ve all grown as a unit. Really trying to push forward, to be better and win a lot more games,” she said. “But for me especially, I just want to come out on top. I’d like to win the PAC-12 while I’m here. So, that’s one of our big goals.”

To do that, Dahlke says the entire team must learn to stay emotionally strong—including herself. She has relied on Patterson and Rubio to help her learn how to lead in that respect.

“Julia was a big help because she’s the setter on the floor, she was a leader at that point. Dave also was a big help. He kind of knew what I was going through and was really helpful, kind of talking me through things, with understanding where I was from a mental standpoint,” Dahlke said. “So, getting all his thoughts before games or practice was a lot of help.”

She also needed to be committed.

“That’s kind of why I stepped back from sand this year and stayed with the indoor team. I kind of knew that was going to be something that helped me, just doing the whole spring training with them,” she said.

Patterson took a different tactic in preparing for her junior year. In May, she traveled to China with the U.S. Women’s Collegiate National Team. She said that playing with women from other college programs, as well as playing against the Chinese players, was a “really cool” experience, but she’s eager to get the new season going.

“I think we still have that taste in our mouth from last season,” Patterson said. “We didn’t go as planned, so I think most of us are really excited to get back out there and kind of prove to everyone.”

For freshmen like Nevada’s Gatorade Player of the Year Whittnee Nihipali, the goal isn’t so much about this season. She’s preparing for the future, so Arizona doesn’t experience another 5-win conference season in the near future.

Nihipali said that her biggest challenge is adapting to the speed of the college game. Rubio hopes to give her a year to develop before he asks her to do that against opponents, although he believes she has the potential to be an immediate impact player.

“We’re pretty deep in that position, which allows her to kind of be in a position where we’re not having to press her to immediately,” he said. “She could kind of work our way into the role. My sense is that when players are pressed, they get a little bit stressed out, they don’t play at the level that they’re capable of playing. I mean, Whittnee... there’s the possibility that she might redshirt.”

Whether Nihipali sees action this season or not, the team has 10 days left to prepare for their opening match. Before the Wildcats travel to Sacramento to take on Cal State Northridge, Utah State and Sacramento State in the Hornet Invitational on August 24, Rubio said their greatest improvement needs to come in the service game.

“It’s not hard enough or fast enough. We need to be a bit more accurate,” he said.

In the end, Rubio’s goal is to see his team back in the NCAA Tournament after their one-year absence.

“You try not to go through a period where you don’t make the NCAA tournament,” he said. “Every single year your goal is to make it, and every year you should make it, but you know the way the transfer world works and kids getting injured, sometimes you just can’t prevent that. But this year I think we will be much improved. The hope is that improvement comes in the form of tangible wins.”