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Arizona volleyball standout Paige Whipple trying to catch up after umbilical hernia

Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

There weren’t many bright spots for the Arizona Wildcats volleyball team last season, as they staggered to their lowest win total since 1992 and missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012.

But outside hitter Paige Whipple was one of the exceptions of an otherwise down year.

The then-freshman entered the program as a highly-ranked recruit and did not disappoint. She started 18 matches and finished second on the team in kills (213) and fifth in digs (213).

Whipple was one of four UA freshmen to finish with 60 or more kills, a new school record.

“I think Paige had a terrific year, having to step in and do what she had to do for us,” said UA head coach Dave Rubio.

Arizona opens the 2018 season Friday against Cal State Northridge in Sacramento. Rubio believes the Wildcats can be an “elite team” if their young players — there are a lot of them — can build off the promise they showed last season.

“We have the talent,” Rubio said. “Now whether or not the talent is going to be skilled enough or have the aptitude to allow us to be an elite team, that will be the question.”

Whipple’s improvement could go a long way toward Arizona returning to the NCAA Tournament, but it might take some time before she is able to make a major impact.

The Salem, Oregon native suffered an umbilical hernia — when part of the intestine protrudes through the umbilical opening in the abdominal muscles — in the offseason, which sidelined her for two months.

Rubio said Whipple “lost the base” she developed as a freshman and is trying to play catch-up as the season-opener nears.

“It’s really more of a strength thing for her than anything,” Rubio said. “And that takes a mental toll on her more than anything, just trying to get her confidence back. So for her, it’s going to be a matter of patience and her to get stronger. And then once she does that, she’s going to be a real player for us in the future.”

We spoke to Whipple about her injury, the recovery, her expectations for the 2018 season and lots more.

What exactly was your injury?

“I had an umbilical hernia that I actually had since I was baby that they didn’t know about. And then last spring, once we got into our super-heavy lifting, it burst so I had to have that repaired.”

What was the recovery like?

“It was eight weeks of absolutely nothing. Basically nothing but walking. I was probably bed-ridden for about a week where I couldn’t get up because abdominal muscles do everything. I laid in bed for a week and then eight weeks of just walking, which was hard because I love getting out and being active.”

“And then once that eight weeks was up, I had two weeks where I walked for exercise and then that was about the time I came back here after summer break and they just eased me back into our lifting program. I was on body-weight stuff for a while and then a couple weeks later I got back into full swing and I’m pretty much back to full strength.”

So how are you feeling now going into the season?

“The first couple days of double-days were tough. I hadn’t played volleyball in probably four and a half months, and if anyone takes that much time off what they love, it takes them (time) to get back into it. So the first two days were rough but as the two weeks progressed, I’ve just felt my self improving every day. Now as we start with regular practice, I’m definitely feeling back into the swing of volleyball and my rhythm.”

How much did you miss the game while you were out?

“It was hard because while I was home for summer break, my siblings and I would always play volleyball in the backyard and we couldn’t do that — or anything for that matter. So it was hard not only not playing volleyball but not being able to be active.”

Did the Red-Blue scrimmage give you a boost since that was the first match you played since your injury?

“For sure. That was a big adrenaline rush and it was really the first time I had really competed in a game situation since last fall. I only played in one spring tournament since I was injured.”

How did you think last season went for you?

“Personally I think I grew a ton from just entering the program until the end of the season. Just being able to get court time right away was super eye-opening. It’s a hugely different game going from high school right into the Pac-12. It’s just such a high level and so competitive, so I think getting that experience right away will help me get a boost ahead of where I might have been if I hadn’t gotten that court time. So this year I know what to expect, those nerves aren’t really there anymore and I can just go out and play the game the best that I can.”

How big is that freshman-to-sophomore leap everyone always talks about?

“Everyone always says the best part about being a sophomore is that you’re not a freshman anymore. That’s definitely true. You have a full year of experience working, playing for Dave, going through his drills, going through workouts with Jim Krumpos, the whole daily part of being a student-athlete, getting up early, practicing, and going to class.

“That whole process takes a while to get used to as a freshman and I think coming in as a sophomore, even though you’re still an underclassman you’ve experienced those things and you know what to expect and I think it’s been easier to manage myself and my time throughout the day because I know what it takes to be successful.”

With that said, you guys have a really young team so how do you think being a year older will translate to the court?

“Most of our core from last year’s team is back … and that will really help us this year because not a lot of us had played together, we were young, new to the Pac-12 and playing at this level. Even though last year was hard — it was a struggle, not a lot of wins, not a lot of success came — I think that was a huge learning experience for us. We’re a year older, a year more mature, a year more skilled, and I think that’s going to be good for us this year.”

Your team was picked to finish ninth in the Pac-12, so does that serve as motivation for you?

“Honestly I think that’s a huge piece of motivation because we have a super competitive group this year and I think a lot of people are underestimating us for sure. I don’t want to place super-high expectations on where we’ll finish, but I think ninth is an understatement and I think we’re going to surprise some people with our grit and competitive nature and not letting any match go without us giving everything we have.”