What’s the most important trait of a successful volleyball team? Experience, according to Arizona head coach Dave Rubio.
Sometimes the best experience is gained through adversity. At least, that’s what the Wildcats hope to prove when they open the 2018 season on Friday.
“If I were to step away from it and look at our team, I think we’re a team that’s going to kind of surprise a lot of teams this year,” senior outside hitter Kendra Dahlke said. “Because I think last year ... just kind of based off of our record last year, I think a lot of people are going to underestimate us. Which I don’t blame them at all, but at the same time I think that we are capable of achieving a lot of great wins as a team. So, we’re gonna come out and surprise a lot of people this season.”
Arizona will be facing three other squads who also want to prove something this weekend at the Hornet Invitational in Sacramento, Calif. Despite the down year the Wildcats had in 2017, beating the Wildcats would be a feather in the caps of Utah State, Cal State Northridge or tournament host Sacramento State, each of whom play in non-power conferences.
The Wildcats open play in the Hornet Invitational at 10 a.m. Friday against Cal State Northridge, Rubio’s alma mater.
For Arizona, the weekend offers a chance to go on the road, bond as teammates, and be challenged by three experienced teams.
“We don’t want to be able to walk over people, [that’s] not a challenge,” Rubio said. “I think this will be a good challenge for us.”
Cal State Northridge
Playing volleyball on the West Coast may put other conferences in the shadow of the Pac-12, but the Big West has proven that it can compete with the best of them. While CSUN ended last season 192 in RPI, it plays in a league that featured three of the top 75 teams. The problem for the Matadors was that they lost all six matches to those three teams.
Overall, the team went 13-15, finishing 7-9 in conference play in 2017. The chances of improving on that sub-.500 season rest on a team stacked with experienced returners, including five with experience as starters.
Senior outside hitter Aeryn Owens leads the way for the Matadors. Owens has been a star for CSUN since she arrived on campus. In 2015, she made the Big West All-Freshman Team. She followed that with two straight years on the All-Big West First Team. After leading the team with 488 kills in 2017, she needs just 13 to enter the school’s career top 10.
Owens is joined by middle blocker Melissa Eaglin, a redshirt junior, who was second on the team with a .284 hitting percentage last season. Defensive specialist Kristey Markle led the team with 41 aces—a school record in the rally scoring era—which put her second in the conference. Outside hitter Nada Dragovic and middle blocker Morgan Salone round out the returners with starting experience.
In fact, the Matadors feature significant experience at all positions except one. Unfortunately, that position is arguably the most vital to a team’s success: setter. The primary options are a true freshman or a junior who has appeared in a total of 19 sets over 12 matches in her first two years.
“Northridge is returning a lot of players,” Rubio said. “In the game of volleyball experience plays so much into your ability to be successful. As last year showed us, we were so young and we were inconsistent. So Northridge will be a good test.
The Aggies were picked to finish eighth in the tough Mountain West Conference. Of the three teams Arizona will face over the weekend, they had the most success against the top 100 last season with a 3-5 record.
Coach Grayson DuBose’s team went 16-14 overall and finished 8-10 in the MWC.
For Tucson-area fans, tuning into the Big Sky channel online to watch this match will provide a glimpse of local product Kassidy Johnson. The senior setter out of Cienega High School has been a significant contributor since she arrived in Logan. She has started matches all three seasons, including 21 last year.
Johnson will be joined by four other Aggies with starting experience. Senior Lauren O’Brien started 29 of the team’s 30 matches at middle blocker last season. She led the team with 108 blocks and was fourth in kills.
Senior Tasia Taylor is key to the Aggies’ defense. The libero had a record year in 2017, setting a school record in October when she had 25 digs in a three-set match against UNLV. She moved to No. 4 on the USU single-season digs list with 525. Those numbers helped her establish herself as one of the best defenders in the MWC last season. Her average of 4.86 digs per set ranked second in conference for 2017.
Sophomores Madi Olson-Shepherd and Bailey Downing complete the list of Aggie’s with starting experience. With a total of 27 starts between them, the provide DuBose with additional options at defensive specialist/libero, middle blocker and outside hitter.
“Utah State traditionally has always been very big, physical,” Rubio said.
For Sacramento State, it’s not just about protecting its home court. The Hornets are trying to follow up on a successful 2017 with an even better 2018.
The team went 26-10 and won the Big Sky regular season title before falling to North Dakota in the conference tournament championship game last year. The Hornets wrapped things up with an RPI of 80—22 places higher than the Wildcats—and secured a berth in the National Invitational Volleyball Championship (NIVC).
Sacramento State’s major stumbling block in 2017 was getting past the higher-ranked teams on its schedule. The Hornets went 1-4 against teams in the top 100, the lone win coming in the regular season matchup against conference foe North Dakota. A win against a Pac-12 opponent, even one coming off a down year, would go a long ways to showing that they’re capable of taking that next step this season.
The Hornets need to prove that they can do that after losing Big Sky MVP Kennedy Kurtz, though. Kurtz, who led the nation in assists, is one of five departed seniors. The Big Sky coaches have their doubts, picking the team to finish third in the preseason conference poll.
The team proved that they can outperform projections, though, having won the regular season after being picked third last year. They are also not bereft of returning talent.
Outside hitter Mikaela Nocetti—an All-Big Sky first teamer—and second-team middle blocker Lana Brown give Sacramento State a base to build on. Senior middle blocker Brie Gathright and defensive specialist Skyler Takaeda round out the key returners. Gathright and Takaeda not only have experience with the Hornets, but have been playing together since their prep days at Vacaville High School in California.
“They’re very experienced and well coached,” Rubio said of Sacramento State. “It’s going to be at their place. They’re certainly going to feel very comfortable playing in their facility.”
The weekend will turn on Arizona doing what it does best as well as players fulfilling their roles.
For the players, the physical skills and intangibles need to come together for the team to reach its potential. For Dahlke, who Rubio refers to as the “anointed one,” that means finally growing into a leadership role that was new to her last year.
In her sophomore year, Dahlke said “everyone was kinda like babying me almost. My junior year was different where I was the older one. So, throughout the whole season, I was kind of like developing into more of a leadership role, and it was kind of difficult for me just because I had never really been in that situation before. Even my senior year in high school, I didn’t play that year because of a torn labrum, so I really never experienced that aspect of it.”
With leadership established, the team can focus on the physical part of the game. Rubio and Dahlke agree that the team’s defense is a strong point going into the season.
“Serve receive is coming along especially well,” Rubio said.
Dahlke is particularly impressed by the defensive specialists, both the returners and the newcomers.
“I think our defense has improved a lot this year,” she said. “And, then, with the addition of the littles we got, like Malina [Kalei Ua] and Emi Pua’a, and Victoria Svorinic—she’s a senior this year, she’s doing great—and Makenna Martin returning, we have a great set of littles.”
If it all comes together, the Wildcats should be back in the NCAA Tournament at the end of the season, and perhaps on their way to being elite again. The path to developing into that team will begin with CSUN. Both the coach and the team’s best player believe they have the talent to get there.
“I think we have a chance to be an elite team,” Rubio said. “And I think an elite team for us is going to be based on our ability to develop our players and players developing in the program as the weeks and the months go by. We have the talent. Now, whether or not the talent is going to be skilled enough and have enough aptitude to allow us to become an elite team, that’ll be the question. The good news is we have the players in the program that can become elite and be a top level team that can make the playoffs and go deep into the playoffs. So we’ll see. I mean, right now the good news is we got enough personnel to do it. The bad news is, you know, whether or not they can develop soon enough for us to do it will be the question mark.”
How to watch
Tune into the Big Sky channel on pluto.tv. Big Sky is channel 230 on Pluto. It can be viewed on a Roku device or by visiting http://pluto.tv/tv/big-sky-conference in any web browser.