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Experience, health are keys for Arizona volleyball in 2019

COLLEGE VOLLEYBALL: OCT 28 Oregon at Arizona Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Arizona volleyball only had three seniors last season, just two of which saw regular playing time. In 2019, Arizona coach Dave Rubio finally has the luxury of experience on his side.

It led to the Wildcats being projected to finish in the top half of the Pac-12 for the first time since 2016.

“I really like the group,” he said. “In general, I think they’re really good kids. They’re hard working, they want to do well. We have some experience and some good leadership. And so we have a good mixture of youth and experience. I think we have some talent, but we’ve got to develop.

“We’re top 25-level team. For us to be a top 10 team, top 15-level team, some things are going to have to take place throughout the season for that to happen. So, I think that right now, I’m pretty pleased where we’re at, but I know that development needs to continue throughout the season.”

Everywhere on the court, Arizona has players with both starting experience and talent. Senior setter Julia Patterson is probably the most important, but she’s not alone. Fellow seniors Devyn Cross, Emi Pua’a, Makenna Martin join two redshirt juniors (Shardonee Hayes and Liz Shelton), two returning juniors (Paige Whipple and Katie Smoot), and a junior college transfer (Mahina Pua’a).

Experience is only an advantage if the players are developing their skills from one year to the next, though. Rubio believes that development is evident in key players, especially Whipple.

It needs to be, because she has big shoes to fill as the team’s new lead outside hitter.

“So far Paige, in my mind, has been one of the most impressive players in practice,” Rubio said. “And what she’s doing now, on a regular basis, are the things I was always hoping she would do last year—and she was very good last year. I’m always surprised and amazed how much growth and development a player will have from one year to the next. And if you’re really a hard worker, and someone who just grinds every day, I shouldn’t be surprised that Paige is terrific. She’s going to be able to step in and you fill the role that Kendra Dahlke filled for Kalei Mau and Kalei Mau for Madi Kingdon, and so forth down the line.”

Development is especially crucial at Arizona, where Rubio admits they can’t get the top players. Finding the overlooked athlete who has something special is a requirement for the Wildcats. The class that arrived in the fall of 2016 is a prime example.

Cross had no offers in 2015. She said her graduating class at Desert High School on Edwards Air Force Base consisted of only 91 students. Two of them—Cross and Shelton—ended up in Tucson.

In Rubio’s eyes, they probably would not have ended up at Arizona if they started playing volleyball at a younger age. Other top programs would have lured them away.

Cross’ high school coach, a long-time friend of Rubio, believed she was capable of Pac-12 level play. After he reached out to Rubio, the Arizona coach went to see her play. He liked what he saw, and offered her a scholarship. For Cross, that was it. She had made up her mind to become a Wildcat even before she made her unofficial visit.

Cross has more than lived up to the belief her high school coach had in her, turning into an AVCA All-American Honorable Mention by her junior year. Now, she wants more for both herself and her team.

“I do want to be an All American. That would be great,” she said. “Honorable mention is cool, but an actual All-American. And just have a good time with my team. It’s my last season, and I want to go out with a bang, make it as far in the tournament as possible, maybe breaking a couple more records, leave an impression here.

“I think we have a lot more potential (this year),” Cross added. “There’s a lot more experience on our team. We’re all older now. We only have three new kids that came in. And I think for us, we’re more confident going into the game now. So we know what to expect you’ll have two years under your belt. And we were just ready to play.”

As for Shelton, she’s also key to the Wildcats’ success this season. In her case, it’s not just about development; it’s also about her health. he missed the entire Pac-12 season last year after suffering a concussion in practice. She was one of six players who ended up in concussion protocol at some point in 2018.

“Nice to have Liz back,” Rubio said. “She, without question, is the most physical player that we have. And she’s still behind from a volleyball aptitude standpoint, but she more than makes up for it by how physical she is. She too is world class.”

The concussions weren’t the only setbacks last season. The Wildcats also dealt with a leg injury to Dahlke. Having some luck with their health this year will be vital if Arizona is going to finish in the top half of the conference.

“The thing in today’s game is that you just never know,” Rubio said. “I mean, today we may have three concussions. Just kind of the way it goes for all the sports now the way the protocols are.”

There’s a feeling around the team that they are capable of doing great things if everything goes right. They finished fifth in the league last year after being projected as a ninth-place team. They also ended the year tied at No. 25 in the AVCA poll.

This year, the national coaches have them at No. 24 in the preseason poll. The Pac-12 coaches have them just a few points behind Utah at No. 6 in the conference. Rubio believes that they have the ability to be a top-10 or top-15 team if they fix a few things.

“Probably the biggest thing is our outside hitters need to become more terminal,” he said. “We need to really have a little more pop out there, and we’re working on that every day. That’s not a quick fix for us.”

On the positive side, “our setting’s terrific and our littles—our (defensive specialists) and liberos—are terrific,” Rubio continued. “Our middles are really good. Our outside hitters are very good, but they need to become more physical and they need to score more.”

The players are shooting for a higher finish than last year. Patterson said that her goal is to finish in the top three of the Pac-12. The team’s trip to Europe over the summer gave them confidence in their chances to do that.

“The competition was terrific,” Rubio said. “If you are going to compare it to the States, teams that (would be) in the top 15, top 10.”

That experience will help them when they face off against a schedule that features a tougher non-conference slate than they saw in 2018. Long before they compete against the defending national champions from Stanford, the Wildcats will see the 2017 champion Nebraska Cornhuskers. Cross is looking forward to that challenge.

“All games matter, but I think it’s more exciting” to play against the highly-ranked teams, Cross said, especially knowing what the Wildcats did in Europe

“We were actually able to help hold ourselves up to those other teams and in some cases actually beat the Italian U20 team, I think it was,” she said. “They said something like that team in particular beat Stanford and Wisconsin, and we were able to beat them in five. It kind of gave us a boost of confidence. Like, ‘Okay, like we can hold our own against these teams.’ It’s all just a mental toughness game.”

Beyond the tactical work, the developmental potential, and the boost in confidence, Rubio is most pleased with the character of his team. He started and ended the conversation at Wednesday’s media availability with praise for his players as people.

“The thing is, here I am, I just turned 60 and am heading toward retirement eventually,” he said. “And I just want to be surrounded by kids who want to work hard and and want to be here and are really loyal to the school and loyal to the program and have some gratitude. We can teach them how to play volleyball and we can teach them how to win and all those things. But you know, every day, every year that I’m here now, I just want to be around kids, around people that I really like—and I really like this group.”