Arizona volleyball has a produced a long line of dominant outside hitters, and junior Paige Whipple is ready to carry the torch.
“I’m excited to take on this role,” she said Thursday, a day before the 2019 opener. “Coming into the program, when they were recruiting me as a sophomore in high school, they were like, ‘OK, we’ve had Madi Kingdon, we now have Kalei (Mau), we have Kendra (Dahlke). And so they have always seen me as being the person who’s going to step into that role before I even got into the program.”
But it’s not like Whipple hasn’t earned it, either. The Salem, Oregon native spent the last two seasons starting opposite of Dahlke, who graduated after last season and now plays professionally.
Despite dealing with injuries, Whipple finished second on the team in kills in both seasons, posting a hitting percentage of .173. The ball does not quite explode off her hand the way it does for Mau and Dahlke—not many can match their physicality—but Whipple makes up for it by excelling in the other facets of the game and by using her high volleyball IQ.
“I think the best compliment I can give for her is that she’s skilled in all the skills required, and that’s a basketful,” said head coach Dave Rubio.
Added assistant Gregg Whitis, Whipple’s lead recruiter: “Her floor game, her ability to defend and middle block and her ability to serve...all of those things contribute to the player that she’s become. Last year, she scored over three kills a set, and so that’s a legitimate number. We need for that to be better this year and I think it will be.”
Rubio said Whipple, a former top-30 recruit, has been one of the most impressive players in practice to this point.
It helps that she is in better shape. At this time last year, Whipple was still working her way back from an umbilical hernia that prevented her from lifting weights, doing conditioning drills and participating in volleyball activities for much of the offseason.
“The first couple weeks of the season I was really just trying to work back into the feel of volleyball,” she said.
This year? The total opposite. Whipple is healthy, more confident, and even got a head start thanks to Arizona’s summer tour in Europe, where the Wildcats went head-to-head with several national teams.
“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,” Rubio said. “I’m always surprised and amazed at 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.”
Not only is Whipple Arizona’s top offensive threat now, she is a team captain and an emotional leader—what she views as an essential function of being an older player.
Rubio said Whipple never gets too high or too low, an “unflappable” demeanor that will help her teammates keep calm in big moments.
“I think that if you just watch her reaction as she makes a mistake, she never gets dramatic with her movements,” Rubio said. “She always ‘that’s me,’ then she’s right back focused on what’s next. ... That to me is someone who’s really confident in their skills. ... And those are the kinds of kids that will carry you.”
Whipple says that levelheadedness stems from her Christian faith.
“In the last two years or so I really developed a different mindset in terms of yes volleyball is important, and what I’m doing on the court is important, but my success and failure doesn’t define me as a person,” she said.
“I struggled last preseason, mentally and emotionally, and so coming in last spring and this year, I’m just really focused on getting myself in the right mindset, in the right place in order to be here fully present, and just be involved in what’s going on and not stress about outside factors.”
That approach should prove useful, seeing that the Wildcats hope to finish in the top third of the Pac-12, and will be leaning heavily on Whipple to lead them there. Right now they have depth at every position except outside hitter.
“I mean, the position that she plays is without question the most difficult and the most arduous and carries the most weight even more so than the setter,” Rubio said. “Now, you can’t do it without the setter, but the outside hitter, you’re not winning matches without a good one. That’s why we were so good last year. Kendra carried the weight. She could score for us like crazy.”
Whipple is confident she can, too.
“I’ve done my two years...and it’s my time to step into that role and I’ve kind of been in the mentality that it’s going to be me one day,” she said. “Now it’s here, so I’m excited.”