Arizona volleyball spent the offseason installing a new offensive system and bonding during a trip to Europe.
Friday morning, they will finally see how it pays off on the court when they open the 2019 season with the annual Cactus Classic.
“We know that the offense is going to be a work in progress, so it’s going to probably look a little bit out of sync at times,” said head coach Dave Rubio. “But my hope is that we’re running the system more often than we’re not. We’ve really been working hard on the serving and the particular zones.”
Rubio did not divulge many details about the new system, other than that it will allow the Wildcats to “set the middle a little bit more” and better maximize their personnel.
“I would probably feel [better] if we hadn’t changed the system,” he said. “I think it’s the right thing to do, but I think right now if we would have kept the system I would probably feel more comfortable. But in the long run, this system is going to be way better for us, and that’s what I hold on to.”
The Wildcats’ first match is at 10 a.m. against Appalachian State. At 7 p.m. they will return to the court to face Loyola Marymount. Things will wrap up Saturday with a noon match against Samford.
Not only are they quality teams, but it is the first time the Wildcats will play someone other than themselves. They did not have any exhibitions this year.
“We have some really good teams coming in,” Rubio said. “App State won 23 or 24 matches last year (and) returned just about everybody except for their setter. Loyola was a tournament team, and they lost two players—and the two players that replace them may be just as good as the players that they just lost. And Samford is terrific, as well. The coach there was the head coach at Northwestern for several years, so they’re going to be well coached. It is going to be a good tournament for us. Not going to be easy for us. We are highly competitive.”
What do the Wildcats expect to see across the net? Let’s take a look at their opponents.
2018 record: 22-9, 13-3 Sun Belt Conference
2018 RPI: 88
2018 postseason: 1st round, National Invitational Volleyball Championship
Unlike Arizona, Appalachian State is light on seniors this season. The Mountaineers have just two seniors on the roster, outside hitter Emma Longley and defensive specialist/libero Sydney Farthing.
Longley led the squad in both kills (3.72) and points (4.02) per set in 2018 on her way to being named First Team All-Sun Belt. Farthing’s 23 service aces were good for third on the team.
As Rubio mentioned, the Mountaineers lost their floor general to graduation, though. Setter Becky Porter, who ended the season ranked second in the Sun Belt with 10.83 assists per set, is now gone.
Appalachian State will have to go young at the position this season. The only setters on the roster are redshirt freshman Sammy Luscher and true freshman Sam Bickley. The youngsters will need to learn quickly, but the experience of Longley should help them navigate the difficulties easier.
The Mountaineers won their exhibition match against East Tennessee State in five sets.
Fun fact: UA assistant Greg Whitis coached for a year at Appalachian State before joining the Wildcats’ staff in 2013.
2018 record: 21-10, 10-8 West Coast Conference
2018 RPI: 57
2018 postseason: 2nd round, NCAA Tournament
Last season, the Wildcats played a watered down non-conference schedule. This season, the challenges will begin right out of the gate. The Lions will be the first of 13 teams that played in last year’s NCAA Tournament to pop up on Arizona’s schedule. Six of those matches will be in the non-conference portion of the schedule including both LMU and Samford.
The Lions have already held two exhibition matches. They won their first against Long Beach State. The second was an alumni match.
LMU had a great deal of success last season despite being relatively young. Sara Kovac was the only senior on the roster in 2018. Unfortunately for the Lions, she was a pretty important part of their success. Kovac led the Lions with 4.04 kills and 4.45 points per set.
In their favor, their next three top offensive threats were all juniors and have returned in 2019. Savannah Slattery, Bo Culo and Emma Johnson finished second, third and fourth in kills per set for the Lions.
Setter Tess Reid also returns for her senior season. In 2018, Reid was good for 12.00 assists per set. That was the third-best mark in Division I last season, trailing only Ivonne Martinez of Florida Atlantic and Jenna Gray of Stanford.
With the threats that LMU has returning and Arizona trying to get its new offense going, this could be a dangerous match for the Wildcats.
The Lions and Wildcats get underway at 7 p.m. MST on Friday.
2018 record: 19-15, 11-5 Southern Conference
2018 RPI: 120
2018 postseason: 1st round, NCAA Tournament
Samford placed second in the Southern Conference regular season last season. They got themselves to the NCAA Tournament by taking down the No. 1 seeded Eastern Tennessee State in the SoCon Conference, though.
The Bulldogs lost four seniors from last year’s team including Krista Boesing. Boesing led the team with 3.64 kills per set.
They also lost setter Taylor Anderton who averaged 11.12 assists per set. Anderton had a high of 61 assists when Samford faced ETSU during the regular season. The Bulldogs won that match in five sets.
Redshirt sophomore Corinne Meglic will have to step in for Anderton, although the team also has freshman Charlotte Dean at the position. Meglic played in 28 sets her freshman season. Last year, though, she appeared in just two sets during the first match of the season.
On the positive side, Samford returns 2018 SoCon Freshman of the Year Lauren Deaton, 2018 All-SoCon First Team opposite Kelsi Hobbs, and sophomore middle blocker Brianna Holmes. Holmes led the team with 0.84 blocks per set as a freshman in 2018.
The Bulldogs have four seniors on the roster. The top returning threat is Hobbs, who averaged 3.09 kills per set as a junior last season and was on the SoCon All-Freshman team in 2016.