Since the season ended with a heartbreaking five-set loss to Arizona State back in November, the Arizona Wildcats have seen their 2020 volleyball roster dramatically remade. Transfers out of the program and honors for their incoming freshmen point to a team that will be extremely talented in 2020, but also extremely young.
“A lot of changes,” Arizona head coach Dave Rubio said, “but I think they were good changes.”
Transfers out, transfers in
Rumors began swirling in December that four Wildcats were in the transfer portal. At the time, there was an indication that one of them was redshirt freshman defensive specialist/libero Erin Williamson and there was an official announcement that sophomore outside hitter Whittnee Nihipali had signed with Dixie State University. The other two were unknown.
Official announcements have since been made that setter Mahina Pua’a and outside hitter Katie Smoot have signed with Creighton and California, respectively. While no official announcement has been made, Williamson has changed her Twitter bio to “Missouri volleyball,” indicating that the Georgia native is headed back to SEC land.
“You want the players to be happy whether that’s here or at another school,” Rubio said.
Of the four transfers, the biggest hit is Smoot. After a much-expanded roll in 2019, she was set to be an important senior on the 2020 team. That leaves Arizona short on upperclassmen. With the transfers of Smoot and Pua’a, that leaves Paige Whipple as the sole senior on the roster in 2020.
“It was important for us that Paige stayed,” Rubio said, adding that her leadership was already showing early in spring practice.
As for Smoot, she is from the Bay Area and her sister attends Cal. She has also had a bit of a bumpy time at Arizona. While she has played regularly and had some impressive matches, her coach has not been shy about criticizing her resilience in tough situations in the past.
After the team’s adversity in 2019, that criticism seemed to have fallen by the wayside and she appeared poised for a solid senior season as the second option after Whipple. Smoot had upped her kills per set to 2.87 and was one of the better servers on the team. Over the final 13 matches of the year, she had 10 with double digit kills.
Smoot will be the only transfer who has to sit out next season because she is moving within the conference. Her increased role at Arizona and having to wait a year to play make the transfer a bit more surprising.
Nihipali missed most of the 2019 season with a concussion. She arrived at Arizona as the 2017 Nevada Gatorade Player of the Year and the program’s top recruit in 2018, but she had some difficulty adapting to the level of play in the Pac-12.
Nihipali averaged 1.24 kills per set over her two years at Arizona, but had a huge jump from 0.59 to 1.78 k/s between her freshman and sophomore seasons. A bigger concern was that her highest hitting percentage was .137 in 2019.
Before 2018 competition tipped off, Rubio suggested that Nihipali might redshirt. That thought was quickly put to rest when she appeared against Sacramento State the first weekend of the season. Perhaps the redshirt year would have helped her, but she ultimately decided to go down a level in competition. Dixie State will be entering its first year playing at the Division I level next year.
Pua’a was a junior college transfer who came to Arizona last year to join her sister, Emi. As a back-up setter behind Julia Patterson, she played very little. When she did get into matches, it was primarily as a defensive or serve specialist, playing only part of one set against ASU at the setter position.
Like Nihipali, Williamson was out for a large chunk of the 2019 season. In her case, it was mononucleosis that proved to be her nemesis. With a freshman libero who Rubio is very high on ahead of her, Williamson was most likely to get into matches as a serve specialist or if someone got injured.
Rubio has said that he has only ever given one DS/L a four-year scholarship. That player is freshman Kamaile Hiapo.
“They’ve always been on short money,” Rubio said during the 2019 season.
As a redshirt freshman, that implies that Williamson had been paying her own way while in Tucson. With both Hiapo and Malina Kalei Ua ahead of her on the depth chart, that meant paying her way while playing very little and being a long way from home.
The transfer news isn’t all about those leaving, though. The Wildcats will reportedly be adding three transfers of their own. All three are either already on campus or will be within the next few weeks enabling them to take part in spring practice.
While the University is not able to publicly announce the transfers yet, other sources indicate that one of them is former Rutgers middle blocker Merle Weidt. College VBall Transfers lists her as no longer on the roster of her former school and her name currently appears in Arizona’s online directory for faculty, students, and staff.
Weidt will be a junior next season giving her two years to play. She played in 26 of the Scarlet Knights’ 31 matches last season and 27 of 33 her freshman year. As a sophomore, she averaged 1.59 kills and 1.06 blocks per set. Her blocks per set placed her 15th in the very tough Big Ten.
Prior to playing for Rutgers, the native of Offenburg, Germany played for her country’s U18 team at the World Championships in 2015. She has played a total of 70 matches for the German Youth National Team.
The talented youth
In November, the Wildcats signed one of their most talented classes ever headlined by Arizona Gatorade Player of the Year Jaelyn Hodge of Basha High. Of the five signees who are from the U.S., all are rated in or just outside the top 100 recruits. That is something not often seen at Arizona.
“We should have a top-10 recruiting class,” Rubio said.
In mid-November, the Wildcats also added an international player from Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico. Sofia Maldonado joins the 2020 class, giving Arizona six incoming freshmen.
Maldonado competed for Mexico’s U18 and U20 teams in the respective World Championships this past summer. While she has played middle blocker for Mexico, Rubio says she can play either the right or the left side.
In addition to the incoming freshmen, the Wildcats will finally get to see last year’s top offensive recruit, Simone Overbeck, on the court. Overbeck sat out all last season after coming to Arizona as the No. 74 recruit according to PrepVolleyball
Overbeck initially came to Tucson recovering from an ACL tear she suffered in a basketball game. She soon complained about dislocation in her shoulder, as well. That led to shoulder surgery.
Rubio praised her diligence during the recovery process.
“We expect Simone to be 100 percent by August,” he said.
Getting a jump start
In addition to the transfers who are expected within the next few weeks, freshman setter Emery Herman has also found her way to Tucson early. The player expected to take the place of Patterson graduated from high school in December and is already on campus. Rubio is hopeful that it will make the transition from his reliable senior to his talented freshman much smoother.
Having the new setter on campus is a monumental gift to a team that will be introducing nine new players next season along with several non-scholarship additions. Last year, Rubio introduced a new offensive system at Arizona, but the injuries piled up and kept them from running it the way he would have liked. With the “quarterback” of the team here early, she will be several steps ahead when summer practice rolls around.
When the season finally gets here, fans of Arizona volleyball will recognize very few of those on the court. What they will recognize is hope for the future. The head coach shares that feeling.
“As coaches we’ve always got one foot in the future,” Rubio said.