It’s been an eventful week for Arizona volleyball coach Dave Rubio. The Wildcats signed their 2021 class last week, he got to see how the other half lives as his daughter Olivia signed to play for Arizona beach volleyball, and the team is welcoming back a player from quarantine as they prepare for their first scrimmage of the season.
Here’s a rundown of it all.
The 2021 class provides quality over quantity
Rubio reckoned that he needed two strong classes in a row to compete in the upper echelon of the Pac-12. After signing the No. 7 class in 2020, the 2021 class provides some key pieces that he hopes will help the team take that step. He is also looking towards the more distant future, bringing in some players who will be adapting over their careers as Wildcats.
Compared to the influx of new faces this season, it seems like a small class. The Wildcats bring in a group of six. Given the large group of newcomers last season (and the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA), the team didn’t need a huge class this season.
They needed quality.
Ava Francis of Plain City, Ohio brings it. The outside hitter played at Jonathan Alder High School where her home court has a strangely familiar “A” painted on it. Her club career was with Elite Volleyball Training Center. Now, she heads West to the desert.
Francis is the top recruit in Arizona’s signing class, coming in at No. 74 according to Prep Volleyball. The AVCA All-America honorable mention performer was a two-time conference player of the year in the Central Buckeye Conference and made her way to the All-Ohio first team twice.
“Ava Francis is a young lady that we identified when she was a rising sophomore,” Rubio said. “And, again, you know, we’ve always felt it’s been hard for us to recruit those players that are good enough to play here. They tend to want to stay closer to home. And so we’re excited about Ava as a potential six-rotation player. She had a great high school season. She finished her senior year, kind of carried her team to the Final Four in the state of Ohio, which is a big deal.”
As a senior, Francis was good for 5.3 kills per set on a .358 hitting percentage. For her career, she averaged 4.0 kills per set and hit .416.
Rubio and his staff signed two strong middle blockers in 2020 with China Rai Crouch and Lauren Ware, but the position still needed shoring up. The first step to doing that was getting South Torrance High School’s Jennifer Wrobicky. The 6-foot-7 middle from Harbor City, Calif. played club ball with the travel team that Rubio believes is one of the strongest in the country, Mizuno Long Beach Volleyball Club.
“She’s really a terrific, highly functional player in the middle,” Rubio said. “So it gives us some depth. Right now we’re thin in the middle, especially with Lauren Ware playing basketball.”
They went back to the Midwest to grab another middle out of Ohio. Alayna Johnson plays club ball alongside Francis at the Elite Volleyball Training Center.
“There’s a lot of really high-level competition in the state of Ohio,” Rubio said. “Volleyball is very much like football. It’s kind of a big deal over there.”
While her teammate is well-known, Johnson is an under-the-radar player who is relatively new to the high-level travel circuit, but Rubio loves her athleticism and potential. She’s not the first player Arizona has brought in like that.
“You know who was like that was Devyn Cross and Liz Shelton,” Rubio said. “Both those guys came in with a little bit of club experience and a ton of potential. So, you know, the hope is that Alayna in a year or two will be able to come in and really play a lot.”
Considering that Cross became one of the best middle blockers in Arizona history and an honorable mention All-American, it’s not the worst comparison a young player could have.
Ava Tortorello comes in as Prep Volleyball’s No. 115 recruit. Like her fellow Ava in the class, she was an AVCA All-America honorable mention. She also made the AVCA Phenom list in both 2018 and 2020.
The setter and defensive specialist attended the Latin School of Chicago and played club for Adversity VBC. Although fall sports have been a contentious issue in her home state this year due to the pandemic, Tortorello averaged 9.1 assists and 1.9 digs per set over her first three seasons.
Tortorello comes from a strong volleyball background. Her mother, Liz Tortorello-Nelson, was a setter for Wisconsin in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. After starring for the Badgers, she has continued in volleyball as a coach at the college and prep level, as well as doing commentary for the Big Ten Network. Ava’s aunt, Sam Tortorello, also played Big Ten volleyball at perennial power Penn State, winning Big Ten Freshman of the Year in the early 2000s.
The younger Tortorello is a setter like her mom and aunt, but she has strong defensive skills, too. That is setting her up for a flexible career over her four years at Arizona.
“The idea is that she’ll come in and she’ll handle the backup duties (at setter) behind Emery (Herman) and then transition into becoming a libero/DS once Kamaile (Hiapo) leaves,” Rubio said.
While Rubio can’t discuss details of the 2022 class, there’s already a setter committed for that class, Ana Heath out of Wylie, Tex. The Texas product is ranked the No. 3 prospect in the state by Prep Dig. He also got Herman from the state of Texas.
Valley resident Haven Wray hails from Peoria, Ariz. where she won Defensive Player of the Year at the district, region and conference levels. She played for Sunrise Mountain High and Livewire Volleyball Club, and will be coming to Arizona as a defensive specialist.
Rubio said that he first saw Wray when she was 12 years old. He was watching his daughter Olivia play, and was impressed by Wray’s athleticism. She first came to camp at Arizona shortly after that.
“It’s kind of nice that it worked out where someone who we identified really, really early as a 12-year-old turned out to be good enough to play for us,” he said. “So we’re happy about her.”
Madison Ellman comes to Tucson from Chanhassen High in Victoria, Minn. where she was all-conference three times. She played travel with M1 Juniors and was named to the “Defensive Dandies” list by Prep Volleyball.
She also has Wildcat ties.
Ellman was recommended by one of her coaches, former Arizona libero Laura Larson who played in a school-record 136 matches between 2013 and 2016.
Ellman was one of four recruits in the class that Arizona plucked out of Big Ten territory, something that hasn’t been very common in recent years.
“We’ve always been attracted to the players in the Midwest or on the East Coast,” Rubio said. “It’s been hard for us to recruit those players, but this year, for whatever reason, we’ve been able to lock down some players.”
Scrimmage is next step in return from COVID-19
The Wildcats will be holding a Red-Blue scrimmage on Thursday, Nov. 19. After a long off-season spent working on fundamentals, Rubio is happy to be at full strength and able to let his players face off against each other.
For the last two weeks, Hiapo has been in quarantine, but she should be back in time for the scrimmage.
Rubio proud of daughter
Rubio’s daughter Olivia signed to play for Arizona beach volleyball head coach Steve Walker last week. Her father’s pride wasn’t as focused on her athletic achievements as her academics and approach to life. Her academic opportunities were the first thing he mentioned when asked what is was like for the family.
“She’s an exceptional academic, so she had the opportunity to go to some pretty prestigious and elite academic institutions, but she got lured into the volleyball world at an early age,” Rubio said. “And I think the opportunity to play at a big university, like University of Arizona, play for Steve, who she knows well, was exciting for her. And she was in a position where she just couldn’t turn that down.”