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Catching up with Coach Rubio: On Arizona volleyball handling coronavirus crisis, late signees, hidden talents, and more

COLLEGE VOLLEYBALL: SEP 23 Washington State at Arizona Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

No time is good for a pandemic, but the timing of the COVID-19 shut down had a fairly large impact on preparations for volleyball around the country. Things were no different for Arizona volleyball.

Those preparations for the 2020 season continue, but constraints and unknowns are ever-present. Arizona head coach Dave Rubio discussed that and more with me during a phone interview this week.

COVID-19 disrupts carefully laid plans

The 2020 volleyball season was going to be dramatically different for Arizona volleyball. When the graduations and transfers were complete, the roster was going to be drastically remade. It was also going to be very, very young.

The impact of that youth would be felt at the most important position on the floor—setter. After four years of Julia Patterson, Arizona was going to have to find her replacement.

Not only was the incoming setter Emery Herman a Prep Volleyball top-100 recruit, she was able to get on campus early. Along with two of the three transfers, she was all set to take part in spring practice.

Then came COVID-19.

Arizona got just three full days of spring practice before spring break. The players went home and never returned.

“I think everyone relies on spring training differently,” Rubio said. “For us it’s really a progression and a building block that is critical in terms of our fall season. We’re transitioning from Julia Patterson to a new setter, and we brought Emery Herman in a semester early from high school to help her with that transition. The good news is that she was in from the middle of January all the way up until March. So we got some time with her, but the bulk of her training was going to be during the time that we could play spring tournaments and didn’t get a chance to do that.”

Spring signees

In the fall, Rubio signed a class that included four members of Prep Volleyball’s top 100 recruits and another member of that publication’s Senior Aces “The 150.” The sixth recruit, Sofia Maldonado out of Mexico, received high praise from Volleyball Mag. That publication stated that if she played for a U.S. club, she would probably be the No. 1 recruit in the country.

But the class wasn’t complete. Two big transfers arrived earlier in the spring and were on hand for the few days of spring preparations the Wildcats got prior to Spring Break.

But the setter position was still a concern. After Patterson’s graduation and the transfer of Mahina Pua’a, there were no backup setters on the roster. A single setter—and a freshman at that—wasn’t going to do.

Fortunately, it didn’t have to. As she had announced on Instagram back in December, Belmont grad transfer Akia Warrior is on her way to Tucson. It’s a place her family knows well.

Warrior’s dad Steven was a close friend of Sean Elliott and his brothers. The group attended Cholla High School on Tucson’s west side where Steven also played basketball back in the 1980s. Out of high school, he would leave for the Air Force Academy and become a pilot.

But it was Warrior’s mother who gave her a love for volleyball. Val Novak, as she was known at the time, played for Nebraska from 1987-1990. Novak earned All-American honors, won four Big 8 titles and battled for national titles. She played both outside hitter and setter over her four-year career, then returned to the Cornhuskers as an assistant coach for two seasons beginning in 1993.

“(Warrior) tore her ACL going into her the primary recruiting season,” Rubio said. “She’s very athletic. A four-year starter at Belmont. So the opportunity for her to come in and kind of give us some depth in that position is critical. I think it’s great that Emery’s an incoming freshman, has a lot to learn, and then she has someone to (learn from). As graduate senior (Warrior’s) supposed to provide some real stability, leadership, so I think it’s a really good situation for both of them.”

The spring signees also included three defensive specialists. Joy Galles out of Tahoe Truckee High School in Truckee, Calif., Jaleesa Caroccio out of Liberty High School in Bakersfield, and N’Jiaye Bonwell out of San Dimas (Calif.) High School.

“We like having players in that position we feel are going to develop the skill and the consistency to be able to contribute—maybe not right away, but with time we feel like they’re going to play a big role for us,” Rubio said. right. “I like the personalities and the work ethic, the commitment to being as good as you can be. That position’s kind of an unsung hero’s position and those kids have the right intangibles.”

The three freshmen littles will join sophomore Kamaile Hiapo and junior Malina Kalei Ua in the back row. They will round out a team made up of 11 freshmen (including two redshirt freshmen), two sophomores, three juniors and two seniors. Only one of those seniors will be a four-year member of the Wildcats, who are coming off a 15-17 season.

Timeliness, budget lines and an open position

However it works out, Rubio believes that volleyball will follow the timeline football opts to take, but the bigger concern is budget—and he thinks those budget concerns will last for a few years.

In four weeks of non-conference play, Arizona usually has four tournaments. They host two weeks and they travel two weeks. In the past, those have generally been regional, but they occasionally take the team out of the Southwest.

“I think we’re gonna see a lot of regionalization by all the sports,” Rubio said. “You know, flying across country to play in a tournament may just stop.”

The Wildcats have gone to New Mexico State, San Diego, Sacramento and Kansas the last two seasons. A non-conference trip to the Midwest or even Northern California may not be in the budget in coming years.

“I have a budget meeting next week to find out exactly what I need to do in terms of saving money,” Rubio said. “We already know what the university has come down in terms of the salary reductions and the furloughs. So we all know that we’re going to need to make a sacrifice. And another thing that we don’t know is how deep we’re gonna have to make it.”

After speaking to Rubio, it was announced that long-time assistant Gregg Whitis was stepping down due to “health and personal reasons.” Whitis had been on staff for eight seasons. How the furloughs, salary reductions and hiring freezes affect open coaching positions remains to be seen.

So, how do you train?

Twelve of the 18 players on the 2020 roster will be playing their first seasons as Wildcats. With so many newcomers, it’s going to be a challenge to prepare for the season, and the virus isn’t helping matters.

The long-distance communication and confinement doesn’t allow for much useful training in their sport.

“I try to text with the players every day,” Rubio said. “I send them a text and then we have a Zoom call once a week. On that particular zoom call we’ll have our strength and conditioning person and our trainer and our academic person and maybe someone from the administration will join us and so, we’ll just talk and we have a few activities that we do that (assistant coach) Rita (Stubbs) will primarily be in charge of. Try to stay connected that way. There’s not much volleyball that we can do. I mean, the volleyball that we could do, there’s not a really a lot of crossover, a lot of value to that that would help them get better.”

When the team returns to campus, it usually has about two weeks to practice before matches start. This year, practice was set to start on Aug. 10 with the first match on Aug. 28. Rubio had plans to talk with his players to see how they felt about coming back. Would two weeks be sufficient after a month or two of confinement?

Rubio does think there’s a bright side, though. Both he and his players get to see each other in a different situation, including interacting with their families.

“Strangely enough, I think that my ability to kind of connect with the players and be a little more personal with them is better now than it would have been had they been on campus,” he said. “That part, I think, has been one of the benefits of COVID-19. And I think having an opportunity to kind of get more personal with them has been good for me.”

Hidden talents

The virus has given both Rubio and his players the opportunity to share some of their hidden talents, too.

Senior outside hitter Paige Whipple has done videos playing her guitar and singing that are posted on social media.

Rubio and his mom put on a ballroom dancing display a few weeks ago. His path into the art shows just how much college sports have changed.

“I took ballroom dance, several classes, when I was at Cal State Northridge,” he said. “The volleyball coach was a full-time teacher at Northridge in ballroom. So, of course, I took as many ballroom classes as I could. When I got hired at Cal State Bakersfield, part of my salary was also tied into teaching, and so I ended up teaching a couple different classes and one of them was ballroom dancing.”

Things may be changing in college sports. Anyone up for teaching classes again?