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Catching up with Paige Whipple, Arizona volleyball’s star outside hitter and lone 4-year senior

COLLEGE VOLLEYBALL: OCT 25 Oregon State at Arizona Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Paige Whipple is the face of Arizona volleyball, somewhat by default. She is UA’s star outside hitter, yes, but also the only four-year senior on a revamped team that in 2020 will consist of 11 newcomers and just six returners.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Whipple arrived in 2017 as the highest-ranked recruit in a class that featured five other freshmen (and two transfers).

But three years later, only Whipple remains.

“I never really thought going into my senior year that I’d be the last original person from my class, but I’m just excited to take on and continue my leadership role,” she said in a phone interview. “And just with the new group coming in, I’m a person who has had a lot of experience in the program going into my fourth year, and so I’m just excited to be able to lead in that way and show the new girls how to adapt quickly to set them up for their future at Arizona.”

Whipple is a good player to build around. After serving in a complementary role in her first two seasons, she emerged as one of the most productive outside hitters in the Pac-12 as a junior, posting career highs in kills (457), kills per set (3.94) and hitting percentage (.197). She enters her senior year with the 16th-most kills in UA history.

I caught up with Whipple to discuss that, her goals moving forward, how she is handling this unique offseason, and her musical talent. Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Ryan Kelapire: What did you learn from your junior season? I know it was tough from a record standpoint (15-17) and your team had a lot of injuries, but you had a good year statistically and I remember you saying after one of your last matches that you felt freer out there.

Paige Whipple: “I think at the beginning of the season I put a lot of pressure on myself because I was stepping into a bigger role, and I put a lot of pressure on myself to perform well every single night. But as the season went on and injuries fell where they did and we kind of solidified that team of really eight girls who were able to play, I think we all kind of adapted the mindset that there’s no one else to step in for us, so there’s really no pressure in that moment. So, for me, the back half of the season was really exciting because I was thinking less about what I was doing, and I was able to just trust my training and go out and do it and contribute as much as I could.”

RK: In what areas do you think you improved the most?

PW: “I definitely think that I was able to score a lot more. I had more kills per set as the season went on, and definitely more than the previous year. And so I think I was just finally feeling comfortable with hitting all the shots and not just the ones that I felt comfortable with coming in. I was taking on the mindset that Dave (Rubio) wants us to have—that you score as soon as possible, as fast as possible. And just being aware of all the different places that I could score, whether that’s off the block or by using my off-speed game more.”

RK: What are you looking to improve on as a senior?

PW: “The one thing senior year that I want to really contribute is in the back row in serve receive. Regardless of what I’m hitting like or what my attack numbers are, I want my teammates to have that confidence in me that I’m gonna pass the ball in a position where we’re going to be able to score.”

RK: How do you plan to lead this year, knowing how many newcomers there are and you’re the only four-year senior on the roster?

PW: “I’m a big person that leads by example, so just like my work ethic in the gym and in the weight room, just showing them that you’re gonna get out of it what you put into it in terms of your effort. And then last year I kind of took on a bigger leadership role in terms of just being vocal, being a team captain. I’ve always been a lead by example type of person, but trying to kind of step into a more vocal role and just make sure that everyone’s kind of on the same page about our goals and where we want to be in the future.”

RK: How much have you been able to communicate with the newcomers?

PW: “I reached out to all the newcomers. I haven’t met all of them. Some of them have been at camps the last couple summers, so I’ve gotten to meet a few of them. Some of them just committed recently, so I reached out to all of them and just introduced myself, and then tried to stay in contact once in a while and just let them know that I’m available as a person who they can come to with questions or just to chat about stuff that they’re nervous about.”

RK: What kinds of things do they ask you about?

PW: “I think the biggest thing for a lot of them is just being unsure about what it’s going to be like once they’re actually in the gym with the coaches, and just trying to explain what our days look like, what our practices look like, what it’s like to communicate with the coaches and all the things that come with that. I’m just trying to use my own personal experience of the day-to-day stuff to give them an idea of what it’s gonna look like. But obviously it’s hard to really fully understand until you’re in the middle of it all.”

RK: Do you have an early outlook on the team, or are you like the rest of us, waiting to see what it looks like when you get back on campus?

PW: “A little bit of both. I kind of got a little sense of it this spring. Most of the people who were in the gym are people who are gonna play really big roles for us in the fall, and so that kind of gives a little bit of an idea just with the returners. But I’m just excited to see all the talent that the freshman class brings in because I know that a lot of them are very talented athletes. And so I’m just excited to see how they can add to the group that we already have established. And I don’t really know what it’s gonna look like, but I’m excited to get going.”

RK: How has your career gone compared to what you expected when you came in as a freshman?

PW: “Freshman year, I was really eager, really excited. Just going in I knew that I was gonna play right away, which I did, and I knew I was gonna have to contribute right away. And I kinda had a lot of expectations for myself, just in terms of Pac-12 honors or All-American honors. And that is obviously the ultimate goal of each individual player to be recognized as one of the top in your conference and one of the top in the country.

“And I think going into senior year not having gotten any of those honors, I think that’s just the ultimate goal is that I can prove myself as a volleyball player to be recognized one of the top players in the conference and maybe even one of the top in the country because I’ve worked so hard throughout my four years. I think it’d be really cool to just be recognized in that way.”

RK: What goals do you have for the team?

PW: “I mean, at this point my goal is to make the (NCAA) tournament just because two out of my three years we haven’t made the tournament. ... And I want to be able to leave a legacy as a team and as an individual, regardless of what the outcome is. I want to be remembered not just as the athlete and the things that I contributed to on the court, but also how I represent myself as a person.”

RK: What has this offseason been like for you? A lot different than usual because of the coronavirus?

PW: “We were able to have the first half of our spring season, starting in January and going into spring break in March. So that training time was really good just because we have several new girls and it was a small group for the spring. We were really able to do a lot of position training and just focus on individual players getting better. I was really looking forward to the second half because that’s kind of when we get to do more playing and playing in those tournaments.

“But obviously everything got canceled and I’ve been at home and I haven’t been able to play much volleyball. And I know a lot of other girls haven’t either, but our strength and conditioning coach has given us a lot of workouts to do that we can do from home, and so it’s kind of been every man for themselves right now. Just doing what we can to stay in shape and be as prepared as possible for when we do get to train with the coaches again.”

RK: What does that regimen look like for you?

PW: “Four days a week we have workouts on our app (Bridge) that are given to us by our strength coach. I don’t have access to a lot of gym stuff, so it’s been a lot of bodyweight stuff, a lot of conditioning stuff, just trying to do the things that I can with the limited equipment that I have.”

RK: What’s the timeline right now as far as returning to campus for workouts?

PW: “As of now they’re wanting to bring athletes back starting in June in like pretty small waves at a time, just to make sure that the procedures that they are planning are safe and that we can start to use the facilities again in a safe way. As of now they are asking us to report back before summer session two. The date for that is July 13. Once we get back, we’ll go through physicals and different stuff that we have to do to get cleared, and then they want to start working us back into the weight room.

“And then technically we can’t work with the coaches until the first day of the season. August 10 I believe is the date for that. But usually in the summer we have open gyms, so if that’s something that’s available to us, then I’ll kind of be the person who organizes that and makes sure that we have gym space and that we can do it in a safe way.”

RK: Your program has been showcasing some of its coaches’ and players’ hidden talents this offseason. Yours is that you like to play guitar and sing. How long have you been doing that and what do you enjoy about it?

PW: “Music has always been a huge part of who I am. I started singing basically when I could talk. And then when I was three years old, I started taking piano lessons. I started playing piano really before I even started reading. I took piano lessons for a long time and then I was always singing in school choir and church choir and singing anytime that I could open my mouth.

“And then I think when I was probably in seventh or eighth grade I got a guitar. I’ve never taken a lesson. I’ve kind of just learned on my own and watched YouTube videos and done different things to try to improve my skills. But music is a really good outlet for me. It’s a way that I can kind of mentally refocus. Anytime I’m stressed or anxious or upset, it seems that when I pick up my guitar or I sit down at the piano, and I start singing or playing whatever, everything kind of just goes away.”

RK: What do you hope to do after college? (Whipple is majoring in family studies and human development.)

PW: “I’m interested in being a marriage and family therapist. So I will go to grad school to get a degree in counseling. That’s one thing that I am thinking of doing. I’m also considering going into ministry with Fellowship of Christian Athletes. That’s a program that I’ve been involved with throughout college and I’ve talked to a couple staff members about the potential of career in that area. So just in the next year, I’ll just kind of be figuring out kind of where I want to go, where I want to end up.”

RK: So it sounds like you like to help people.

PW: “One of my biggest things in life is how can I help other people, how can I serve other people? That’s always been a part of who I am. And so just kind of how I translate that on the volleyball court is through my work ethic—just giving my teammates everything that I have, just that they would know that I’m going to show up every day and do what I can to get better and to make all of us better.”