Arizona volleyball needed more firepower at the pin and added plenty when it landed Tulsa transfer Dilara Gedikoglu, the reigning American Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year.
The Turk was No. 3 in the AAC in kills (488) and kills per set (4.10) last season, displaying great power in her first year in the United States. Coming from Galatasaray, one of the top clubs in Turkey, made the transition to college easy for her.
The volleyball part came naturally, but the language barrier and frigid Oklahoma winters tested her resolve at times. As did the local cuisine.
“I don’t like American food because it’s a lot of like fatty stuff and junk food, and in Turkey it’s more about fresh foods,” said Gedikoglu, whose English is better than serviceable. “I think that’s one of the things I really missed because when I first came here I gained a lot (of weight), which is not good.”
Gedikoglu is glad she started her career at Tulsa, but one season was enough to know that she needed a change of scenery. Arizona and the Pac-12 were an obvious destination.
“I wanted to play at a higher level and in a good conference,” she said. “I think I made a good choice.”
Gedikoglu has plenty of goals as a Wildcat, some of which she prefers to keep private. One of them is making the NCAA Tournament and competing for a national championship. She remembers watching the tourney in awe last year, determined to experience the electric atmosphere one day.
The Wildcats missed the postseason in 2019, but Gedikoglu feels good about their chances this season. For one thing, she and senior Paige Whipple could be a dangerous duo.
Whipple was fifth in the Pac-12 in kills last season, putting up huge numbers at the end of the year. The Wildcats just didn’t always have enough arms to back her up—certainly not ones with Gedikoglu’s pedigree.
Gedikoglu also used to be a star beach volleyball player, once winning the 2017 Balkan Beach Championship with the Turkish national team.
Her hometown of Alanya—a mountainous coastal city with a warm climate—is a hub for the sport, which she took up in middle school because she was the tallest girl in her class.
“Actually, all of our outside hitters are really good, but Paige has a lot of experience,” Gedikoglu said, doing her best to quell the hype. “She knows how to play and how to manage the game. ... We are all learning from Paige and I think we will be a really competitive team.”
Gedikoglu’s ultimate goal is to go pro. That’s why she is in the U.S. in the first place. College sports aren’t big in Turkey, so athletes usually give up their sport after high school or test the professional waters at age 18.
Gedikoglu didn’t think she was ready to make that jump, so going to college in the States was the best option. It gives her more time to hone her skills and continue her education. She hopes to be a dietician if the whole pro volleyball thing doesn’t work out, but she is determined it will.
“To be able to play at that level, I need to first improve myself and get experience,” she said.
Arizona head coach Dave Rubio says that pro-driven mentality is often what separates international players from American-born ones.
And what makes the UA an especially fitting destination for Gedikoglu is that it has a long history of producing elite outside hitters, such as U.S. national teamer Madi Kingdon who, interestingly enough, plays professionally in Turkey.
Rubio definitely noted that when recruiting Gedikoglu.
“She follows Madi Kingdon, so that allows her to have a little more faith in the things that I’m teaching and her being more receptive to the things I’m teaching,” he said.
While Gedikoglu’s freshman season was a roaring success, the Pac-12 will be a different beast. Its players are bigger, quicker, and more skilled. Its teams are deeper than any she faced in the AAC. There are no nights off.
That means Gedikoglu, who is 5-foot-10 and not the highest jumper, will have to learn more nuances of the game to make up for her lack of elite physical tools. She said her teammates have been amazed by her power—“she hits as hard as anybody in the gym,” Rubio agreed—but that will only take her so far.
Rubio is challenging her to “work the block, have great range, good vision and make good decisions.” She will also have to be crafty and master different shots.
“Her best shot is cross court, that’s where she feels most comfortable,” Rubio said. “But if I’m scouting you—and I tell her this—and I’m going to take away your best shot, explain to me how you’re going to score otherwise. And she doesn’t really have an answer for that. ... That means that I have to teach you how to hit line and high line and when to hit it.
“And the outside hitting position, she’s got to be a great server, a great passer, a great defender, a great scorer. I mean, there’s just a long list of skills that she needs to be very good at. And that’s why it’s so hard to grab a player and recruit a player that walks in the door that’s highly skilled like she is. ... Potentially her superpower in my mind is going to be her jump topspin serve. She can really bring it. And I think that’s an ongoing process for her to learn how to be consistent in that skill.”
Knowing how big of an adjustment it could be, Gedikoglu transferred to Arizona last January so she could have extra time to learn the system.
Spring practice was cut short in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, but Rubio said Gedikoglu has still made “substantial” progress since joining the Wildcats, though he joked that “she wouldn’t admit to that.”
Rubio said Gedikoglu can be stubborn but in a good way.
“People who tend to be stubborn are also really competitive,” he said. “What [the spring] did is it introduced her to the skills and the fundamentals of how we teach it, the system of how we play. It’s a little bit different from every school and every program you go to.”
Gedikoglu had a match-high 17 kills in Arizona’s Red-Blue scrimmage in November, perhaps a sign of things to come. However, Rubio is more focused on her efficiency stats like hitting percentage and error percentage.
“I‘m keeping her accountable to the numbers,” he said. “Just because you hit hard doesn’t make you a great volleyball player. And so Dilara is learning to see the game and have more aptitude with the game.”
It will take time, but Rubio believes Gedikoglu will eventually become the elite player that she wants to be.
“One, she has a desire to be good. Two, she’s willing to work hard to be good. Three, she has faith in me as a coach,” he said.
“What happens is because the information that we give our kids is so new, it takes a while for them to learn how to react without thinking. And once you’re thinking, and then reacting, everything is slow. You look less athletic, your movements are much slower, you’re not as successful. And then once you’re more comfortable with the system and the technique and the skills, all of a sudden you move quicker and you react without thinking. Dilara is slowly but surely starting to react within the system and her skills without thinking, and as a result she’ll become a significant player for us. But until she does that and it’s really comfortable for her, it’s gonna be a little bit up and down. That’s pretty normal.”