Breaking in 10 new players was never going to be easy for Arizona volleyball. Throw in the adversity created by the coronavirus pandemic, and a slow start to the season was inevitable.
The Wildcats lost to the reigning WAC champion New Mexico State Aggies in five sets (25-23, 18-25, 16-25, 25-14, 19-25) on Saturday in McKale Center.
It was Arizona’s first match since Nov. 30, 2019, though only four current players were on the roster then.
Luckily, Saturday was only an exhibition.
“We’re not very good, that’s the reality of it at this particular point,” Arizona head coach Dave Rubio said. “I told the team that we just look like a young, inexperienced team, which of course is what we are.”
There isn’t much time to work out the kinks, either. The Wildcats jump right into Pac-12 play next weekend at Utah, one of the better teams in the league. There is no denying that not having any non-conference matches in the regular season is a huge disadvantage for an inexperienced team.
How the Wildcats handle it is up to them.
“We can live with the fact that we’re young and we can use that as an excuse, or the young players can continue to develop and the older ones as leaders can continue to bring them along,” said senior hitter Paige Whipple, one of four returners. “So moving forward we’re not going to use youth as an excuse and we’re gonna work hard to bring the younger players along.”
After outlasting the Aggies in a back-and-forth first set, the Wildcats struggled in the second and third sets. They dominated the fourth set but trailed the entire fifth set, which was extended to 25 points so both teams could get some extra work in.
Despite the loss, Rubio was happy to be back on the court after a long, arduous offseason and saw some positives in his team’s performance.
“The passing was as good as I’ve ever seen it here this early on in the season,” he said. “Our serve receive was exceptional. I thought our serving was good, wasn’t great. In game five, it started to become a lot more tentative. We let the foot off the gas there.”
Just like last season, Whipple led the Wildcats with 19 kills. Unlike last season, she got help from newcomers like Tulsa transfer Dilara Gedikoglu and freshman Jaelyn Hodge.
Gedikoglu, the reigning AAC Freshman of the Year, had 13 kills including six in the first set. Hodge, Arizona’s highest-ranked recruit since 2006, had nine kills and a team-high five blocks.
Still, the Wildcats only hit .166 as a team, leaving a lot of room for improvement. They could have used a boost from highly-regarded freshmen Sofia Maldonado and Simone Overbeck, but both were held out due to COVID-19 protocols.
“I thought Paige played terrific and played like we would expect her to play,” Rubio said. “I thought Dilara, for the most part playing opposite Paige, played well. She certainly had her moments of good things and things that she can improve. ... But our offense in the middle is lacking. We don’t have any offense behind the center, which is problematic. We got to find some offense behind the center. The setting in general was just as you would expect. The location was inconsistent.”
Rubio shuffled the lineup throughout the match, splitting the setting duties between freshman Emery Herman and Belmont grad transfer Akia Warrior. Both are new to Arizona and still learning a complex offense.
Herman had 25 assists in four sets. Warrior had 16 in two sets.
“It’s just a lot different and that’s just something we have to get used to,” said Herman, a top-70 recruit. “The way Dave has it set up is for everyone to be able to be successful, but you have to execute to be able to do that. We all just wanted to do our best and do what we could, knowing that it was the first game. Just try and feel comfortable being out on the court for it being so long since any of us have played.”
The coronavirus pandemic not only postponed Arizona’s season from the fall to the spring, it has also changed how games operate.
Fans are banned for the foreseeable future and artificial crowd noise was only pumped in every now and then, leaving the smack of the ball and cheers from the players as the only sounds during the match.
The teams did not switch sides between sets, and players and coaches wore masks even when on the court. That will be the norm this season as it allows volleyball to be considered an intermediate-risk sport, meaning COVID-19 testing is not required as often.
Rubio said masks are controversial among coaches, but believes wearing them is the right thing to do to ensure the season goes as smoothly as possible. Arizona players have been practicing in masks since August, so Whipple said playing in them isn’t a hindrance.
“We’re willing to do whatever it takes to be able to play,” she said. “And for me being in my senior year, I’m literally gonna do whatever it takes to be able to play all of our games and not have games cancelled.”
Whipple said she rarely gets nervous before matches anymore, but admitted there were some butterflies Saturday. Herman described the experience as “super exciting” but “nerve-racking” for the newcomers.
“It was cool to finally have a game day because for so long we’ve had no idea when this day would come,” Whipple said. “And even though technically the game didn’t count for anything, it felt like a normal game day, even though we have to do some things a little bit different. It’s just a lot of excitement that we’re finally kicking off the season.”