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Young Arizona volleyball team grateful to have a season despite unusual schedule

Photo by Ryan Kelapire

Every coach in every sport gets asked for an opinion on this season’s amended schedules. Arizona volleyball coach Dave Rubio refuses to even entertain criticisms. It is his nature to stress the concept of gratitude in college sports—for both student-athletes and coaches. As the Wildcats prepare for the delayed season that is set to kick off on Jan. 22, he seized the opportunity to drive that point home once again.

“I feel fortunate that we have a schedule,” Rubio said. “I feel fortunate that we actually have an opportunity to play.”

Until Tuesday, no one outside the schools and conference offices knew what those schedules would be. The Wildcats took the opportunity to have some fun on social media as they waited.

There have certainly been challenges to even get to this point. Arizona has dealt with a few quarantines. Just before their Red-Blue scrimmage in November, it was starting libero Kamaile Hiapo coming back from quarantine.

On Saturday, they played their lone exhibition match without two of their outside hitters—redshirt freshman Simone Overbeck and true freshman Sofia Maldonado Diaz. Both were quarantined after testing positive for the novel coronavirus.

Then comes the topic of that schedule. The Pac-12 didn’t release it until Tuesday, three days before competition was set to start. One reason for that may be the situation at Stanford.

The defending national champions are in a county that has banned most sports from practicing. It also requires anyone who travels more than 150 miles outside the county to quarantine for at least 10 days when they return. The Cardinal have already cancelled their first two weeks of matches and Arizona isn’t expecting to host them on Feb. 5 or 7 as scheduled.

“We already know that Stanford has canceled for the second home weekend for us,” Rubio said.

Pac-12 teams will each play 11 home and 11 away matches, all within the conference. Instead of playing home-and-away against each opponent, both matches will be played at one site with the lone exception being the rivalry games. In March, Arizona will host Arizona State on a Friday, then make the trip to Tempe on a Sunday.

Rubio thinks the schedule format gives them the best option to make it through the season. Unlike basketball, there will be no rescheduling for missed competitions.

Rubio is also very much in favor of the mandate that volleyball players wear masks during matches. While basketball players have been given the option to do so, in women’s volleyball there is no choice. Rubio said that he may be the only coach in the Pac-12 that supports that decision.

“As much as I think my colleagues don’t want the players to wear masks for the matches, I think the way that we’re going to get through the season is if we’re wearing masks during the sport,” Rubio said. “I think we’re the only sport that’s being required to wear masks at this point. My hope is that at the end of the season, we’re gonna look back and see that was a good decision.”

The wearing of masks has the advantage of knocking volleyball down to an intermediate-risk sport. That keeps the programs from having to test players every day like they do in high-risk sports like football and basketball. Many around the sport believe that is the ultimate reason for the decision, since it saves the schools money if they don’t have to test student-athletes and coaches as often.

For Rubio, it’s simply a matter of safety and getting the matches played. It also was uncontroversial among the schools’ medical staffs.

“The medical people voted 12-0 that volleyball should wear masks during this season,” he said. “I was on board with that simply because I felt like that was going to be the best opportunity for us to get all the matches in, as many matches as we possibly could.”

As with just about any women’s sport you can name, the Pac-12 is brutally tough in volleyball. Stanford has been the best of the best for a while, but their unique challenges make predicting their success difficult this season. Will they even play?

With their status up in the air, it leaves teams like Utah, Washington and UCLA as better bets to take the conference title.

The Wildcats? Rubio is excited about the talent, but said that they were “not very good” after the lone exhibition last Saturday, a five-set loss to New Mexico State. They should improve as the season wears on.

The long-term optimism accompanied by short-term reservations comes down to one thing: an extremely talented but incredibly young roster. The returners are guiding them towards their ultimate goal of competing for a spot in the NCAA Tournament, which has been cut from its normal 64 teams to just 48 this season.

Paige Whipple is the lone four-year senior on the team. Other returning contributors from last year include junior middle blocker Zyonna Fellows, sophomore libero Hiapo, and junior defensive specialist Malina Kalei Ua. Whipple has been the offensive force of the Wildcats for the past two years, but all of the returners are playing a role in getting the talented newcomers up to speed.

“We have so many new players and so they’ve never really been through a fall season or now spring season,” Rubio said. “So anything that we do is brand new, and they don’t know anything different. In a large part that’s a good thing because they don’t have anything to compare it to. Whereas for Paige and for Kamaile and for Zyonna and for Malina, those players have been on board from day one and never complain about the amount of work or how hard practice might be. So the new players kind of take a cue from them. And so the leadership from the returning players has been fantastic.”

Not only did Arizona add a large freshman class, but the team also welcomed three transfers. That group of freshmen was ranked No. 7 in the country. The transfers include outside hitter Dilara Gedikoglu, last season’s American Athletic Conference Player of the Year. That’s enough firepower to compete, even in the loaded Pac-12.

“The reality of the team is that we’re young and the majority of our team is brand new to the program,” Whipple said. “We really only have four returning players and so (Rubio’s) message is kind of, you know, 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 and we don’t have to use youth as an excuse.”

But that many new faces means a lot of moving parts that need to come together. First, though, they need to all get on the court together.

“I think the long-term prospects are really, really good.” Rubio said. “I think that the individual players are developing. Maybe my biggest disappointments is that Simone Overbeck has yet to be with us. She came in and tested positive. And then Sofia Maldonado had trouble getting into the country from Mexico. And then she only practiced for two days before she tested positive. So we’re missing some pretty instrumental players who I think will fight for playing time in the future. That’s been frustrating for everybody. But again, I think this particular year, it kind of goes with the territory. So overall, I feel like we’re young and improving and have a chance to be pretty good in the future.”

That future starts Friday, Jan. 22 as the Wildcats face one of the best teams in the country in Salt Lake City. That’s just life in the Pac-12.

Not a second too soon, we finally have a schedule!

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