Paige Whipple was named to the All-Pac-12 preseason team on Wednesday, the first Arizona volleyball player to earn that honor in five years.
It’s a testament to her growth as a player and person. She has developed into one of the best outside hitters in the conference while overcoming a gamut of adversity.
Whipple was thrust into a starting role as a freshman, suffered an umbilical hernia as a sophomore, and saw her team get decimated by injuries as a junior.
She now enters a senior season that has been postponed, altered and shortened due to the coronavirus pandemic. She also carries the unique distinction of being the only four-year player on the roster.
As the rest of her recruiting class flamed out, Whipple pressed on.
“Paige has developed into a really complete high-level player, and how she goes about her business every day is something I really admire,” said head coach Dave Rubio. “She has been a really good role model for the players, especially the new players in the program. She’s a quiet leader but she’s in my mind exactly what a student-athlete should personify. She is so calm and level-headed, focused on the task at hand, driven to be the best she can. I couldn’t have a better person to have as a member of our team.”
The preseason nomination is meaningful to Whipple, but she’s come to learn that team contributions are more important than any individual accolade.
Her goal in her senior season is to be one of the best players in the conference, yes, but also to take the lessons she has learned throughout her career and pass them on to her younger teammates.
Whipple is in charge of leading a group of pin players that consists of four freshmen and a sophomore transfer. Since she’s been in the system so long, she can teach them the fundamentals that Rubio always stresses.
How quickly they pick them up could determine if Arizona reaches its goal of finishing in the top half of the Pac-12.
“To be the last one standing in my class...I just want to show the younger players that it’s possible first of all and that it takes a lot of hard work,” Whipple said. “I’ve tried to tell stories of my freshman year, and if a freshman is feeling down or feeling confused or frustrated, I just try to make it known that, hey, I was in that exact same spot. And it might look like I know what I’m doing now, but when I was in your spot I had no idea what I was doing.”
The numbers wouldn’t tell you that. Whipple was Arizona’s second-leading scorer as both a freshman and sophomore. However, she experienced some of the emotional highs and lows that come with the pressure of playing for an NCAA Tournament-caliber team.
It wasn’t until her junior season when she played with total freedom. The Wildcats were so shorthanded at times that they played a libero on the outside, and Whipple knew that she was going to have a prominent role no matter how she performed.
Some players may have gotten lackadaisical in that situation. Whipple capitalized on it. She recorded 21 or more kills in four of her last five matches to finish with the sixth-most in the Pac-12.
The Wildcats finished with a 15-17 record, but learned a lot in the process.
“I think that was a big moment for a lot of us that were playing because we realized, ‘OK if I play bad there’s no one to sub me out. If I make an error there’s no one to replace me with,’” Whipple said. “It gave us confidence and it gave me confidence. At this point, our team looks like a bunch of misfits, and no one expects us to win a game in this conference. But I’m going to do what I can to contribute to the team and I know that my teammates are going to do what they can to contribute to the team.”
Whipple’s late-season surge allowed her to become just the 16th player in Arizona history to record 1,000 career kills. With a strong senior season, she could finish top 10 in school history.
That would be a notable feat considering the kind of hitters that have come through the program. And while Whipple might not hit with as much power as her predecessors, she represents the program well and is incredibly well-rounded. She can pass. She can block. She can serve. She can score.
“The kind of person she is and how she was raised transcends into the court,” Rubio said. “So she’s really been someone I’ll miss when she ends up finishing her career here.”
Whipple could return to the Wildcats next season as a fifth-year senior and continue climbing the leaderboards. All Division I volleyball players were granted a free year of eligibility in the wake of the pandemic.
She isn’t sure if she wants to go that route. She said a lot of factors will go into that decision. The chance to break some records probably isn’t atop her priority list.
“Before, I placed a lot of value on who I was as an athlete, and I think going through college, I realized that at some point athletics ends and I’m so much more than that,” Whipple said. “And I think that’s the biggest thing that I’ve taken away from these four years is it’s been incredible and I’ve experienced things that I never imagined experiencing, but there is life after volleyball.”
If Whipple passes on the extra year, she is considering going into sports ministry so she can disseminate that message. Her faith is central to who she is.
“That’s just a way that I see myself serving athletes that come after me,” she said. “And helping athletes develop the same mindset that I have—that you’re worth so much more than who you are as an athlete.”