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Age makes the difference for Arizona volleyball

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Jaelyn Hodge and Kamaile Hiapo celebrate against Washington State
Photo by Catherine Regan / Arizona Athletics

The effects of the super seniors who returned for one more go-round in college volleyball is something Arizona head coach Dave Rubio keeps “whining about.” There’s no doubt that it is having a big effect on the sport this season, especially the ones who were already among the best players in the sport.

“This is one year you get to go over the scholarship count, too,” Rubio said. “And so not only do they get the super seniors, but they’ve recruited graduate kids to come in and...it’s a completely unfair playing field at this point, from them to us. Now I’ve had the same opportunity, I guess, with Paige (Whipple). She chose not to come back. and financially we couldn’t bring in people to go over our scholarship limit. So, it’s a little bit frustrating on my end because there’s such a huge advantage between them and us.”

This week, the Wildcats will face two of those players who were among the best even before the extra year in UCLA’s Mac May and USC’s Brooke Botkin. May was the Pac-12 Player of the Year in 2019 as a junior. Both are All-Pac-12 returners.

“It’s a one-off year, and as a result, some teams are just better positioned to kind of be an elite level team than we are,” Rubio said. “Because where our team was so young last year, the teams that were really old last year—which were 90 percent of the teams in our conference—normally they would graduate half those players or several of those players. Instead, they bring them all back and then the juniors become seniors. You know whereas our freshmen become sophomores. So, it’s much different. We’re just not ready to really compete at that level yet. Even though we have great talent—I mean our talent is equally as good as theirs—but we’re just not as experienced yet.”

Rubio takes comfort in the fact that there are some advantages to being younger. Most importantly, a younger player has more room to grow than an older player. They are further away from reaching their full potential.

“The question is can we elevate and try to catch up?” Rubio said. “Can we close the gap between them and us? Because their room for improvement isn’t as significant as ours is. When you’re younger, you have a lot more room for improvement. Can we close the gap on these guys during the span of time that we have which is the next seven weeks, which is all we have left in the season.”

To get to that level, he said that the players will also have to take some of it on themselves. The number of hours the coaching staff has with them is limited, so they need to commit to things like watching film on their own time.

“I think there’s a lot of stuff off the grid that we need to do,” sophomore setter Emery Herman said. “Watch film, put in extra time, realize that we can’t take the excuse of being young anymore. We just need to step up and execute, know that there’s a lot of experience on the opposite side of the court than us and just try and do whatever we can do to not play like youngsters.”

One of the things they felt they needed to do was gather as a group after Sunday’s loss to Washington State. Rubio felt it was one of their worst performances of the season. The players weren’t satisfied, either. Led by senior Zyonna Fellows and junior Kamaile Hiapo, the group met without the coaches.

“I think everyone felt it, everyone knew that it needed to happen,” Herman said. “The team just all kind of came together. Mai Mai and Z kind of brought it all together, and then everyone joined in. We all talked about things that we needed to and just kind of figured stuff out.”

The team may have even more to figure out this week. Freshman opposite Puk Stubbe, who has asserted herself more as the season has advanced, had not yet practiced this week when Rubio met with the media on Wednesday. They are unsure of the diagnosis, but she may have strep throat. Her availability for the weekend was not yet known.

UCLA Bruins

Time and date: Friday, Oct. 15 at 8 p.m. MST

Location: McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz.

Viewing information: The match will air on Pac-12 Network and Pac-12 Los Angeles. Stats will be available at Arizona Live Stats.

Record: The Bruins are 12-2 overall and 5-1 in conference play.

Rankings and RPI: The Bruins are No. 14 in the AVCA poll. They are No. 11 in RPI.

Last year: The Wildcats travelled to Westwood for both matches last season. The Bruins took the first match 3-1 and the second one 3-0.

What to expect: UCLA has had a lot of close matches this season, but they know how to pull them out. The combination of exceptional talent and experience is a big reason why. Arizona is now in the teeth of the Pac-12 schedule, and this match will be one more demonstration of that.

Rubio says: ”They have a super senior, Mac May, who’s the best player in the conference... They’re really complete, older, physical. They got everything they need. They’re a national championship level team. They got all the pieces to do that.”

USC Women of Troy

Time and date: Sunday, Oct. 17 at 1 p.m. MST

Location: McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz.

Viewing information: The match will air on Pac-12 Arizona. Stats will be available at Arizona Live Stats.

Record: The Women of Troy are 7-8 overall and 3-3 in conference play.

Rankings and RPI: USC is not ranked in the AVCA coaches poll. The team is No. 46 in RPI.

Last year: Arizona and USC played only one match last season. The Women of Troy won the first match, then they withdrew from the second one. It was the only Wildcat match that was cancelled during the pandemic season.

What to expect: USC has been inconsistent this season. They had a rough time of things in non-conference play, going 4-5 before Pac-12 competition tipped off. They have picked things up the last two weeks with wins over a Washington State team that is now ranked and then-No. 24 Colorado. The Women of Troy have a lot more experience than the Wildcats.

On paper, Arizona has a better chance of winning this match than the one against the Bruins. The Wildcats enter the weekend on a 0-3 skid, so getting at least a split would go a long way to getting their confidence back and repairing their chances to get to the NCAA Tournament this year.

Rubio says: “SC has a lot of older pieces, too. They’ve got a senior setter. They’ve got a super senior outside hitter who is one of the best outside hitters in the country. They’ve got a junior or senior rightside player. Candice Denny, who played here, is a senior. So they’re super old as well.”