Arizona volleyball doesn’t often find hometown players or get recruits from Texas. In 2022, head coach Dave Rubio and his staff managed to do both. Even better, all three of the new recruits will be on campus in January so they can attend spring practice.
The Wildcats have tried to get as many players as possible to enroll a semester early, but the pandemic has caused some havoc with the best-laid plans. This time, Rubio hopes to get those extra months of development before his freshmen play their first set of competitive volleyball that counts in the rankings.
That means that in less than two months, the Wildcats will welcome middle blocker/outside hitter Lauren Rumel, defensive specialist/libero Kaori Robertson, and setter Ana Heath to campus. For Rumel, it will be a short trip.
The talented 6-foot-2 hitter comes to UA from Catalina Foothills High School in Tucson. She averages 6.8 kills per set on .401 hitting this season. The middle blocker/outside hitter has 50 blocks in 93 sets this season. At the end of September, she became one of 77 players in Arizona high school volleyball history to reach 1,000 kills since the beginning of the rally scoring era.
“It’s been a while since we’ve had a local player, who we felt was going to be talented enough to be able to come and play for us,” Rubio said. “But Lauren is a terrific athlete. She’s been coming to camps since she was going into ninth grade, and we’ve known about her and feel pretty fortunate about her being part of the program. Quick, fast athlete. Have her slated to be in the middle, which she could certainly play on the pin as well.”
Rumel will probably be needed more in the middle than at the pin. Arizona brought in three middles this season, but Jennifer Wroblicky has not played at all. China Rai Crouch, who started at middle blocker the first half of her freshman season, is taking a “medical gap” year after missing the last half of the spring season with injuries. The two starting middles are seniors and neither will be back to Arizona next season.
“Zyonna (Fellows), I think just physically doesn’t have the desire to come back,” Rubio said. “Her body’s kind of breaking down. And Merle (Weidt)...we don’t have her graduate program here. So, she’s going to transfer to Denver where they have her major, and she’ll play her final year there.”
Rumel attended camps at Arizona, but it’s not the only familiarity she has with Rubio. She also played alongside his daughter Olivia at CFHS for a year or two before the younger Rubio switched exclusively to beach volleyball.
Finding a Tucson player who is talented enough to play in the Pac-12 is difficult. Even more difficult is convincing a player from the state of Texas to head west and to play for the Wildcats. For the second time in three years, Rubio has reached into the Lone Star State for a setter.
In 2020, Ana Heath of Wylie, Tex. was considered the third-best class of 2022 setter in Texas by Prep Dig. That’s not all she does, though. She also has the ability to play outside hitter very effectively. She is used to running a system that uses two setters; the setter in the front row in any given rotation turns into a hitter.
“Ana Heath is as good an athlete as we’ve coached,” Rubio said. “She’s coming in as a setter, to develop as a setter. She was like Emery (Herman). She ran a 6-2...She’s an extraordinary hitter as well.”
Heath is like Herman in another respect. She’s one of the few prospects the Wildcats have grabbed from Texas over the past three decades.
“We didn’t get anybody from Texas, except for Erin Aldrich,” Rubio said. And that was...1996 or 7, and then it took another 20 years to get another player. Now, I just think there’s a lot of kids playing volleyball in Texas, and they’re more receptive to leaving the state. And obviously, we’ve always had to fight with Baylor or Texas or any of the Texas schools to get them. A lot of times those upper elite players will go east, rather than going west.”
One area that has been a fertile recruiting ground for Arizona is the Phoenix metropolitan area. Right now, the Wildcats have Jaelyn Hodge, Kamaile Hiapo, and Haven Wray out of the greater Phoenix area. They will be adding defensive specialist/libero Kaori Robertson out of Xavier College Preparatory.
Robertson committed in 2020 and graduated from high school earlier this year, but did not join the team for the fall season. She is already enrolled at the university in the College of Pharmacy. She will finally join her teammates in January.
Robertson follows both of her parents to Tucson for her education. The couple graduated from Window Rock High School then attended college at UA. Her father earned his degree in architecture while her mother earned hers in engineering, according to the Navajo Times.
Recruiting for this class was largely completed by the summer of 2020. Going forward, recruiting has a new wrinkle because of the extra year extended to all players who were on teams during the 2020-21 school year. Players could not only play an extra year, but for the 2021-22 school year, the scholarships of super seniors did not count against their programs’ 12-player limits.
How things unfold with future recruiting classes is hard to determine. While the current sophomore, junior and senior classes have the option to play an extra year, it doesn’t mean that their school must offer a place on the roster. If the coach chooses to, he must find a way to make room elsewhere on the roster. Perhaps that means recruiting fewer freshmen.
A lot of players who were already nearing the end of their college careers when the extra year was offered have chosen to play an extra year. Rubio thinks that might not be the case in a few years. Those who were freshmen during the 2020-21 school year may just decide that they’ve had their four years and move on, he said.
It might be to Arizona’s benefit if that is not the case. The current sophomores were part of a top-10 class last season. Getting the fifth year from them at the end of their careers might make up for having to battle so many teams with super seniors this season. On the other hand, that means passing over players in the future who might help the program for several years.
The future of Arizona recruiting depends very much on the decisions of players who are already here. How do coaches plan for decisions they don’t completely control?