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Arizona volleyball’s appearance in Women’s NIVC is mutually beneficial

Tucson, Ariz. — Arizona volleyball players Zyonna Fellows (16), Sofia Maldonado Diaz (2), Emery Herman (4), and Kamaile Hiapo (8) celebrate after winning a point against ASU on Nov. 25, 2021.
Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

As with both the men’s and women’s NIT in basketball, not all Division I volleyball programs are excited to play in the sport’s secondary tournament. The reasons for skipping the Women’s National Invitational Volleyball Championship range from the age of the squad to the financial investment to disappointment at not being selected to the NCAA Tournament.

For Arizona head coach Dave Rubio, though, participation is something that he thinks schools and programs should support.

“All coaches have a different reason for deciding to go down this road,” Rubio said. “For us, it’s because of how young our team is. And the hope is that you have a long view to this and the following year your players have already gone through a postseason play, assuming you’re going to be invited to the NCAA Tournament next year. I think we’re pretty fortunate that we have a tournament to play. For many, many years, it was never in the sense of an NIT tournament outside the NCAA Tournament. So for volleyball, we want to support the event.”

Wanting to support the event and being able to do so are two different things, though. While there are older teams like USC which declined to participate, there are other teams who wanted to but had to decline for reasons outside the coaches’ control. Those reasons usually revolve around a lack of money or support from their administration.

“I think that volleyball is still not at the level where they’re funded in a way that this has allowed you to... just automatically go,” Rubio said. “I mean, Wichita State’s coach is a really good friend of mine, Chris Lamb, and he would love his team (in this tournament) because they’re really young and talented. And they didn’t make it out. They came in third in their conference, and this would be a good stepping stone for his team, but his administration chose not to. They said, ‘We’re not going to any postseason unless it’s the NCAA tournament.”

In the NIVC, teams must pay their own travel expenses. Host teams bid on the right to host, guaranteeing a certain number of tickets sold. Even before the COVID-19 budget hits, some schools wouldn’t or couldn’t make that investment in volleyball. Those costs even caused concerns for Arizona.

“Everyone fights their own battle in terms of the financial part of it,” Rubio said. “Had we not hosted, I’m not sure we would have been able to go, so there’s certainly some costs that go along with this event. But, again, the conversation throughout the last five years has all been about student-athlete welfare. And if we’re going to talk about that and really abide by what they say then we should be going to these and go into postseason play if you’re invited.”

There are reasons beyond the financial strain that force teams to decline. Injuries are probably the next biggest deterrent to participation. That was the case for Arizona two years ago after a season where they were forced to play two different liberos as outside hitters at various times due to the large number of injuries sustained over the course of the season.

“We had the opportunity to play in 2019 but we were so beat up, had so many concussions in the kids, so it just didn’t make sense,” Rubio said. “We were an older team at that particular time, and we were bringing in so many freshmen in 2020. Really, Kamaile (Hiapo) was the only one that was returning. Zyonna (Fellows), certainly, and Malina (Kalei Ua), but it was in the positions that really, in my mind, really would have benefited from playing in that tournament, we just didn’t have enough bodies.”

Getting another chance to take part this season was something that Arizona could not turn down. Rubio also believes that taking part is something the Wildcats should do if they are able. This year, only 31 teams agreed to take part in what is supposed to be a 32-team event. Without the support of programs, it will be difficult for the event to survive.

“When I first got hired here in 1992, there was also a postseason secondary tournament,” Rubio said. “And I think that lasted for six to eight years, and then it went away. And then the Triple Crown (Sports) came in and said, ‘Look, we’re willing to come in and even make it a 64-team bracket.’ I mean, we’re fortunate that an organization like the Triple Crown was willing to take on this huge endeavor. And so I think for all of us, we recognize that it’s not the NCAA Tournament and all the bells and whistles that go with the NCAA tournament, but also we need to be thankful that we have a postseason tournament, a secondary tournament that’s willing to go the lengths that Triple Crown has gone to in order to be able to host it. This is not easy. I mean...the chair who runs it, the person who’s organizing the tournament, he’s calling schools to try to encourage them to participate, and so, I think it’s really critical in order for this event to continue on, which it needs to for volleyball, then...we need to support it.”

While the majority of the benefit from playing in this tournament will be experienced by young teams and their underclassmen, there are still things to be gained by those whose college careers are nearing their ends. Arizona’s senior middle blocker Zyonna Fellows is one of them.

“I have these last two weeks to just put it out there,” Fellows said. “Put everything I’ve learned and everything that I’ve worked for on the court, and just go out with a bang.”

That investment by the three seniors is crucial according to Rubio. If they buy into the experience, so will everyone else.

“I think that for Merle (Weidt) and Zyonna and Malina (Kalei Ua), for me, those players have always been all in,” Rubio said. “Whatever decisions that we make for the program, all three of those players have always been super supportive and never question. And the opportunity to play and continue to play I think runs right along what they would normally want to do. And so we’re fortunate to have seniors like that. I think the seniors often dictate what the attitude is going to be by the rest of the team. And so it’s nice to have that type of leadership.”

Watch the press conferences with Dave Rubio and Zyonna Fellows

When and Where

The first round of the NIVC will take place in McKale Center on Friday, Dec. 3. In the first match, New Mexico State plays UNLV at 3 p.m. MST. That match will be followed by the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley vs Arizona at 6 p.m. MST.

How to watch

All matches held this weekend will be streamed on Arizona Live Stream even if Arizona is not playing.

Where to find stats

In-game stats for the match between Arizona and UTRGV will be located here. Stats for other matches held in McKale can be found by visiting the landing page for Arizona Live Stats.

How to follow along with us

Follow us on Twitter @AZDesertSwarm or on our Facebook page for regular coverage during the week. For live tweets during games and other coverage, follow our deputy editor on Twitter @KimDoss71.