Two things are required to be a high-level volleyball team, according to Arizona head coach Dave Rubio: a great setter and a great libero. Arizona has the latter in Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week Kamaile Hiapo.
The sophomore averaged four digs per set against No. 7 Stanford last weekend, quietly playing a key role in Arizona’s first sweep of the Cardinal since 2005.
“I think most people probably ask me why there’s a player with a different color jersey on the floor,” Rubio said of the libero position, “[but] people in volleyball know that in order to be a good team and an elite team you have to have an elite setter and an elite libero. If you’re going to win consistently, you have to have those two things. If you don’t have those two things, you can still win at a level, but you’re not going to be a consistent winner.”
The fact that Hiapo is developing into an elite libero is remarkable considering she is fairly new to the position and spent part of last season playing on the right side due to injuries on the team.
“I’ve never played libero until I got to college,” she said. “So I like focusing on defense, focusing on passing as the first touch of every rally. So I really like being involved in almost every single play. I like...working with my teammates on how to adjust to different opponents.”
Rubio knew Hiapo had this kind of potential. She was the first libero he ever brought in on a four-year scholarship. Usually, those players are on what he calls “short money.”
“I know with this particular class, especially with this being a free year, Kamaile is going to have a chance with this freshman group to really kind of set some records for us,” he said. “I think that as we get more time on the clock, we will continue to improve.”
Hiapo already set Arizona’s freshman record for digs (378) last season. What makes her such a good libero is in her DNA, Rubio said.
“The three things (to being an elite libero) is you got to be a great serve-receiver, have to be a great defender and then serving also is instrumental,” he said. “But what she brings to the table for us are a lot of her intangible qualities. She’s a terrific leader, plays with great energy and talks all the time. In the sport of volleyball, you’re always asking your players to communicate louder and with more conviction, and Kamaile certainly has done that and at a young age.”
Hiapo credits her teammates for being so responsive.
“They work with me and I just do my best to help them and I feel like it helps myself in my overall play,” she said. “Obviously, I’ll get better at the skills, and in that big time that we had off, I think I’ve improved my serve, receive, my defense, just my all-around play. The only thing that I could get more is experience and knowledge from my coaches and I definitely thank my coaches for all that.”
It was not always clear that Hiapo would join Rubio in Tucson. He thought she would follow her Latter-Day Saints religion and family to BYU. Hiapo did, too, for a while.
Ultimately, the Gilbert native found staying in state more appealing.
“I was very young when I committed, during the time the NCAA rules weren’t restricted to only juniors and seniors,” she said. “I knew I wanted to play high-level volleyball and I started the recruiting process since I was a freshman. I wanted to go to BYU because my brother went there. So I didn’t really know all the ins and outs of college ball and everything like that. I just had big goals, big dreams, and so I reached out to everyone I could. I definitely wanted to go to the Pac-12.
“Ultimately, it’s close to home. I felt really good with the coaches. Just feeling like this was home to me was very important. And being with my family is very important. And so having a second family here just makes me feel very well supported. And they have my back and I have theirs.”
Dilara Gedikoglu thriving with new “bomb serve”
When 2019 AAC Freshman of the Year Dilara Gedikoglu transferred to Arizona, Rubio thought he knew what he wanted from her serve.
“Our first weekend I was very committed to Dilara’s jump topspin serve,” he said. “I think that has an opportunity to be really, in a sense, her superpower.”
Maybe so, but Gedikoglu has become a huge threat behind the service line with a different technique.
“I mean, I think that she could be a great topspin server, international-level topspin server, (but) she struggles with the consistency with that, and so I felt like last week when we were kind of experimenting with the best serve for her, I wanted to do what we call the bomb serve,” Rubio said. “She goes to a jump float bomb serve and it’s almost as effective in regards to how difficult it is to pass. And then it’s certainly a lot more consistent, so instead of her moving the scoreboard for the opposing team she’s now moving the scoreboard for us.”
Through six matches, Gedikoglu has eight service aces. In the Wildcats’ last three matches, she has had multiple aces in each outing and is currently good for .40 aces per set. That ties her for 12th in the conference. Just as importantly, she has kept scoring streaks going for Arizona even without aces.