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Arizona volleyball’s youth facing huge test as senior leader Paige Whipple battles injury

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Tucson, Ariz. — Kamaile Hiapo (8), Paige Whipple (10) and Jaelyn Hodge (11) celebrate during Arizona volleyball’s victory over Stanford.
Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

The Arizona Wildcats volleyball team entered the season with two seniors. One was a grad transfer brought in to back up the freshman setter. The other was outside hitter Paige Whipple. For at least the next week, that number has been reduced to just one.

After playing in last Friday’s match against the Oregon Ducks, Whipple sustained a back injury that kept her out of Sunday’s match. It was tough for the Oregon native to sit out what could be her last chance to play in her home state. It was doubly as tough for her team.

“Losing Paige is a double loss because we lose her experience—by far our most experienced player—and then we also lose her leadership,” Arizona head coach Dave Rubio said. “That makes it hard.”

That leadership role will now fall entirely on the shoulders of an underclassman as the Wildcats prepare to host Oregon State.

“Kamaile (Hiapo) and Paige have been sharing that leadership role, and she is more than capable of helping out on that,” Rubio said of his sophomore libero. “There’s not a stronger leader than Kamaile on the floor. Everyone else is just too young.”

While junior Zyonna Fellows is also having a strong season so far, Rubio noted that her position as a middle blocker means that she’s only on the floor for three rotations. Hiapo, like Whipple, is in on the action in all six rotations.

That addresses the leadership issues. What it doesn’t address is the production issues.

As in most of their matches this season, Arizona’s serve receive was handled by Whipple much of the time in Friday’s match. The opponents have tended to target her for the first touch. Her skill at serve receive has kept the Wildcats from being even more overwhelmed than they might be with their young roster.

Without Whipple, the group of freshmen will be handling those duties more often. For some of them, it will be another aspect of the game to get used to.

The Wildcats’ most productive offensive player, Sofia Maldonado Diaz, is still getting used to back row responsibilities after a prep career as a middle blocker.

Two weeks ago, Maldonado spoke about those changes for her. Through a translator, she said that the most difficult part of changing positions has been reception. Learning to pass and play defense have been challenges for her as a former three-rotation player.

Starting in Whipple’s place will be freshman Jaelyn Hodge. Hodge was the highest-rated recruit in Arizona’s touted freshman class. Rubio praises her potential, comparing her to Wildcat greats Kim Glass and Jennifer Abernathy.

“Those are two of the best examples of the speed, the quickness, the acceleration, how high she’s touching,” Rubio said. “That’s an amazing compliment because I don’t think I’ve ever...even Madi Kingdon falls in a different category than that.”

Still, there’s a lot for the Queen Creek, Ariz. native to learn.

“If she continues to progress the way she is, I think she’ll be one of the top outside hitters in the conference,” Rubio said. “She certainly has the ability...she can take it as far as she wants to take it.”

While the Wildcats wait for the group of talented freshmen and sophomores to take things as far as they want to take them, there are potential roadblocks in their way. The injury of their senior leader is just one of them.

While Rubio started the season saying that he thought they had the potential to finish in the top half of the league if everything went right, he’s now tempering those expectations. He says that the fall season is when he expects things to really come to fruition for this group.

“With a young team, those adjustments that need to be made aren’t very easy because they’re just not used to making those kind of adjustments,” he said. “So you got to stand someplace different than they’re used to standing. We’re running a different type of defense. So it’s a little bit harder. And the thing that happened, like in set one against Oregon (in) the second game, by all right we should have won that. We completely gave away that set. But as I told them, experienced players tend to make plays at the end of sets; inexperienced players tend to make mistakes at the end of sets and at more critical times. So the only way that we can accelerate the clock is to get more practice time in, which we’re limited on, and more playing time, which is we’re limited on that as well.”

The Wildcats hope to have Whipple back from her injury in time for the trip to UCLA next week, but there is currently no timeline for her return. This week, they will be without her production and her leadership as they face a young Oregon State team.

The Beavers stand at 3-5 with a four-set victory over USC and two five-set wins over ASU. It’s a good chance for both young teams to get some wins. Can the Wildcats do it without their senior leader?