Arizona volleyball has never been a big landing spot for international players. That has changed this season with two transfers and a freshman from outside the U.S. To Wildcats head coach Dave Rubio, it’s not just about the skills of Dilara Gedikoglu, Merle Weidt and Sofia Maldonado Diaz on the court. It’s also about their attitudes off of it.
“They make a significant difference,” Rubio said last month. “Just the way they approach life is different, and so it’s been a nice cultural change for us. How they go about their business and handle their business every single day is different. It’s been a good influence and good exposure for our other players.”
Rubio said that a lot of that is because they are looking to get an education and improve as much as they can so they can reach their goals on the international pro volleyball circuit.
“Their goal is only to get an education and to become as good as they can be,” he said. “So that they can make as much money as they can when they go pro. It’s not quite the same approach as the American kids.”
Coming from the European club system, both Gedikoglu and Weidt have played with and against experienced professionals. It’s a change compared to NCAA sports.
“I think it’s a lot about the atmosphere,” Weidt said.” In my part, in Germany, it’s much more experienced, because the the players you play against, it’s their job. It is what they earn money with. So if they don’t bring up a good performance, they’re not going to get paid. It’s still fun playing, of course, but there’s definitely certain moments in practice and also in the games where it’s just like, ‘okay, now it’s business. Now we got to score.’ And so I think that in the States, just because we are all a lot younger, there are just certain moments where people make mistakes across all NCAA volleyball that you maybe shouldn’t do, because it’s a crucial moment for the team. And by you missing that serve, for example, you’re going to lose the game, because that’s an essential point. And so in Europe, that’s probably not happening as often simply because the players that are on the court really have this experience.”
Unlike Maldonado Diaz, both Gedikoglu and Weidt have previous experience at the college level. Weidt spent two seasons at Rutgers before coming to Arizona in January 2020. Gedikoglu was the American Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year while playing at Tulsa in 2019. They were looking for different things, but they both found them at Arizona.
Gedikoglu was looking for improvements in her competitive and personal situation.
“I wanted to play in high level and live in a good city with good weather, because Tulsa was like, I didn’t like the city at all there,” she said. “And I came for a reason to the United States and to get some success in NCAA.”
For Weidt, it was more about what she wasn’t getting in the Rutgers volleyball program.
“I was already playing pretty high level (in the Big Ten) before I came to Arizona,” Weidt said. “But the team was just not what I expected. We didn’t have a great culture, and we didn’t use our potential the way that we could have. So after my second season there, I decided that I wanted to look for a different school and contacted Arizona. And when I came out for a visit, I just immediately clicked with the coaches and knew that the coaching staff here is going to be a really good fit for me.”
They’ve had different experiences since the season started, though. Gedikoglu has been a regular in the Arizona rotation, appearing in almost every set so far. Weidt has not played as much, appearing in only 11 of the Wildcats’ 34 sets as a backup middle blocker behind Zyonna Fellows and China Rai Crouch.
Rubio said that he knows that Weidt has likely been disappointed that she’s not starting, but no one would ever know from the way she trains or behaves on the sideline. After Crouch was injured in Sunday’s match against Oregon State, he said that while Weidt lacks a bit of the “physicality” of the other two middles, her attitude and perseverance were a “cut above.”
“The one great thing about Merle is that she’s so mature for her age, and how her perspective is on life in general,” Rubio said. “It’s very refreshing.”
That perspective led Weidt to take advantage of her time out West to see more of the world. She has been in the U.S. throughout the pandemic, worried that if she returned to Europe she would not be able to return.
“I actually loved traveling,” she said. “And so when I decided that I can’t go back home, I was like, well, I have four months essentially that I’m going to be here in the States. So let’s use this time because I’m never ever going to get the chance again to have four months in a country that I can just go and travel. And so with COVID also being a big factor, I decided to buy my car and live in my car. So I was also sleeping in the car because that way I didn’t really have a lot of contact with other people.”
It became a mountain tour. She traveled down the coast, but didn’t spend much time at the ocean.
“My favorite places are definitely the Grand Tetons and also the Sierra Nevada Mountains with Mammoth Lakes and the Pacific Crest Trail,” Weidt said.
When the winter break rolled around, Gedikoglu was also hesitant to leave. The two decided to indulge the travel bug on the other end of the country.
“I went to New York with Merle for two weeks actually at Christmas,” Gedikoglu said. “It was really nice to see another city and to go to a big city after Tucson and also New York reminds me of Istanbul, which is like the big city in Turkey. It was nice to see a big city and have some good times with Merle.”
The youth movement
Maldonado Diaz—the third member of the international trio—won her second Pac-12 Freshman of the Week award this past Monday. She has now won two of the four Freshman of the Week honors handed out this season.
The freshman outside hitter averaged 5.71 kills per set on .307 hitting in the Wildcats’ weekend sweep of Oregon State. On Friday, she had a double-double with 16 kills and 10 digs in the three-set victory. On Sunday, she was one shy of her career high with 24 kills in four sets.
In addition to the two awards bestowed on Maldonado Diaz, sophomore libero Kamaile Hiapo has been honored once this season as the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week. The only other teams to win multiple awards so far this season are Utah and Washington.
How to follow the Wildcats vs No. 15 UCLA this weekend
- Date/Time: Friday, Feb. 26 at 12 p.m. MST and Sunday, Feb. 28 at 1 p.m. MST
- Location: Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles, Calif.
- Stream: Both matches will be streamed on UCLA Live Stream
- Stats: In-match stats will be available via Arizona Live Stats
- Twitter: Follow us at @AZDesertSwarm. You can also follow our editor at @RKelapire and our reporter at @KimDoss71 for coverage during the game and throughout the season.