Zyonna Fellows remembers what it was like to step into the Richard Jefferson Gymnasium and McKale Center as a freshman. This year, she has learned how to help others deal with those first steps into college volleyball.
Fellows is a junior on a team fairly bereft of upperclassmen, especially those who started their careers at Arizona. She and defensive specialist Malina Kalei Ua are the only juniors who have spent their entire careers as Wildcats. Paige Whipple is the only four-year senior. Along with transfers Akia Warrior and Merle Weidt, they make up the entirety of the upperclass.
After two seasons playing behind Shardonee Hayes and All-America honorable mention Devyn Cross, Fellows is now the most experienced middle blocker on the Arizona roster. Last year gave her plenty of opportunities to get that experience.
The Wildcats have been stung by injuries for the past two years. Last season was especially bad. Hayes started the first 15 matches of the 2019 season. Then, she was felled by the injury that has stalked the Arizona lineup: concussion.
“Watching Devyn and Shar play, coming in as a freshman, I looked up to them and I was like, ‘Holy smokes, I want to be like them,’” Fellows said. “And then as a middle or as any volleyball player, you never know when something’s going to happen. So I was shocked to go in, but my mentality was more of now’s your time to shine, get out there and play the volleyball that you know.”
Hayes would not return for the Wildcats, who pieced their lineup together as the season wore on and the injuries piled up. Although she was a redshirt junior, Hayes opted to move on at the end of the season after a career sidetracked by injuries. That left Fellows as the go-to MB1 on the team this year.
“Z was kind of thrust into the starting position last year when Shardonee went down with a concussion and really benefited from playing all year long,” Arizona head coach Dave Rubio said. “And that kind of transitioned into this year. But the demands of her position and what we expected of her became significantly more than it was last year.”
Fellows has lived up to that responsibility with the best season of her career.
In the blocking game, her season is going about the same as last year. She has 0.72 blocks per set compared to the 0.73 she had in 2019. But she has picked things up on defense. She is getting a career-high 0.42 digs per set after finishing with 0.36 last season.
It is in the offensive game that she has really shined, though. In just 57 sets, she has already surpassed her total kills from last year. Fellows had 68 kills in 80 sets last season. This year, she has already found the floor 72 times in just 57 sets. That is good for 1.3 kills per set compared to 0.85 k/s last season. It’s the first time she has averaged more than a kill per set in her career.
She is doing it with more efficiency, too. While Fellows has increased her hitting percentage each year, she still struggled with it last season. In 2019, she hit just .160. So far this year, she is hitting .293. As a middle blocker, it was an improvement she needed to make.
As a group, the middle blockers are seeing much more offensive production. While Weidt has fewer kills per set this season (1.4) than she did in her final season at Rutgers (1.6), she is hitting at a far higher percentage. Her efficiency has gone from .249 to .433. Of the three middle blockers who have played this season, only injured freshman China Rai Crouch has less than a kill per set.
Both Rubio and the players heap praise on associate head coach Rita Stubbs for the improvement in the position.
“Credit Rita,” Rubio said. “Rita really is the one who’s been training the middles. She’s done a fantastic job with both Merle and China and with Zyonna. But the growth that Zyonna has made even within the last three weeks has been substantial. I have people calling me who know our team really well who say, “I can’t believe how good Zyonna has gotten.’ From a blocking standpoint and also from an offensive standpoint, both of those areas we’ve seen a tremendous growth from her.”
Stubbs is thrilled to see her players getting more looks on the offense. A few weeks ago, Rubio said that they are now setting the middles as much as 32 percent of the time when they used to set them between 20 and 25 percent of the time.
“I like the fact that we’re getting set more,” Stubbs said. “We hold this debate in the office quite often. But part of it is us putting ourselves in the position to be able to score.”
Doing that takes a lot of training. Some of that training is evident to the coach’s eye even when the results aren’t as obvious to the untrained observer.
“We’re spending a lot of time just with them contacting the ball,” Stubbs said after the Wildcats’ first win over Colorado. “It didn’t necessarily work to Zy’s advantage today, but she was strategically thinking what is available and she sees what’s behind the block, which is probably the most important thing. So we’re just repping it a lot and giving them a ton of feedback. And the film helps probably the most.”
Stubbs is especially pleased that Fellows is able to help the team in a variety of ways. During that first match against the Buffaloes, Fellows had 10 attacks, but just one kill that was offset by two errors. She ended with a -.100 hitting percentage, but she had five blocks including one solo.
“She wasn’t necessarily hitting well today,” Stubbs said on Friday. “They played a good defense around her. So she changed her mindset and became more focused on blocking and contributing to the team there, and that’s a sign of a veteran player that one thing isn’t going well she was able to do something else.”
Fellows looks to Stubbs for guidance both on the court and off.
“Rita is like a second mom to me,” Fellows said. “On the court, when I don’t understand something that Dave says she kind of helps me understand, puts it in the language that I understand. And then off the court, she checks on me academically to make sure I’m okay. Health-wise. Makes sure my family’s okay. She’s just like a mom on and off the court.”
The effort of all four women—the three players and their position coach—is one of many things that has Rubio excited about the future of his team.
“I was telling Rita today after practice, I’m like ‘those guys. I’m so proud of how much they’ve improved throughout the year,’” Rubio said.