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Young but talented, Arizona volleyball has NCAA Tournament expectations in 2021

Photo by Simon Asher/Arizona Athletics

Postponed until the spring, played in fanless arenas, and shortened to a Pac-12-only schedule, the 2020 Arizona volleyball season felt empty in a lot of ways. Looking back, head coach Dave Rubio is just grateful they had a chance to play.

The Wildcats went 10-11 and missed the NCAA Tournament for the third straight season, but they were able to integrate several new players and give many of them their first glimpse of major-conference college volleyball.

There were plenty of rough moments, sure, but they were the kind of growing pains Rubio believes will help the Wildcats reach their potential this season. He’s setting the bar high for his young group.

“I think that we’re a tournament-level team,” he said. “We’ve got enough talent, and then I think once we get to the end of the season...I think that we’ll be an excellent team and have a chance to go make a deep run. Our goal is to get to the Round of 16.”

Junior Kamaile Hiapo, the team’s leader and star libero, echoed that sentiment.

“I hold our team to a higher standard this year because I know all the talent we have—and the talent we brought in,” she said.

The Wildcats return almost all of their key players—third-leading scorer Paige Whipple (graduation) and middle blocker China Rai Crouch (medical redshirt) being the notable departures.

The UA is loaded with terminal hitters, including reigning Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Sofia Maldonado Diaz and fellow sophomore Jaelyn Hodge, the one-time Arizona Gatorade Player of the Year who was second on the team in kills last season and has improved in the back row.

They also added Puk Stubbe, a 21-year-old freshman hitter from the Netherlands who, despite only joining the team a week ago, was one of the top performers in the Red-Blue scrimmage last Saturday.

Sophomore Emery Herman, tasked with distributing to them, is entering her second season as the starting setter and says she’s more comfortable running Rubio’s intricate offense. The former top-70 recruit steadily improved last season, one reason the Wildcats won five of their final seven matches.

“It was eye-opening coming to college,” Herman said. “At first, I was just a little starstruck.”

Understandable, considering Arizona’s first two matches last season were at No. 10 Utah. The Utes made easy work of the wide-eyed Wildcats, sweeping them both times.

This season, the Wildcats will benefit from having a full slate of non-conference matches before delving into Pac-12 play. They open the season at home this weekend against Marist, New Mexico State and UC San Diego.

“The non-conference will give us an opportunity to kind of see what the lineups are going to be like,” Rubio said. “We don’t have to play someone right out of the gate that’s going to be a conference-play level team.”

While player development and creating an identity will be a big emphasis in the non-conference season, the Wildcats need to bolster their NCAA Tournament résumé, too. Rubio is aiming to be at least 9-2 entering Pac-12 play. They would then need to go at least 8-12 in league games to earn clinch a postseason berth, he said.

Rubio acknowledged that losing no more than two non-conference matches might be a lofty goal since Arizona plays No. 1 Texas on the road and No. 25 Notre Dame and a quality Northwestern team on a neutral court.

“I’m not quite sure that was the smartest move for me,” he said of his scheduling. “We’re significantly more talented (than last season), but we’re young and that worries me.”

Rubio’s high standards put even more pressure on his players, but he’s confident they will rise to the challenge.

“The great thing about youth is their enthusiasm. The bad thing about youth is a lack of experience,” he said. “Fortunately for us is that even though they’re young, they’re receptive and understand conceptually what we’re asking them to do.

“It’s going to be a work in progress. I hate using that statement because all the coaches use that statement, but it probably fits best. This week is much better than last week and so forth and so on. I think after four weeks of non-conference season we’ll be a completely different group, assuming that we’re healthy.”

Fans return to McKale Center

Saturday’s Red-Blue scrimmage marked the first time fans were welcome in McKale Center since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. Hiapo is glad her younger teammates are finally able to experience a real home environment.

“I felt so bad for them that they didn’t get a normal season,” she said. “The Tucson community, they’re so nice and it helps a lot during our games. It felt like scrimmages every time we played without the fans.”

Some COVID-19 protocols still in effect

There will be no capacity limits in McKale this season, but because it is an indoor facility, fans will be required to wear masks at volleyball games. So will unvaccinated players—even when on the court.