Dilara Gedikoglu was the top freshman in the American Athletic Conference in 2019. It was a great honor, but she wanted more. She wanted to be a contributor on a major conference team. She had just made the move from Alanya, Turkey to Tulsa, Okla., but the transfer portal was beckoning.
“I was chosen Freshman of the Year in (the AAC), but the level here is higher,” Gedikoglu said. “I also used to play really high level in Turkey back home.”
Arizona had its own needs. Katie Smoot decided to transfer to California after her junior season with the Wildcats. Who would take her place?
Enter Cursty Jackson, a former All-Pac-12 middle blocker for the Wildcats. Jackson was a friend of Gedikoglu from her time playing professionally in Turkey. She also had the experience of being a highly successful mid-major player before transferring into the Pac-12. Jackson was the Mountain West Freshman of the Year out of UNLV in 2009. The next year, she was an all-conference performer before heading off to Arizona for her final two seasons.
Jackson contacted her former coach and brought up the idea of Gedikoglu landing in Tucson. It seemed like a good fit for both sides.
“We were looking for a really solid, complete player who can play in the front row and in the back row,” head coach Dave Rubio said. “We were looking for someone who could come in and help. Paige (Whipple) was kind of the primary six-rotation player and so we needed someone to kind of back up Paige at the time and give us some depth in that position. And Dilara was willing to transfer midseason.”
Gedikoglu was effective for Arizona on defense, passing, and serving immediately. She appeared in all 21 matches her sophomore season and started in nine. Four Wildcats appeared in all 75 sets. Another played in 74, and Gedikoglu was just behind that with 73 sets under her belt.
She was one of the team’s best servers, a skill that Rubio raved about all season. He spoke of her serve often saying he thought it could be elite. She was third on the team with 0.19 aces per set.
She helped her team in other ways, too. She had 0.22 assists per set, the highest among players who didn’t play setter or libero. Her 1.71 digs per set were fourth on the team.
There were concerns, though. Gedikoglu had just 0.73 kills per set. The only regular player who had fewer was libero Kamaile Hiapo who plays a strictly defensive position. Her .069 hitting percentage was also behind all of the other regular players.
Those concerns have held over into this season. To get where she wants to be, her attacking needs to improve. Over the past two weeks, Rubio has seen that improvement in her ability to judge what the blockers are doing on the other side of the net. In his view her game has made a "180 degree" change.
“She’s seeing the game as an attacker a lot better,” he said. “She’s seeing what’s in front of her. Her attack selection now has some real thought behind it. Before it was just jump as high, hit as hard as you can, hope for the best, and at our level that’s not going to work.”
Gedikoglu feels that she’s improving, as well. After talking to her parents, she was confident enough in that assessment that she brought up her reduced playing time to Rubio.
Through the first eight matches this season, she only appeared in every set her team played five times. She started against New Mexico State in Las Cruces, but left the match in the second set of a five-set match and didn’t return. Then, in the ninth match of the year, she didn’t play at all.
“I think it was San Diego State, it was my second time in my career I didn’t touch the ball at all,” she said. “And it’s kind of disappointing for me because I’m trying to do my best on the court every day. I’m trying to be the best teammate that I can be. And I want to just talk with him and ask him is there any reason... because I don’t see any reason that he’s not putting me on the court.”
Rubio knows how valuable Gedikoglu is in the back row, but he also knows that because she is not as tall as the other pin hitters, the front row can be difficult for her.
“Dilara, because she’s smaller, she has to be a lot craftier,” he said. “Her attack selection has to be much greater. There’s less margin for error because she’s not jumping as high. And so where Jaeyln (Hodge) can get away with things simply because she’s so athletic, and the same with Sofia Maldonado, but Dilara, it’s got to be much better at picking and attacking off the edges of the block, which is harder. She’s got to be better at hitting the ball around the block, which is at times harder, as well.”
Still, he felt that she made some good points about her lack of playing time at the end of non-conference play. He also saw her put in the effort to be more than just a great passer and defender.
“I’ve seen her attack with thought and with the ability to see what’s in front of her and pick the right attack line,” Rubio said. “So, she’s really focused.”
Since that talk with her coach, she has played more often, usually substituting for Sofia Maldonado Diaz in the back row. Gedikoglu believes that not only gives her the opportunity to be on the floor but also allows her teammates an opportunity to regroup.
“Sometimes I can see those players are also struggling on the court,” she said. “Just put me on the court. She can breathe, I can do my thing and then you can put her back when she feels better... I think we had a kind of honest conversation on that point.”
The conversation certainly helped, but it’s the effort in practice that will help her make that a permanent arrangement. It’s not just about game performance.
“I think it’s a bit of a hard transition for her from a volleyball standpoint because she’s a very black and white person,” Rubio said. “She doesn’t feel like...she’s getting better (if she’s not playing). Where I am so process-oriented and I’m like, ‘You’re gonna have to take these steps in order to be able to play this well.’ And so I think that’s been a tough change of mindset for her.”
Rubio is starting to see the changes he needs to see in order for Gedikoglu to be the kind of player they both want her to be. With only four pin hitters who currently play, there are opportunities available. She needs to seize them.
“I’m sure Dilara would love to expand her role,” he said. “And she’s putting herself in a position to be certainly evaluated as a front-row player now because of the way she’s playing... We’ve had plenty of meetings about it. And I said, ‘Look, you’re not putting me in a difficult position yet.’ I said because you’re not playing at the net at the level that’s forcing me to make a decision...right now it’s an easy decision. I said, your back row skills are ahead of your front row skills...but as soon as you start to buy in a little more with training, then you’re going to put me in a position where I have to make decisions, which is what you want. Every player needs to do that for their coach.”