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What is the competitive cauldron and why is Arizona volleyball using it?

Head coach Dave Rubio hopes that more intensity in practice will lead to better results in matches

arizona-volleyball-falls-to-california-first-time-three-seasons-pac-12-stats-analysis-recap Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

At various times throughout the season, Arizona volleyball head coach Dave Rubio has mentioned competitiveness and how to foster it in his players. He saw some of his best players not playing at the level they had in previous seasons and needed a way to help them get back to where they were.

With the season not progressing as the players and coaches had hoped, he decided to make a change in how the team determines starting lineups, especially for outside hitters and defensive specialists. Enter the practice analytical system known as the competitive cauldron.

“The biggest reason is because we were having trouble having any kind of offense with Puk [Stubbe] and with Sofia [Maldonado Diaz],” Rubio said. “Both their numbers were way down from the year before, and so I felt like it would be beneficial to kind of just open it up again and let people compete for it from a week-to-week standpoint. And I also felt the same way with [former defensive specialist] Madison Ellman and with [libero] Kamaile [Hiapo]. I felt both of those guys were not passing at the level that they’re capable of, and we have a lot of littles. The competition, in general—that’s the idea—is going to raise the level of everyone’s game. And as they say, the cream rises to the top, and that’s kind of the philosophy.”

The cauldron was created by North Carolina soccer coach Anson Dorrance. It was later adapted for volleyball by Jim McLaughlin, who coached men’s volleyball at USC and women’s volleyball at Washington. He used the training method to lead the Huskies to the 2005 national championship, becoming the first coach to win a national title in both men’s and women’s volleyball. It was just five years after he took over a Washington program that was last in the Pac-10.

While it’s used for different reasons by different programs, at Arizona it is relatively simple and it determines who starts matches. Starters are determined by one stat for the hitters and one for the defensive specialists/liberos. For the hitters, it is attack percentage. For the littles, it is passing, as scored on the standard 3.0-point scale employed for grading volleyball passes.

Rubio said that the hard numbers allow him to put an objective stat in front of the players that shows them exactly why other players are starting over them. This was especially important because Arizona had entrenched starters who needed to be shown that it wasn’t a subjective force causing them to lose their starting positions. It was pure performance as measured by a cold, hard number.

The cauldron was introduced the week before Stanford and California came to town in mid-October. Outside observers didn’t notice it because it did not have an effect on the starters that week.

What was more obvious that week was that Rubio moved Stubbe to the left side and Maldonado Diaz to the right side. Despite losing to Stanford in straight sets, Rubio called the match “the best match we’ve played all season.”

That match against the Cardinal was followed up by another good match against the Golden Bears. The Wildcats swept Cal, although the second and third sets were closer than they might have liked.

The next week, the starters remained the same as Arizona traveled to play Washington State and Washington. After a close, hard-fought match against the Cougars, the Wildcats had another letdown against Washington in Seattle.

It wasn’t until Oregon and Oregon State came to Tucson that things started to look different. Fans may not have known what was going on behind the scenes, but they did notice the changes beginning that week. Social media direct messages and message board posts all asked the same thing, “What is Dave Rubio doing with his lineup?”

Maldonado Diaz was not in the starting lineup against the Ducks on Friday that week. In her place was freshman Lauren Rumel. The reason given was “practice analytics.”

The junior came in relatively early in the match and had her best outing of the season up to that point. She led the team with 17 kills on .342 hitting.

After the match, Maldonado Diaz said that not starting made her mad “but in a good way.” She said she was trying to show Rubio that she needed to be out there to start.

That may be where what Rubio calls the “drama” and “controversy” around the cauldron came into play. While Maldonado Diaz’s play on Friday night got her back into the starting lineup against Oregon State on Sunday, it would have no effect on the following Friday’s starters. Instead, everyone starts with a “clean slate,” in Rubio’s words.

“I think what’s hard is what happened the weekend before doesn’t really count towards what goes into the first game, the Friday game, over the next weekend,” said junior setter Emery Herman. “You can’t say, ‘Oh, I played good this past weekend. I don’t need to be on my best game or have to show out at practice throughout the whole week.’”

That would be demonstrated the next two Fridays when Maldonado Diaz came off the bench against UCLA and in the big win against then-No. 20 Washington only to start the Sunday matches against USC and Washington State.

Rubio takes responsibility for those misunderstandings and frustrations on the part of the players. It’s the first time he has used the cauldron in a coaching career that spans almost four decades. He said that he failed to explain things in a way that the players understood.

“I’m kind of creating the wheel as we go,” Rubio said. “I have a much better idea and I think the communication’s gotten better as the weeks have gone by. So there’s, I think more buying into the cauldron, as well. So, it hasn’t come without its controversy, certainly on the team, and hasn’t come without its flaws, either. It’s something that since I just haven’t done it before, it’s a work in progress. But at the end of the day, I think overall, there’s been a lot more pluses than minuses.”

The matches have shown some of the pluses. Maldonado Diaz has only had fewer than 14 kills twice since the cauldron was introduced. She is averaging 3.63 kills per set in the 10 matches since the change. Before that, she averaged 2.78 kills per set.

Maldonado Diaz is also fairly efficient in the 10 matches since the cauldron came into play. She has only hit below .265 four times. One of those was in the latest match against Washington State, and her hitting percentage only dropped late in the match after the Cougars shifted their blocking focus from Jaelyn Hodge to Maldonado Diaz.

Rubio said that “you’d have to ask her” if the cauldron has been the reason for Maldonado Diaz’s renaissance, but the numbers certainly point to the change in practice environment at least coinciding with her dramatically raising her game.

As for the quality of that practice environment, Rubio raves about the improvement. While he doesn’t know if he will continue to use it in future years, he thinks it had a good impact on the group of players at Arizona this year.

“Here we are, we have two more weeks left,” he said. “If you walked in our gym today, you would think, ‘Those guys look like they’re going to postseason.’ You guys are playing great. They’re ranked. It’s like the first part of those first weeks of the season because the energy is really good. The competitiveness is really good. The intensity is good. The mindfulness at practice was excellent. And the reason is because of the competitiveness the cauldron creates.”

Arizona Wildcats (14-13, 4-12 Pac-12) @ California Golden Bears (7-19, 0-16 Pac-12)

When: Thursday, Nov. 17 at 8:00 p.m. MST

Where: Haas Pavilion in Berkeley, Calif.

TV/Streaming: Neither Cal nor Arizona indicates that the match will be available to view.

Stats: Cal Live Stats

Standings and rankings: Arizona is 10th in the Pac-12 standings and No. 98 in RPI. California is in last place in the Pac-12 and No. 216 in RPI.

Rubio says: “Cal’s been playing great. If you look at their record, the last four matches, they’re going five with everybody every night. They’ve been kind of following our same path...They’ve made some really good changes. They haven’t won to match yet in conference and yet these guys are playing as hard as I’ve ever seen them play. To me, that’s great coaching...I think that’s always a sign of great coaching when the kids never let go of the rope regardless of the circumstances, and Cal’s out there playing as hard as I’ve seen them play all year and putting themselves in position to win every single set just like we have. And so I think Thursday’s match is going to be an absolute war. It’s going to be a really hard match for both teams, very competitive, and I think both teams are just gonna get after it and, at the end of the day, the team that executes the best is the team that’s going to win, but I don’t think there’s going to be anybody on the floor not playing as hard as they can.”

Arizona Wildcats (14-13, 4-12 Pac-12) @ Stanford Cardinal (20-4, 15-1 Pac-12)

When: Saturday, Nov. 19 at 1:00 p.m. MST

Where: Maples Pavilion in Stanford, Calif.

TV/Streaming: The game will be aired on Pac-12 Los Angeles.

Stats: Stanford Live Stats

Standings and rankings: Stanford is ranked No. 8 in the AVCA poll. The Cardinal is first in the Pac-12 and No. 3 in RPI. Arizona is not ranked in the AVCA poll. The Wildcats are 10th in the Pac-12 standings and No. 98 in RPI.

Rubio says: “I think that right now, they’re playing a cut above everybody else, although I don’t think that they are beyond losing, either. I mean, USC by all right should have beat them last Wednesday, and that was without Skylar Fields. They were up 2-0 against Stanford. And so, I think, that you can’t fall asleep against anybody in our conference, and if you do, you’re gonna get beat.”

How to follow along

Follow us on Twitter @AZDesertSwarm for all things Arizona Wildcats. For live tweets of volleyball matches and news throughout the week, follow our deputy editor @KimDoss71.