Arizona volleyball head coach Dave Rubio is not an emotional person by his own account. There will undoubtedly be emotions for his team this week, though, as they prepare to honor three seniors on Wednesday and take on Arizona State in their second rivalry match on Saturday.
“It feels like I’ve been here before,” fifth-year middle blocker Zyonna Fellows joked.
As of now, the Wildcats know that Wednesday’s match against Colorado will be the final match in McKale Center for senior outside hitter Dilara Gedikoglu and Fellows, who returned to play her fifth year granted by the NCAA due to the pandemic. The question is more open for senior libero Kamaile Hiapo.
“I thought about it,” Hiapo said. “If it was actually my last time, I would be so sad.”
Rubio has said since before the season that the hope was that Hiapo would return for her fifth year and reiterated that on Tuesday. On the same day, Hiapo seemed unsure what her next steps would be.
“It’s still up in the air, but it’s definitely a possibility,” Hiapo said.
For now, her options are returning to Arizona, playing her fifth year at another school, or going pro.
There is no question about whether the Wildcats would welcome Hiapo back. Rubio has stated multiple times in the past that the defensive specialist/libero position is usually on “short money,” but she was an exception and got a full scholarship for her entire career. Her leadership has been as important as her defense and passing during her four years at Arizona.
Fellows was in the same position last year that Hiapo faces now. She made the decision to return to Tucson for her final year after the fall 2021 season was over.
“Last year, I honestly didn’t know what I wanted to do, but then I realized that I didn’t want to work a regular job,” Fellows said. “So I was like, you know, why not do one more year? But I feel like I made the best decision because I’m happy where I’m at now.”
Fellows is considering playing professionally overseas. She said it’s still unofficial, but it’s “90 percent” that she will end up in Peru in December, a placement that associate head coach Rita Stubbs has been helping her with because she’s still in-season.
Rubio thinks the extra year has done wonders for her as far as helping her get over her fears and reach her full potential on the court. That has put her in a position to make “good money” overseas, her coach said earlier this season.
“It's been a great ride for her and a great ride for me particularly with her because of just the type of person she is,” Rubio said. “And her coming back for the fifth year and being as good as she has become and the impact player that you become for us is something that I really appreciate. And I’m happy for her because I think the self-doubt has always been the biggest issue for her, just believing in herself that she’d be good enough. I’ve always felt that Zyonna has got all this potential if you could just believe in the fact that you could be this good.”
Gedikoglu is entertaining playing her fifth year elsewhere or going pro.
“I’m just waiting for some replies from some schools and some other persons and then from there, I’m gonna make my decision,” she said.
Rubio is pleased that she will get to go out on a high note as far as her contributions to the team. She was openly frustrated during her junior season, freely talking about it to both Rubio and the media, but has found more time on the court as her senior year progressed. The native of Turkey will play her final game in McKale in front of her loved ones.
“With Dilara, it’s been a really good finish for her,” Rubio said. “I’m happy. It’s been a frustrating time for her because she obviously would like to play a lot more than she has. And I think that this particular year, she’s been able to kind of hang in there emotionally, mentally and put herself in a position to be a starter, and I think the cauldron has been a good thing for her. Her parents are going to be here, and so I think it’s an opportunity for her to play in front of her parents and to kind of finish out her year and her career here in the fashion that maybe she always thought it would be.”
The players went through a lot as a group. They welcomed in the infant of teammate China Rai Crouch—in their homes, in the case of Fellows—they went through the unknowns of the cauldron, and they continued competing hard despite not reaching the team goals they had when it all started.
“I feel like we built like a mini family,” Fellows said. “Honestly, we all kind of connected. We all butted heads at one point, but it made us stronger together. And even though we didn’t have this winning season that we wanted, a lot of our losses we still fought hard, which I’ll take that any day.”
Fellows has twice set personal bests for blocks in a match this season. She had 12 against California in Tucson, then upped that to 14 when the Wildcats visited the Golden Bears last weekend.
“I just felt like I had nothing to lose being a fifth year,” Fellows said. “I’m just here trying to go out with a bang.”
As for their final two matches, there are team goals and more personal goals.
“I want to win,” Fellows said. “I have some personal goals that I’m trying to beat. I’m trying to move up in the record books on blocks, so hopefully I can do that.”
Last year, the team took part in the NIVC tournament after the regular season. Both Hiapo and Rubio said that was unlikely this season, although the team had not discussed it.
“Just thinking it could be a possibility that this is my last match in McKale, that’s really crazy,” Hiapo said. “This is my home. I really want to play my best and just leave it all out there.”
Colorado Buffaloes (18-10, 10-8 Pac-12) @ Arizona Wildcats (15-14, 5-13 Pac-12)
When: Wednesday, Nov. 23 at 1 p.m. MST
Where: McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz.
Viewing: Arizona Live Stream
Stats: Arizona Live Stats
Rankings/Standings: Colorado is receiving votes in the AVCA poll and is No. 46 in the RPI. They are in sixth place in the Pac-12. Arizona is No. 99 in RPI and is 10th in the Pac-12.
Rubio says: “It’s always hard when you’re playing a team that you haven’t seen at all other than film. They’re having a terrific year. That’s a team that really turned things around from a year ago. A couple of their players were probably not as confident as you’d like them to be and have really turned the corner, and they’ve had a nice addition with Lexi Hadrych, who’s a grad transfer from UCLA. She’s kind of been kind of the straw that stirs the drink, because adding her allowed him to do a lot of things and put people in spots that allows them to be a lot more functional. And then a couple of those players have really developed and are playing with a lot of confidence.”
Arizona Wildcats (15-14, 5-13 Pac-12) @ Arizona State Sun Devils (12-18, 6-12 Pac-12)
When: Saturday, Nov. 26 at 4 p.m. MST
Where: Desert Financial Arena in Tempe, Ariz.
Viewing: Pac-12 Arizona
Stats: ASU Live Stats
Rankings/Standings: Arizona is No. 99 in the RPI and 10th in the Pac-12. ASU is No. 108 in the RPI and ninth in the Pac-12.
Rubio says: “I think like us, they’ve been through a lot of changes. There’s certain core people that have stayed, but they’ve made some...changes. Their opposite’s terrific. [Marta Levinska] is, I think, an all-conference player. And then [Iman Isanovic], those are the two driving factors, the opposite and the left, then the people, the pieces around them are pretty solid. They’ve been very competitive with everybody in the conference. I think it’s going to be really competitive, so we’ll see. Obviously, we felt like we let one get away from us when we first started off in the season. See if we can put ourselves in the position to get that one back.”