Arizona volleyball will have a much different look next year. The program signed four during the early signing period in November. It is set to lose fifth-year senior Zyonna Fellows. It also appears to be losing at least two regular starters and one player who started several matches late in the season.
Last season, Arizona volleyball lost one player to the portal. Merle Weidt could not get her graduate program at UA, so she transferred to Denver for the extra year granted by the NCAA due to the pandemic. This year, the explanation for transfers is not so simple.
It was known that outside hitter Dilara Gedikoglu would be leaving Arizona. Whether she transferred to another school for her COVID-19 year or went back overseas to pursue a professional career, both sides agreed that she would be leaving after she plays for the Arizona beach volleyball team in the spring.
Gedikoglu began starting late in the season after the introduction of the cauldron, but she has spent most of her time at Arizona as a reserve. She transferred to UA after her freshman season at Tulsa.
Reports from several different sources indicate that two more Wildcat starters are also in the portal, though, and those were not expected. Those two are four-year starting libero Kamaile Hiapo and three-year starting setter Emery Herman.
Hiapo would definitely have been welcomed back. Although she was honored at Arizona’s senior day, head coach Dave Rubio said as late as the day before that it was “the plan” for her to return. It was a reiteration of a statement he made before the season started.
Hiapo was more guarded about that on the same day. She said it was “definitely a possibility” that she would spend her fifth year at Arizona, but she had not decided. While it’s tough to be certain what’s going on in someone’s head, on that day, her body language and tone of voice suggested that she was heavily leaning towards leaving UA. The question was whether that meant a transfer or going pro, the two options she offered for her future if she did not return.
There were reasons for Hiapo to stay. She was a four-year starter with the Wildcats and unlike most at her position, she was a four-year scholarship player. Throughout her four years at Arizona, Rubio rarely had any public criticisms of her. While there were times this season when he said it wasn’t her best year, he always tempered even that slight criticism with praise. He valued both her skills and her leadership.
There were also reasons for her to go. The Wildcats ended the season 16-15 and 6-14 in conference play. It wasn’t what they had envisioned for themselves at the beginning. They finally got a spring development season, something that hadn’t occurred since 2019. Most of the team was still in high school at that time. They had talent and experience at key positions. Hiapo was vocal about her disappointment with where they were selected in the preseason Pac-12 poll because she thought they would be much better. It just didn’t unfold as anyone expected.
Hiapo led the league in digs this season, but she ended up All-Pac-12 honorable mention once again. She has never landed on the full all-conference team.
She has also never played in the NCAA Tournament. Whether Arizona would have made it in the spring season of 2021 if the tournament was a full 64 teams is certainly a possibility. It’s rare for the conference not to put at least six teams in the NCAA postseason. But the reality is that it was 48 teams and the Wildcats didn’t get to go. Their last appearance was the year before she arrived in Tucson. With only one year left to play, Hiapo had to hope that the Wildcats would finally break through next year or she had to move on.
Hiapo posted an ambiguous message on her Instagram account earlier this week. It certainly seemed to be a goodbye message.
“Thank you, Arizona volleyball. [Bear Down emoji] #8” she wrote.
Perhaps a bigger surprise came when reports that Herman was in the portal emerged. Like Hiapo, she has started her entire career at UA. She rarely left the court, missing a maximum of parts of two or three sets per season throughout her time in Tucson.
Also like Hiapo, Rubio has rarely been publicly critical of Herman’s play. While he has always said that she arrived at Arizona with her other skills ahead of her setting skills, he has tempered even that criticism with praise for how much she has grown. He was especially complimentary of her after the Wildcats’ loss to Colorado on Nov. 23.
“Emery is kind of the straw that stirs the drink for us,” Rubio said that day. “And the thing that I love about Emery is that she’s really grown in the last three, four weeks of the season. Just commanding more, running the offense more, having a better idea about it. Her leadership on the court and much better decision-making. Everything about her has been significantly better for me. I’m really proud of her and certainly, her serving and her defense and her blocking have always been first-rate, but the setting and the leadership, it’s been, I think, the last part of her game that’s finally started to catch up. So the last several matches, she’s been outstanding. I’ve really been pleased.”
Arizona also lost several defensive specialists during the season who will likely be in the portal. Among those are Madison Ellman, who was just behind Hiapo on the libero/defensive specialist depth chart early in the season.
While most defensive specialists are walk-on players unless they are upperclassmen who start at libero, the lack of quality at the position can devastate a team. This is the position that is most skilled at and responsible for passing. Arizona saw what the lack of good serve receive and passing can do this season when it threw the entire offense off-balance at times.
Who steps in?
The current roster
With the loss of three seniors, two of whom had a year of eligibility left, and a junior who has two years of eligibility, where will Arizona look to fill those spots?
Some of the answers can be found internally. The Wildcats have two other setters on the roster. Based on the amount of playing time they got this season, the most likely player to step into the spot left open by Herman is freshman Ana Heath. Both Heath and sophomore Ava Tortorello saw some playing time early on, but as the season progressed, Heath was the one who regularly played.
Like Herman, Heath has a strong serve, which is how she got most of her playing time during her first season. Rubio also likes her competitiveness and intensity. Those were characteristics he sometimes felt this year’s team as a whole lacked; it was part of the reason he introduced the cauldron late in the year.
At libero, Joy Galles would appear to be the player on the current roster who has the strongest chance. After losing to Colorado, Rubio noted that Galles was out sick and that she was “probably our best-passing little.”
Gedikoglu played a unique role in that although she was listed as an outside hitter, she often only played in the back row similar to a defensive specialist. Although she started late in the season, early in the season sophomore Puk Stubbe was the third starting pin.
Fellows exhausting her eligibility is a blow to the Wildcats, as well. She developed into a complete player in her fifth season and she won’t be easy to replace. Her 1.41 blocks per set were by far the best of her career as were her 1.64 kills per set and .313 hitting percentage.
Fellows ranked first in the Pac-12 in total blocks and block assists, and she was second in solo blocks. Her blocks per set landed her fourth in the conference. During league play, she was once again first in total blocks and block assists, as well as second in solo blocks. She moved up to second in blocks per set when facing the tough competition in the conference. Despite that, she wasn’t even named to the honorable mention list.
Sophomore middle blocker Alayna Johnson showed a great deal of promise as the MB2 this season, and Arizona has sophomore Nicole Briggs on the roster. Freshman Lauren Rumel played middle blocker in high school, and sophomore China Rai Crouch was a starting MB for the Wildcats before being injured her freshman season and taking a year off for her pregnancy. However, Crouch played very little this season, so where she fits in this mix is a huge question mark.
The other option is looking for a middle blocker in the portal. Rubio suggested that they would at least take a look at transfers at this position, but he may now be looking for players at multiple positions. While Arizona has players in the incoming class that may be able to reduce the issues with serve receive, help in the middle is not part of the class.
The class of 2023
Arizona signed a class of four for 2023 consisting of two outside hitters and two defensive specialists. How quickly they adapt to college play may determine how good the Wildcats are next season since several starters must be replaced.
Sydnie Vanek (OH, 6’)
Vanek certainly brings good volleyball genes to the table. She’s the second cousin of beach volleyball Olympic gold medalist and 1998 NCAA indoor volleyball champion Misty May-Treanor.
✍️— Arizona Volleyball (@ArizonaVBall) November 9, 2022
» Clovis, Calif.
» Clovis H.S.
Welcome to Tucson, Sydnie! pic.twitter.com/hHmx6vqu7J
Vanek is an all-around athlete. In addition to volleyball, she competes in track and field for Clovis (CA) High School in the Fresno area. She’s a state long jump champion. She told 1430 AM ESPN Fresno that she might try track and field at Arizona, as well. She also played basketball as a high school freshman.
She’s listed as both an outside hitter and a middle blocker by her high school on her MaxPreps page, but her size and the announcement by the Wildcats suggest that she will play on the left side.
As a junior, she led Clovis to 27 wins and the Division II state volleyball semifinals. In August, the CIF preseason roundup referred to her as part of “the best hitting tandem in the Central Section.”
“She’s a Jaelyn Hodge type of athlete, just super explosive,” Rubio said. “Just an exceptional athlete... She’s not as far along in the back row on serve receive and defense as she is as a front-row player, but I think all that’s there for her. She’s an extraordinary, extraordinary athlete. Just extraordinary. I mean, her jumping, she may be one of the best jumpers I’ve ever coached. She’s really up there.”
Her high school stats on MaxPreps do not appear to be complete for her senior season. In her junior season, she had 4.6 kills per set on .293 hitting in 94 sets played.
Tess Fuqua (OH, 6’)
Fuqua won’t be moving too far from home when she becomes a Wildcat. The native of Las Cruces, New Mexico will travel just four hours from her hometown when she joins Arizona. It will make her one of two athletes to play for a Power 5 school in the history of her high school.
✍️— Arizona Volleyball (@ArizonaVBall) November 9, 2022
» Las Cruces, N.M.
» Centennial H.S.
Welcome to Tucson, Tess! pic.twitter.com/grlNtQDc25
As a junior at Centennial High, Fuqua was named the 2021-22 New Mexico Gatorade Player of the Year. Rubio expects her to win it again as a senior. She was also invited to play in the 2022 New Mexico Large School All-Star Volleyball Game.
Playing for a major-conference team was attractive. Fuqua chose Arizona over UNLV and Lamar. UNLV won last year’s NIVC (beating the Wildcats on the way) and is in this year’s NCAA Tournament, but Fuqua told the Las Cruces Sun News that UA felt like it “was my home.” There’s also a family connection. Rubio’s brother Keith Rubio coached Fuqua’s club team during the final month of the 2022 summer.
Over the course of her high school career, Fuqua was good for 5.2 kills per set on .345 hitting. MaxPreps shows 0.4 aces and 1.5 digs per set over the course of her four-year career.
With Arizona looking for six-rotation hitters, Fuqua’s serve receive is of special interest. As a senior, she received the ball 457 times and had 36 reception errors. That’s 0.4 reception errors in 5.1 reception attempts per set.
Although she’s also listed as 6’ tall, Rubio initially described Fuqua as smaller than Vanek. Despite that, he thinks she will find early time on the floor.
“She’s a six-rotation player,” Rubio said. “I really like her as a player who can function and has a good volleyball IQ and has a good skill set. She’s probably maybe a little undersized and a little bit, not quite as physical, but the fact that she’s so good functionality-wise, we’ve always been able to get a kid like her that’s going to be able to step in and play the game in every phase, in every aspect of the game. That’s what she brings. She was a rodeo girl who was a barrel racer and she grew up with horses and the whole thing with her family. So I liked that part about her, too. Kind of the mental toughness and kind of blue-collar...Those are the things that I think Tess really brings to the table. Really good player, just a good player. She’s gonna have to be for us. I mean, I like her ability to come in and be able to function immediately for us.”
Ania Swartzendruber (L/DS, 5’9”)
Like most players who move to the libero/defensive specialist position in college, Swartzendruber plays some outside hitter at the high school level, but she will focus on L/DS in college due to her size and skill.
✍️— Arizona Volleyball (@ArizonaVBall) November 10, 2022
» Parker, Colo.
» Legend H.S.
Welcome to Tucson, Ania! pic.twitter.com/GgR7IelVPD
During her senior season at Legend High School in Parker, Colo, she averaged 3.7 digs per set. That was an increase from 2.4 d/s her junior season. She has also played beach volleyball, earning a spot at the USA Junior Nationals at the age of 13.
“Ania is a feisty free spirit, which I think is kind of cool in that position, being able to just do it versus thinking, and compete the entire time,” said associate head coach Rita Stubbs. “So I think that she has a component similar to Kamaile. She’ll just go out there and just grind it out and go for it. It’s not a knock against anyone else, but it’s nice to know since we’ll be losing Kamaile...I think both [Swartzendruber and Laura Detweiler] have the ability to step in. I don’t know what immediate impact they can make, but they are definitely the future.”
With Hiapo in the portal, that future may be sooner than expected.
Laura Detweiler (L/DS, 5’8”)
Detweiler really wanted to be a Wildcat.
“She literally pursued us for a long time,” Stubbs said. “Came out and committed to it.”
Detweiler is so committed to it that she’s moving across the country to play for Arizona. She plays for Woodgrove High School in Lovesttsville, Va. The town of fewer than 3,000 people is located in the northern part of Loudoun County.
“Laura is just a hard worker,” Stubbs said. “Something about kids from the east is a little bit different.”
✍️— Arizona Volleyball (@ArizonaVBall) November 9, 2022
» Lovesttsville, Va.
» Woodgrove H.S.
Welcome to Tucson, Laura! pic.twitter.com/sufNDaLksC