If there was one thing that frustrated Arizona volleyball’s head coach Dave Rubio last year it was the sheer number of “super seniors” on opposing teams. It wasn’t just a matter of players returning for the extra year granted by the NCAA due to the pandemic, either. Last season, programs were able to go over scholarship limits if their own seniors opted to come back for the extra year.
Next season, Rubio will finally have a super senior of his own. The removal of scholarship limits is no longer on the table, so he will not get to experience that advantage, but players who were in school for the 2020-21 season still have the option to return for an extra year. Arizona middle blocker Zyonna Fellows has decided that she will take advantage of that opportunity.
Arizona is in need of experience at the MB position. When last season ended, Rubio said that they would be looking in the portal for a player who had “high-level experience” at the position. At the time, Fellows was not sure she wanted to play another season.
“I haven’t made up my mind yet,” she said after Arizona defeated Arizona State on senior day. “My family really wants me to play another year. So I’m still in the process of thinking about it.”
At one point, Rubio was sure she was gone.
“In the middle of the season, I think she was pretty adamant about not coming back,” Rubio said. “You’d have to ask her that. And then I think as we got closer to the season, we were making overtures for her to come back and then I think her parents were like, ‘Why wouldn’t you want to come back and play another year?’ Especially with COVID the way that affected the one particular season. So I think all those things played a part in her ultimately deciding to return.”
He didn’t want to put pressure on her to return, but Rubio knew they really needed her. The decision was also about more than volleyball. Fellows needed to make decisions about her academic career, as well.
“Since the end of the season, we knew that we would like Z to return and I think it was more on Z trying to figure out, one, if she had the passion to come back and if that’s something that she really wanted to do,” Rubio said. “And then to kind of let her figure that out on her own without me putting the pressure on her to return.”
That’s not to say that there was no work done by the staff to convince Fellows to return. Rubio left that up to associate head coach Rita Stubbs who is both Fellows’ position coach and universally beloved in the program.
“She actually was communicating with Rita through most of the semester and having conversations about different graduate programs and trying to figure out ways to kind of meet what she was looking for academically and then, of course, we wanted her to return to help the team with...some depth and experience in the middle position,” Rubio said.
It was a huge relief for the head coach.
“Rita said, ‘Dave, Zyonna’s decided to come back,’ and I was whooping and hollering,” Rubio said. “It really gave us some breathing room in that position because we’re so young and we have two or three really good young middles. But we could use some great leadership in that position and certainly some experience and Zyonna last year was such a good leader...for those players.”
The good news doesn’t end with the return of Fellows, either. While she is not yet listed on the 2022 roster, the Wildcats will also be welcoming back China Rai Crouch. Crouch was a starting middle as a freshman during the spring season in 2021 but was injured halfway through that season. Merle Weidt stepped into the position and started for a season-and-a-half, but she has now moved on.
Crouch took what Rubio has called a “medical gap year” in the fall 2021 season. He said at the time that she planned to return, but things can always change. Fortunately for the Wildcats, things didn’t change and Crouch is following through with her return.
The question will be where Crouch plays. Prior to coming to college, she was an opposite. During her freshman season with the Wildcats, she played middle out of necessity. At 6-foot-6 she had the right size and Arizona needed someone to step in when 6-foot-5 Lauren Ware opted not to play volleyball.
Arizona has several middle blockers now, but the Wildcats also have Puk Stubbe on the right side. Crouch will have to beat out the experienced and talented Stubbe if she wants to move back to the opp position. Stubbe made the Pac-12 All-Freshman team last season.
In the middle, Fellows will obviously start. Crouch came in as part of the highly-touted class that included Sofia Maldonado Diaz, Jaelyn Hodge, and Emery Herman. Now, she’s a sophomore while those players are all juniors. Crouch will battle fellow sophomores Alayna Johnson and Nicole Briggs, as well as freshman Lauren Rumel, for the second starting middle spot if she opts to stay there.
“It kind of depends on China,” Rubio said. “We’ll see what position she can play. I mean, it’s interesting that all these players have had, with the exception of China, two years of competition under their belts. I don’t know where China is in her development, and so it’s going to take her a bit of a time just to kind of get her feet underneath her whether she plays in the middle or the opposite.”
Even with the returners, the team could potentially add one more player. Last year, they added Stubbe from overseas, but the more likely scenario would be adding someone from the portal. Rubio said that they have one scholarship to give, but he’s happy with the team as it now stands.
- Setter Herman, outside hitter Hodge, and libero Kamaile Hiapo were all slated to attend the USA Volleyball Women’s National Team Open Program from Feb. 25-27 in Colorado Springs, Colo. The program is part of the selection process for the U.S. Women’s National Team, USA Volleyball’s NCAA Elite Athlete List, and the 2022 U.S. Women’s Collegiate National Team.
- Although Herman was at USA Volleyball this past weekend, she and the other two setters have otherwise been on campus. The Wildcats have a junior (Herman), a sophomore (Ava Tortorello), and a freshman (Ana Heath) at the position now.
“All three of them are doing very well,” Rubio said. “That’s certainly an area of focus for us, trying to get them a little more consistent in regard to the location. And so I like what we’re doing. Ana Heath is here now and she’s got some technical aspects of her game that need to be cleaned up a little bit, which is normal. But I like the demeanors and I like the willingness to make changes and I like how they’re applying themselves.”
- On Mar. 2, the team will finally be able to get started with their traditional spring practice. That means the coaches have up to 20 hours a week to work with the athletes for up to 132 days. The Wildcats appear to have plenty of talent and experience this season. Now, the coaches just need to figure out how it all fits together.