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Taking Stock: How Arizona volleyball is looking under coach Dave Rubio

Arizona volleyball player Sofia Maldonado Diaz (2) faces the camera and teammate Puk Stubbe (10) faces away from the camera
Arizona volleyball’s Sofia Maldonado Diaz (2) and Puk Stubbe (10)
Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

The offseason is here, with all of Arizona’s sports done for 2021-22 and the 2022-23 campaigns still a little ways away.

Which makes this a great time to step back and see how all of the Wildcats’ programs are doing.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll take a look at each of the UA’s 19 men’s and women’s programs to see what shape they’re in and what prospects they have for the near future. We’ll break down each team and evaluate how it is performing under its current coaching staff, looking at the state of the program before he/she arrived and comparing it to now while also looking at this season and beyond.

Next up: Dave Rubio’s volleyball team.

How it looked before

Rubio has been banking on the stellar recruiting class that he and his staff brought to Tucson in 2020. That class has shown periods of brilliance, but the pandemic has wreaked havoc with its development. As a result, the group has yet to become as consistent as it needs to be if it’s going to make a big run in the Pac-12 and the NCAA Tournament.

Last year, the Wildcats were 17-16 overall and 8-12 in the Pac-12. They finished eighth in the Pac-12. They played in the NIVC, a secondary volleyball tournament run by the same organization that organizes the WNIT, and lost to eventual champion UNLV in the second round.

Where things stand now

Rubio has been talking about retiring for several years. He said that he originally planned to retire when he was 60. That birthday came and went almost exactly three years ago, but he signed a contract extension in April that will keep him in charge of the program until 2026. He wants to see it through with his talented group of pin hitters and hopefully make one last big run in the NCAA Tournament.

“I gotta come back just so I can reap the rewards,” Rubio joked at the end of the 2021 season.

There are several questions, though. One is at middle blocker. The class he brought to Arizona back in 2020 included middle blocker Lauren Ware and opposite China Rai Crouch, who played middle blocker until she was injured her freshman year.

Crouch took what Rubio called a “medical gap year” last season to fully recover from her concussion. Ware opted to drop volleyball before she ever played a game for the team, choosing instead to play only women’s basketball.

The decisions of both of those players were in a state of flux as of the first week of May. Crouch has returned to the team, although Rubio did not sound confident about how soon she could contribute. He said only that she would “be with the team” this upcoming season. She is listed on the 2022 roster.

Ware also returned to the volleyball team for the 2022 spring development season. She practiced with the Wildcats for just over two weeks before playing in a tournament in San Diego. Even after that Rubio was not certain that she would actually return to the team permanently and she is not listed on the 2022 roster.

“I talked to her and I said, look, there’s no question that she would be a terrific high-level volleyball player,” Rubio said. “And there’s an argument there that if she was just strictly a volleyball player and didn’t play basketball—not that I want that to happen—but that she would be maybe a better volleyball player than a basketball player. You know, I don’t know. But the thing I do know is that she would be a very, very high-level, elite-level middle if she chose to play volleyball. I said, ‘That doesn’t mean that you should play volleyball, but it only tells you where I think you can be if you decided to play volleyball.’”

The program also needs another assistant coach. Rubio was very excited when he hired former Oregon setter Lauren Plum in February, but she is no longer listed on the program’s staff page and does not mention being a coach on her social media pages.

One big question

The middle blocker and coaching questions will continue to swirl around the program, but those are not the most critical questions for the Wildcats. They have some talented young middle blockers who, unlike Ware and Crouch, haven’t been away from the sport for a year or more. The staff was also able to retain some experience when fifth-year senior Zyonna Fellows decided to take advantage of the extra year the NCAA granted for COVID-19 disruptions.

So, the real question comes down to the offensive firepower. Specifically, can all of Arizona’s starting pin hitters put it together simultaneously?

There is no denying that Jaelyn Hodge, Sofia Maldonado Diaz, and Puk Stubbe are extremely talented hitters. The problem for the Wildcats is that they have struggled to be “on” at the same time.

Maldonado Diaz had a fantastic true freshman season, winning Pac-12 Freshman of the Year for the season that was held in the spring of 2021, but she was not as strong early in the fall season.

Hodge took over as the dominant offensive threat at the beginning of the fall 2021 season, but she was very inconsistent during Pac-12 play.

Stubbe is an experienced player who came in as a 21-year-old freshman and landed on the Pac-12 All-Freshman team, but the former beach volleyball player was still getting acclimated to the indoor game and the combination of education and sports.

If Rubio is going to lead his program to at least one great NCAA run before he retires, they all need to start taking that great leap forward soon.