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Arizona volleyball out to disprove ‘slap in the face’ of being picked 10th in Pac-12 preseason poll

COLLEGE VOLLEYBALL: OCT 25 Oregon State at Arizona Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats have at least one very displeased senior on their roster. Libero Kamaile Hiapo was waiting for a question that would allow her to discuss the Pac-12 preseason poll. She launched into her displeasure with the rankings as soon as she got that opportunity.

“I’ve been planning it ever since those polls came out,” she said.

It’s not just about being picked to finish 10th by the Pac-12 volleyball coaches despite returning almost everyone from last year’s team. Hiapo is especially displeased about being placed behind certain teams.

“Especially under some teams that we usually beat, and considering that we have all of our returners,” she said. “So, that’s kind of like a slap in the face to me, but we’re kind of going in there with nothing to lose now. We have everything to prove, though, and that’s what we really want to do. We want to prove ourselves. That we’re here and that we’ve gotten better every year. We’ve kind of grown together like that.”

The other Wildcats didn’t have anything to add to Hiapo’s speech.

“You said it good,” junior setter Emery Herman said with a laugh.

Hiapo was careful not to name the team or teams that she felt shouldn’t be ranked above Arizona, but a quick glance at rosters and results reveal some possibilities. Perhaps the most blatant simply because of the rivalry is Arizona State.

The Sun Devils were picked eighth despite being swept by Arizona last season, holding a 3-7 record against the Wildcats over the past 10 matches, and appearing to have the same passing problems that have plagued them in the past during the spring tournament at McKale Center.

The Sun Devils bring back the most dangerous offensive player on the two teams in Iman Isanovic. She ranked fifth in the Pac-12 in kills per set. Arizona’s best was Jaelyn Hodge at 14th.

Along with Hodge, Arizona brings back Sofia Maldonado Diaz and Puk Stubbe. All three were ranked in the top 25 in the Pac-12 for kills per set last season with Stubbe the lowest at No. 23. In addition to Isanovic, the Sun Devils return 20th-ranked Marta Levinska. She was the only other Sun Devil in the top 35 last season, although they did have 37th-ranked Claire Jeter and promising freshman Geli Cyr.

The Wildcats’ displeasure is likely to be about more than ASU, though. Colorado was also picked above UA despite getting swept by the Wildcats last season and also holding a 3-7 record against Arizona over the past 10 matches. UA has only lost to CU once in the past eight matches. Last season, the Wildcats had a nightmare trip to Boulder and still managed to pull out the victory on the way to the season sweep.

The Buffaloes bring back their top scorer, Maya Tabron. While she ranked one spot higher than Hodge in the conference, she was the only member of the team to land in the top 25 in kills per set and one of only two in the league’s top 40.

If the Wildcats are going to prove the coaches wrong, they will need to do something they have struggled with the past few years, though. It’s something that ASU was able to accomplish last year. Arizona needs to pull off a big upset or two.

The Wildcats finished 17-16 overall last season and 8-12 in conference play. Up north, the Sun Devils were 14-17 overall and 7-13 against Pac-12 competition. The difference was that ASU pushed two ranked conference opponents in five-set losses and defeated No. 11 Washington, No. 14 UCLA, and No. 15 Stanford. Arizona also defeated No. 15 Stanford but lost its other matches against the league’s best in routine fashion. Both the Wildcats and the Sun Devils defeated the Cardinal during a weekend when Stanford was without several starters.

“The only thing that we weren’t surprised about was...we didn’t have any big wins last year that we wanted to have,” Hiapo said. “So we know that that’s our goal coming into this get some big wins against some ranked teams, and we definitely have a lot of opportunities with our conference being so good.”

Head coach Dave Rubio was surprised by the low ranking, as well, but he believes it may be attributable to the Pac-12 being better this season than last.

“I was surprised because...everyone knows we have virtually our entire starting lineup back,” Rubio said. “So, yeah, it’s just it was a little perplexing for me, but that’s okay.”

Rubio pointed out that the polls have been inaccurate for them in the past, both predicting them to finish higher than they ended up or selling them short compared to where they ended up. These days, he thinks that flashy players from the portal can also change opinions about how good a team is.

“I think in these last couple of years with the transfer portal being such a significant part and it becoming a bigger part of the recruiting classes, and you just don’t know how those potential transfers are going to impact those teams,” he said. “Our team is primarily organic, built. A lot of the teams are heavily into the transfer portal. And I’m not saying that’s good or bad. I’m just saying that for us, for this particular cycle that we’re in, we just haven’t had to rely on getting too many transfers. And so I think what people...know what we’re gonna get. And, you know, for a school like UCLA that has several new players on their team that are transferring in, I think there’s more uncertainty with those schools in terms of how that team is going to jump. They got a lot of talent. I mean, those players that transferred in are terrific. I mean, elite level players that are coming from elite level programs. So I think there’s one reason that they’re picked so high. But, you know, the preseason poll’s a preseason poll. I we all know, it’s an inexact science.”

The Wildcats will have opportunities to show whether this one was accurate beginning with the Cactus Classic. Arizona begins play on Aug. 26 with games at 12:30 p.m. MST and 6:30 p.m. MST. First, they will give the fans a preview with the Red-Blue game on Saturday, Aug. 20 at 2 p.m. MST.

Watch the complete press conference with Dave Rubio, Kamaile Hiapo, Emery Herman, and Sofia Maldonado Diaz