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Arizona volleyball Red-Blue game notebook: On the new Zyonna Fellows, who’s on the right side, and more

Team Red prepares for the Red-Blue game on Aug. 20, 2022 at McKale Center
Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

Arizona head volleyball coach Dave Rubio and his players gave some insight into the program at last Monday’s media day. At Saturday’s Red-Blue game, they backed up several of those claims and gave even more insight into how the team might operate this season.

The fifth year loves Zyonna Fellows

Middle blocker Zyonna Fellows wasn’t sure she wanted to come back for her fifth year. She had the opportunity because the NCAA granted all athletes who were in school during the 2020-21 school year an extra year of eligibility. Fellows thought it might be time to move on from college volleyball, though.

At last season’s senior day, Fellows said that her parents were trying to convince her to stay for that final season, but she had yet to decide. She finally decided in the spring. She would return.

Rubio thought he was going to have to find a high-level transfer to help at the MB position, but Fellows has provided that high-level play without the difficulties of integrating a transfer who will only be around for one year. Rubio raved about her on Monday.

“I haven’t had a fifth-year player in, I don’t know, 10 years,” Rubio said. “And so I’m watching Zyonna on the very first day of practice and I turned to (associate head coach) Rita (Stubbs) and I’m like, ‘Holy smokes, where did this kid come from?’ I mean, just a completely different player.”

Fellows backed her coach up with her play at the Red-Blue game on Saturday. She has always been a solid blocker but she was not much of an offensive threat.

In 2021, she had less than a kill per set and hit just .257. There was a clear difference between the block-oriented Fellows and the offensive-minded Merle Weidt. With Weidt now gone, Fellows has become a combination of the two.

Fellows led both teams with 18 kills and seven total blocks in the intrasquad scrimmage. She just edged out the 16 kills by Sofia Maldonado Diaz to lead the match.

“Now you know what I was meaning about being present, right?” Rubio said immediately after the match. “Just a whole different kid out there and a whole different player. I would like to see where the numbers are, but (getting offense from the middle has) certainly been a focus for us.”

All of the middles who played had some solid offensive play. Sophomores Alayna Johnson and Nicole Briggs both had a big influence on their teams from the offensive side of play, but the star of the show was the fifth-year senior who wasn’t even sure she would be in Tucson this fall.

Rotating pins

Last season, Puk Stubbe predominantly played opposite for the Wildcats, but that may not be the case this year. Rubio rotated Stubbe, Maldonado Diaz, and Jaelyn Hodge between the left and right sides in the exhibition. He plans to continue with that, as well as add freshman Lauren Rumel into the mix. Rumel was not completely healthy on Saturday, so that wasn’t an option, but she is now listed as a middle blocker/outside hitter on the team’s roster.

Six rotation unicorn

Rubio has occasionally referred to a perfect six-rotation outside hitter as a “unicorn.” He’s trying to see if he can develop such a unicorn again this season.

“It’s a work in progress,” Rubio said. “I don’t think we have anybody that’s just rock solid in that spot. I think that they’re developing...we’re better than we were. And I think that Jaelyn and Sofia and Puk, all three of those players are certainly a step higher and a level better than they were in the past, but we still have some work to do there.”

Last year, his most effective outside hitters had their weaknesses in serve receive and defense, making it difficult to keep them in for all six rotations. Maldonado Diaz and Hodge were and still are the best offensive threats on the team. However, both have had their difficulties when they rotate to the back row.

On the other hand, senior Dilara Gedikoglu is the best when it comes to defense and passing out of the back row, but she is not as tall as the other pins and can struggle when she’s in the front row. Even on Saturday, her scoring often came via the tip instead of just reaching back and enforcing her will on the defense.

Carlie Cisneros visits

Perhaps that unicorn will be in Tucson in 2024. The No. 1 recruit from that class, Carlie Cisneros, took her official visit to Arizona over the weekend. She committed to the Wildcats at the end of July.

Cisneros is listed as an outside hitter and defensive specialist on recruiting sites. She takes a great deal of pride in back-row work. She’s committed to improving even in things she doesn’t particularly care for.

“One of the important things that I’ve been working on is serve receive because I feel like you need to be able to serve receive in volleyball in order to get anywhere in the sport,” Cisneros said last week before leaving for her official visit. “So I’ve been working a lot on serve receive. It’s definitely not my favorite thing to do, but I definitely love having the opportunity to do it. And I love defense because you wouldn’t expect a six-foot-tall girl to get lower than the libero and make the saves that the libero is making. I’ve always wanted to be as good as whichever libero I was playing with. So I made that a goal of mine to be as good as the best passer on the team.”

When she actually arrived on campus, she reported having a great time.

Her father backed up her feelings, saying that the visit only made them more sure of the decision she had made.

Coaching change...again

The Wildcats have made two assistant coaching hires since February. At the beginning of the year, Rubio hired former Oregon setter Lauren Plum as his second assistant. That didn’t last long, as Plum had been dropped from the online coaching staff by early June. Rubio took responsibility for the change.

“I was more of the reason why that happened,” Rubio said. “It just wasn’t the right fit for me. I think that Lauren is just a terrific young lady, great work ethic and a lot of things that she brought to the program were outstanding. I think just for me—and I’m kind of set in my ways and kind of stubborn—it was less about her and more about me...I’m wishing her the best and I think in terms of for me, particularly, it was obviously the right decision for me to make.”

Plum has moved on to take the volunteer assistant coaching position at Notre Dame. Meanwhile, Arizona added Brandon Chan to the staff. Chan is a former four-year manager for Rubio and has spent the last few years getting the experience he needed in order to be considered for a full-time coaching position at Arizona.

The change in the coaching staff didn’t change responsibilities, though. Rubio said when Plum was hired that he was going to start letting go of the setters. That is still the case. Rubio is still coaching the pins while Chan took over with the liberos and defensive specialists.

That leaves volunteer assistant coach Gwen Egbert in charge of setters. It’s something Rubio likes.

“Gwen taught a lot of All-American setters when she was at Nebraska,” Rubio said. “She’s a terrific trainer and she has a lot of experience in training that position. So, I felt comfortable. We’ve consulted a lot in terms of training and methods of training, but she’s been around the block...She’s an outstanding teacher.”

Up next

The Wildcats will get started with matches that count on Friday, Aug. 26 with the Cactus Classic. Arizona starts play at 10 a.m. MST against Long Island. At 6:30 p.m. on Friday, they will face New Mexico State then wind things up against Alabama State at 2 p.m. MST on Saturday, Aug. 27.

All three matches will be available on Arizona Live Stream. This year, play-by-play on the live streams is set to be provided by Danny Martinez, the in-stadium announcer for Arizona softball and former SID for Arizona volleyball. He may be joined by former Wildcat outside hitter Paige Whipple as color commentator for some live-stream matches this season.