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Depth and maturity key to Arizona volleyball’s success in the Pac-12

Arizona junior setter Emery Herman (4) sets the ball against UTEP on Friday, Sept. 16, 2022
Photo by Catherine Regan / Arizona Athletics

In past years Arizona volleyball has routinely lacked either age or depth. More than once, the Wildcats have lacked both. That’s not true this season, as head coach Dave Rubio has both talented starters and reserves at every position as his team heads into Pac-12 play. After struggling with youth and the challenges of the pandemic the last few years, he finally feels like his team has some advantages.

“It’s our turn to be old,” Rubio said. “We’ve been fortunate to keep our core together. I have nothing against the transfer portal and...I would take a player out of there, but our team has been developed organically. We’ve had very few transfers that come in and really impact. Dilara (Gedikoglu) is the only one. She’s a senior now. She came in as a sophomore. So our team is not really relying on many transfers. A lot of teams are and I think that’s fine, but there’s something to be said about players being in your program for a couple of years and knowing what to do from day to day. Know what the expectations are.”

It’s not just about experience, though. Both Rubio and his players have consistently referred to Arizona’s depth as a strength this season. On several occasions, he’s been able to sub in reserves when he felt that his starters weren’t quite where they needed to be either as individuals or as a group.

In the past, injuries or lack of production by a starter would devastate Arizona because the talent behind those starters wasn’t able to come in and hold their own let alone make an impact. Now, he has the likes of Dilara Gedikoglu playing back row and occasionally front row on the left side, Haven Wray in the back row, Madison Ellman subbing in the back row or even putting on the libero jersey, Lauren Rumel subbing in on the left side, and Ava Tortorello and Ana Heath at setter. The depth is felt during games, but it’s especially important during practice.

“Kamaile’s right at the top,” Rubio said. “So everyone’s chasing her. And Madison’s right on her heels just like Haven’s right on Dilara’s heels, and Lauren Rumel, if one of the bigs on the pins doesn’t play well, then Lauren’s going in. If Emery doesn’t go in, Ava and Ana. I mean, there’s just a lot of competition in the gym that...forces people who are in front of those people to stay ahead of them.”

For most of the second set against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi last weekend, Rubio had only Puk Stubbe and Sofia Maldonado Diaz on the floor from his starting seven. He said that the reason was two-fold. One, he wanted to get the other players some experience. Just as importantly, he wanted to send a message to the team. He did not believe the starters were playing together as they should.

That push by other talented players has helped several of Arizona’s experienced core. Rubio believes that having Tortorello and Heath on the team helps not just starting setter Emery Herman but the entire team.

“Well, I tell you that those two players have really made the competitiveness in the gym much greater,” Rubio said. “In order for a team to win...or be competitive at the very highest level, you have to have a really strong number of players on the team that can challenge other players. So at the beginning of the season, they were all fighting for playing time. Emery kind of separated herself, but Side B is really competitive with Side A because we’ve got some really good setters with Ava Tortorello and Ana Heath. They’ve done a terrific job of keeping Emery honest.”

Herman has been the Wildcats' starting setter since she stepped foot on campus a semester early in the spring of 2020. She came to get a headstart on her college career. Instead, she ran into the pandemic. She finally got on the floor for Arizona when the delayed 2020 season was held in the spring of 2021.

For someone who as a junior is just now competing in her first season following a spring development season, she’s made huge strides. Against San Diego State two weeks ago, she became the tenth Wildcat to reach 2,000 career assists, reaching the mark in just the seventh match of her junior season. Considering that her freshman season consisted of just 21 matches, it was a quick feat for Herman.

“If your freshmen can stay to the junior year, you’re going to reap the rewards of all the adversity and ups and downs that freshmen and sophomores tend to have, especially if they are starters,” Rubio said. “By the time they’re juniors, they tend to figure things out and Emery is no exception to that. I mean, she has really matured and really developed into a top-flight setter. Mentally and emotionally she’s a lot more confident. Her skill set has always been very good. She’s always a great server, always a really solid blocker, always defensively a terrific player. Her setting was the last part to catch up. And this year, you’re starting to see the setting...reach the same levels.”

Herman will have the opportunity to test that against teams that know her tendencies better starting on Wednesday when she and her teammates get things going in conference play. Fellow upperclassman Hiapo points to one goal they have in this next part of the season as they face teams they have a history with.

“One of our goals this year as a team is to...beat teams that we haven’t beaten together yet as a team,” Hiapo said.

They won’t get that opportunity on Wednesday eveninig when they host the Sun Devils to tip off conference play. Arizona is 55-46 all-time against ASU.

Things are even more titled towards the Wildcats in recent history. Arizona swept ASU last season. In the 21st century, the Wildcats have a 29-15 record over their in-state rival. Over that period, the Sun Devils have only won in McKale Center three times.

The last time ASU won in Tucson came in 2019 by a score of 3-2. That match was held during Hiapo’s freshman season, a year when the Wildcats dealt with multiple concussions, eventually forcing both Hiapo and fellow defensive specialist/libero Makenna Martin to play outside hitter for several matches. Even in that match, Arizona appeared to have won, but a review of match point led to the point being overturned. ASU went on to win a few points later.

There will be an opportunity to beat a team this group has never defeated when the second match of the week rolls around. Arizona will leave on Friday to face Utah in Salt Lake City on Saturday. The Utes hold a seven-match winning streak against the Wildcats. Arizona last beat Utah in 2017 when it took the season sweep.

Arizona State Sun Devils (6-6) @ Arizona Wildcats (10-1)

When and where: The match will tip off at 7 p.m. MST on Wednesday, Sept. 21. It will be held in McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz.

TV: The match will air on Pac-12 Arizona.

Live Stats: In-game stats will be available on Arizona Live Stats.

Rankings: Neither team is ranked in the AVCA poll. Arizona is ranked No. 55 in the unofficial RPI. ASU is No. 145.

The season so far: While the Wildcats have a much better record this season, the Sun Devils have played a far more difficult schedule. ASU played AVCA-ranked No. 5 Georgia Tech and No. 15 Baylor on the road. The Sun Devils also lost to the RPI’s No. 46 team Texas Tech on the road and they have a neutral-court loss to RPI No. 36 Colorado State.

The biggest head-scratcher for ASU was a home loss to Toledo, which is ranked No. 111 in the RPI. It came in the Sun Devils’ only home tournament. The other three were all played on someone else’s court.

Arizona lost to its top-RPI team North Carolina (No. 34) on the road. Its best wins came against No. 76 Wake Forest and No. 100 Maryland, both on neutral courts. Those are its only three top-100 opponents.

Rubio says: “I think we know the personalities. A few changes for them like there is with most teams, but I think that their main players...have been there now for going on three years. They have some age to them like we do and you know...There’s a new middle that’s playing. They’re cutting in and out of a 6-2...The matches in the spring were very competitive, and so I’m expecting a pretty competitive match tomorrow.

Arizona Wildcats (10-1) @ Utah Utes (7-4)

When and where: The match begins at 6 p.m. MST on Saturday, Sept. 24. It will be played in the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, Utah.

TV: The match will be broadcast on Pac-12 Insider.

Live Stats: In-game stats will be available on Utah Live Stats.

Rankings: Utah is receiving votes in the AVCA coaches poll. It is No. 38 in the RPI.

The season so far: The Utes have played four teams that were ranked at the time the games were played: Kansas (23), Purdue (11), San Diego (12), and BYU (15). They lost to all four of them with all but the BYU match coming in a true road game. BYU was played on Utah’s home court.

Rubio says: “They lost Dani Drews and the opposite (Zoe Weatherington) went to Penn State, and so I haven’t even watched Utah, to be honest. They have the really terrific left, one of the best lefts in the conference, Madelyn (Robinson). But they’re a different team than they were a year ago. So hopefully we’ll go in and I said at the beginning of the season, the calendar works in our favor, right? It’s our turn to be old.”

How to follow along

Follow us on Twitter @AZDesertSwarm for all things Arizona Wildcats. For live tweets of volleyball matches and news throughout the week, follow our deputy editor @KimDoss71.