Getting 600 season ticket holders is one of the goals on the agenda for Rita Stubbs since she took over as head volleyball coach for Arizona following the retirement of longtime leader Dave Rubio. There’s a whole lot that goes into that, and it all starts with the players.
“I have watched what Adia [Barnes] has done…just getting the crowd to come in where normally they didn’t come for women’s basketball,” Stubbs said. “It’s been good for softball for a long time or whatnot. But just to see that the people are there and just about every fan goes, ‘Oh, I’m a volleyball season ticket holder.’ So, we have a lot of repeat clientele and there’s no reason why we can’t [get 600]. So, something that we’re emphasizing to the players all the time is that you have to put on the show to keep the people coming. They don’t want to come see boring volleyball.”
She has put together a staff that she hopes will help the group avoid boring volleyball. Stubbs hired longtime Division I coach Deitre Collins-Parker in February and former men’s and women’s junior college head coach Ryan Windisch last month.
Both came to Arizona for similar reasons. Windisch had spent some time as an assistant at the DI level, but he wanted to jump to a higher level and work with top athletes. Collins-Parker was looking for a place where she felt the sky was the limit. She spent time around the team last season working as a commentator, so she had an idea of what the possibilities at Arizona were versus what they were at places where she coached in the past.
“At Cornell, I felt like there was a ceiling and moving to San Diego State, I felt like there was a ceiling, and you get here and there’s no ceiling,” Collins-Parker said. “You can go out and work to get the best kids, and you can always continue to go without hitting your head on limitations that some places have at different levels. So, it’s just kind of that step for me. What’s it like to be here and knowing that the tools are here to do exceedingly beyond anything they could ever dream up?”
Windisch is happy to hit the ground running in his first major-conference job. He is already seeing the potential in the players that are at Arizona.
“I was only here for three weeks in the spring and day one I’m going and it’s just attention and listening,” he said. “And it’s there. I love to see that the spark is there just as the spark is still burning huge for me. I think it’s gonna be exciting right away. I mean, that’s what we want from them, and I believe that they’re gonna continue to push and do that.”
The collection of athletes that the staff is putting together is one reason to believe Windisch has the right idea when he says things could happen right away. Arizona already had talent at the pins with 2020 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Sofia Maldonado Diaz, 2021 Pac-12 All-Freshman honoree Puk Stubbe, and fellow promising outside hitter Jaelyn Hodge. The Wildcats have Alayna Johnson developing into a promising middle blocker. Then, they have the transfers.
Arizona will be welcoming two transfers from other Pac-12 schools. Former No. 2 recruit Jordan Wilson just announced that she will transfer from USC to UA. The sophomore outside hitter, who is originally from Chandler, will make the stable of pins even stronger.
Wilson is joined by another former standout from the Phoenix area in former Oregon libero/defensive specialist Becca Morse. Morse will help shore up the passing, which was a concern for the Wildcats last season. She is expected to challenge for the starting libero position that was occupied by Kamaile Hiapo the last four seasons.
After losing Emery Herman, who started at setter for the past three seasons, the Wildcats also brought in help at the setting position. Transfer Kasen Rosenthal has already arrived, joining sophomore-to-be Ana Heath at the position for the spring season.
There are still many players in the transfer portal, as well. The spring open dates for the portal are May 1-15, and several players who could help the Wildcats have already entered their names. Rumors abound that Arizona is in line for at least one more high-profile transfer, although there has been no confirmation yet.
Regardless of what happens with further transfers this season, the Wildcats are set to sign a class in November that is headlined by Carlie Cisneros, the No. 1 recruit in the 2024 class according to Prepvolleyball.com. When she arrives for the fall of 2024, Arizona is set to have the No. 2 recruit from 2022 to pair with her. Maldonado Diaz and Hodge could also still be Wildcats if they opt to use their fifth year at Arizona; they are in the last class that has a pandemic-related extra year granted by the NCAA.
What the new players find when they get here will be a staff that took Stubbs some time to put together. At her introductory press conference in January, Stubbs said that she had some possible assistant coaches in mind. Last week, she admitted that neither Collins-Parker nor Windisch was on that mental list. As she completed her search, though, they both made sense.
Collins-Parker has extensive experience as a head coach and an associate head coach. When Stubbs began to think about her staff, she started to ask her old friend what Collins-Parker called “probing questions.” Stubbs realized that the trust she had in Collins-Parker and Collins-Parker’s experience were things she could use.
“I just knew that Deitre would fill that need of someone who knew what the head coach would entail, what stress I would be under, what I needed to be better at, because she’s already done it,” Stubbs said. “So, she won’t let me fall in those traps. She’ll say, ‘Hey, you need to make sure you get this together.’”
Some of the questions were more financial and personal in nature. Collins-Parker and her husband had a life in the Phoenix area that her husband could not just get up and leave. She eventually decided that they could make the long-distance relationship work, especially since it wasn’t as extreme as it had been in the past.
“I would love for him to be here,” Collins-Parker said. “He’s got a job and is establishing himself, so it has to be the right situation for him to give up everything to move here. It doesn’t make sense for him to start over from scratch when we’re not 30. He was a coach and as a coach, he understands. And I get to go home on some weekends and it’s an hour and 45 minutes door-to-door, so that doesn’t seem like when I lived cross country and couldn’t see him for six months.”
As for Windisch, Stubbs did not have nearly as much experience with him as she did with Collins-Parker. They had met during recruiting excursions, but that time was limited.
Windisch had two other things going in his favor, though. First, as a former libero, he brings experience in an area that Arizona needs to improve on. Although he is not working just with the defensive players, that experience is something that Stubbs is drawing on.
“I think when you have coaches who played a position you didn’t necessarily play, it is good because then you get to see it from their land,” Stubbs said. “So, as a former middle, the middles will always go, ‘Yeah, okay,’ because you did it. You’re able to show film or talk about it. Deitre is training the middles now, and she takes it to another level because she was an Olympian as a middle, but…she’s coached everything. Whereas you know, Ryan is actually working with the setters, but I give him all of the libero stuff or littles and say, ‘What do you think about this person?’ because he understands that.”
More importantly, Windisch had experience in both men’s and women’s volleyball as a coach. Both he and Stubbs believe that will help the program as it moves into the future because of the way the sport is developing.
“When I was at NC State, I didn’t really know what I needed,” Stubbs said. “It was just probably more comfort. Dave would always say just hire people you know. But after going through that and then watching, I learned what I like and what I don’t like, and what I’m good at and what I’m not good at. And I think it’s okay to say that, whereas before it wasn’t okay to say that. So, I knew when I was looking for the position that Ryan has, I wanted that to be a guy for sure, because I wanted someone who played the game at the guy’s level because that’s where women’s volleyball was going. But someone that is still familiar with females, because you get a lot of guys who coach guys and then they come in and think the girls are gonna operate that way. It just doesn’t work that way. So, he had experience with both of them, and he’s a nerd when it comes to volleyball.”
In July, Stubbs will be able to hire the third assistant that was authorized by the NCAA in place of the volunteer assistant position that used to exist in many sports. With the coaches she has hired, she feels like they all can move around and coach any position. So, that leaves one area of emphasis that she wants to be sure her final hire can fulfill.
“The great thing about this core here is that we’re able to bring someone in that will have a stronger emphasis on the recruiting, which is important for us, because that’s the lifeline,” Stubbs said. “Your players now and recruits. Nothing else matters.”
The team and its new coaches will be facing a schedule that is already taking shape. Several other teams have put out their out-of-conference schedules. One of them shows Arizona facing a much tougher slate than it generally does.
The Wildcats will play in a tournament at Wisconsin in early September. Arizona will face both the Badgers and the Miami Hurricanes, giving them two major-conference opponents. UW won the national title in 2021 and made it to the Elite Eight last season, making them the most recent national champions that Arizona has faced outside the Pac-12 since the Wildcats played Nebraska in 2019.
The addition of top talent and attractive opponents are the first marks of the Stubbs era. She also wants to ensure that fans are connected to the program by making more of her interactions with the media available to them online. The changes may be just what the doctor ordered to get the fan interest that she’s courting as she builds Arizona volleyball into her vision of what it can be.
What can it be in the first year?
“I want us to get to the NCAA tournament and I want us to finish in the upper half of the Pac-12 conference,” Stubbs said. “And ironically enough, they go hand in hand.”