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Arizona volleyball starts Rita Stubbs era with increased depth at some positions, still needs at others

McKale Center during the Red-Blue game on Aug. 19, 2023
Photo by Madison Farwell / Arizona Athletics

Depth isn’t always about numbers. Having a lot of players doesn’t help if they struggle to play at the level needed for success in a league like the Pac-12. Fortunately for new head coach Rita Stubbs, Arizona volleyball has high-quality depth on the pins this year. That doesn’t mean there aren’t still questions at other positions.

Arizona returns three highly talented upperclassmen at outside hitter and opposite this season with seniors Jaelyn Hodge and Sofia Maldonado Diaz joining junior Puk Stubbe. It also added one of the biggest gets in the transfer portal by bringing sophomore OH Jordan Wilson back to her home state. With the addition of freshman Sydnie Vanek, the group has the kind of offensive talent needed to succeed at a high level.

Vanek and fellow freshman OH Tess Fuqua weren’t with the team during the spring season. Vanek was finishing up her stellar high school track career. Fuqua, unfortunately, tore her ACL playing club volleyball in March. She will miss this season.

Vanek got her feet wet during the Red-Blue game, though. She showed a great deal of promise on the offensive side of the ball, as well as a few things that Stubbs wasn’t expecting.

“She’s always been offensive,” Stubbs said. “Just an offensive threat and she’s a better blocker than I thought just watching in club because it’s always hit or miss depending on the competition. But she gets good arm over the net. She has to continue to work, as everyone does, on seeing the play and picking it up a little bit sooner but I think her future is bright.”

Vanek also brings all-around athleticism. The 6-foot outside hitter was also the state long jump champion for California in both 2022 and 2023. Despite getting burned by another dual-sport athlete in recent years when former Arizona women’s basketball forward Lauren Ware opted to drop volleyball after originally committing to both programs, neither Dave Rubio nor Stubbs stood in the way of Vanek pursuing her dual-sport dreams at Arizona.

“When I got recruited here, Dave was the head coach and...I remember him telling me since I was a sophomore in high school...that the track coaches wouldn’t stop bugging him if I could jump here as well,” Vanek said. “So, when I asked him, he said I could jump here. And then when he retired, I had to make sure I asked Rita, and then Rita said I could, as well. So, I made sure to send an email over to Fred Harvey, the head track coach here, to ask him if he’d be willing to have me. And so, it kind of just worked out like that.”

Vanek isn’t the only one who is working to provide quality depth on the team this season. While sophomore Ana Heath will be the starting setter when Arizona steps on the court against UC Davis on Friday morning, junior Ava Tortorello has been pulled back into the setting world after being moved to defensive specialist after last season.

Tortorello had not set since last November, but she was put into the Red-Blue game after presumed starter Kasen Rosenthal struggled last week. While Stubbs had been adamant that Tortorello was now a libero or defensive specialist during the offseason, she felt she had no choice but to have her start training as a backup setter again.

“I think in the back of my head, I knew that it was gonna happen, eventually,” Tortorello said about moving back to setter. “So, I was ready. I felt prepared mentally, maybe not physically, but I was very mentally in it to win it.”

One thing that makes Tortorello a good setter is her leadership and willingness to talk on the court. While that is Tortorello’s nature, Stubbs said that they are working with Heath on that aspect of the game because “setting is more than just putting the ball up.”

“I think [Heath’s] development would go a lot faster had she started setting sooner,” Stubbs said, noting that Heath ran a 6-2 system until she got to Arizona. “The things that we’re asking her to do, she’s holding on tight and trying to get them, but there’s a couple of things that just aren’t easy for her. Like she is a talker off the court. I mean, to the point I’m like, ‘Ana, get out of my office.’ And she doesn’t realize how that should carry over onto the court, but the nice thing is she has some experienced hitters out there that can help talk and navigate her through it.”

While Tortorello has the willingness to talk and lead that Heath is trying to develop, Heath has the advantage in height. Tortorello is listed at just 5-foot-8, making playing in the front row difficult. Heath has an extra two inches on Tortorello, giving her more of the physical tools she needs to block and dump the ball effectively.

Tortorello said that she simply focuses on the things she can control, and her height isn’t one of those things. So, she does what she can to deal with the changes between being a setter and being a libero so she can be the best possible asset for her team.

“It’s been hard mentally, just kind of dealing with that because end goal is to be on the court, and I always strive to get playing time,” Tortorello said. “But I have to focus on what’s best for the team, and I think that me being libero or me setting does help the team in many ways and backing up Kasen and Ana and backing up Joy and whoever’s in front of me for libero. Always be ready. And I think I add a lot of depth to the bench, and you can always trust me to come in.”

The Wildcats do have one glaring need for depth, and that’s at the middle blocker position. Starters Alayna Johnson and Nicole Briggs have just one backup in freshman Journey Tucker. Tucker has the physical tools to get the job done, but she has both inexperience and mental hurdles to overcome according to her head coach.

“She has a sense of innocence about her,” Stubbs said of Tucker. “She’s quiet and she is respectful. And she’ll make eye contact, but she will walk past you like she didn’t see you because she’s zeroed in on the ground. So for me, I know that the more we can get out of her off the court, the more she’ll be willing to go on a court because there’s a sense of inferiority going on with her right now because others have played. Whereas physically she can play with any of them, but the key is to help her to understand that she physically can do that. And you can’t do that on the court. You have to show her that off the court. So put her in situations where she can be a leader and where she can talk and she can share who she is and share her story. And not from, ‘Oh, poor Journey.’ That’s not the story she wants to tell. She wants to tell the story, ‘I overcame.’”

Tucker showed some of what she physically can do at Red-Blue. She had three blocks playing against most of the presumed starters. She also had two kills on .400 hitting.

Arizona takes the court for real at 10 a.m. MST on Friday, Aug. 25 at the Cactus Classic. The first opponent will be UC Davis, which brings former Arizona star Kendra Dahlke back to McKale as an assistant coach for the Aggies. That game will be on Arizona Live Stream.

The Wildcats take the court again at 7 p.m. MST on Friday against North Carolina. That game will air on Pac-12 Insider.

The weekend rounds up on Saturday, Aug. 26 at 3:30 p.m. MST against Pacific. That will also be on Arizona Live Stream.