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Arizona volleyball notebook: On the final coaching hire, season goals, changes in playing style, and more

Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

Arizona volleyball’s new season gets underway with an opening meeting on Aug. 7 and the first practice on Aug. 8. It won’t be long after that when the team heads into the Red-Blue game on Aug. 19 and the regular season on Aug. 25. There have been a lot of changes already, but new head coach Rita Stubbs expects there to be even more, including in the style of play the Wildcats employ next year.

The coaching staff is complete

Stubbs hired her third assistant in July, completing the staff for her opening season as head coach at her alma mater. She went with a young coach in Steven Duhoux, but he’s someone who ticked a lot of boxes. Like the other three assistants on Stubbs’ inaugural staff, Duhoux has no past ties to Arizona, but he does have ties to one member of the staff.

Duhoux has known fellow assistant coach Ryan Windisch for the past several years. The two even coached for Balboa Bay Volleyball Club at the same time with Duhoux coaching the 15U team and Windisch getting them the next year for the 16U team. They also have experience as rivals.

“He coached at another community college, kind of our rival—Orange Coast College and Irvine Valley,” Duhoux said. “And he kind of got the last laugh because they beat us in the championship game, I think three or four years ago. But it’s been awesome getting to really see him on the other side and now this opportunity to work with him on the same team is gonna be something I’m really excited for.”

Duhoux is excited to take the next step in his career after spending the past two years as a graduate assistant at Division III Springfield College in Massachusetts. That excitement was one thing that appealed to Stubbs. His ability to coach setters was the big selling point, though.

“I won’t make it any secret,” Stubbs said. “It’s not my specialty. So, Ryan was going to do it if we didn’t find the right person for it, but I know Steven is more than capable of doing it.”

His personality did the rest to put him over the top as the final addition to the staff.

“I loved his personality from the very first conversation we had,” Stubbs said. “I immediately was like, ‘Ryan, I like him.’ He has this innocence about him yet confidence about him yet is just always respectful.”

Unlike Windisch, Duhoux will be adapting to the women’s game as he goes along. Stubbs believes that the women’s game is following the men’s game in its development, but there are still differences in the things that make the players happy and the way the game is played. Duhoux doesn’t think they’re insurmountable, though.

“Something that fascinates me about the women’s game is how much longer their rallies are and how much more strategic it is, and how you can really capitalize on that,” Duhoux said. “Like Coach was saying, we’re not going to set the ball and first ball, side out and perfect pass, but in transition if we could find ways to get the middle involved and going, I think that all comes back to the game plan that’s bigger than just focusing on the first ball. So for the woman’s game compared to the men’s game, I think the men’s game’s a little bit faster in the sense of a little bit more physical where they’re gonna go and they’re gonna put it away first ball and it’s over. As opposed to the women’s game where after that first really fast contact was an incredible dig with another great set with another swing after it… I think there are a lot of similarities, like a lot more similarities than you think. I think it’s all volleyball.”

More roster changes

Stubbs brought in several players at the beginning of the summer, including transfers Jordan Wilson, Kalen Owes, and Becca Morse. As fall practice approaches, only Wilson remains. Morse announced her medical retirement shortly after she signed. Owes left the team last week. Stubbs said that both felt that they weren’t able to give 100 percent, and she respected that and was pleased that they told her before the season got underway.

The team also had one returner leave. Defensive specialist Koari Robertson decided to focus on her studies. It was not a huge surprise. Robertson was announced as part of the class of 2021, but she did not appear on the Arizona roster until the 2022 season. She didn’t appear much for Arizona in her only season on the roster.

Stubbs said that she expected to have some roster movement, even as late as the summer, simply because there were too many players on the team. The roster was up to 22 players at one point, including 10 “littles.” They are now down to a more manageable 19 with the defensive specialist contingent whittled down to eight.

“It’s hard to keep 22 people happy because you can’t travel with everyone,” Stubbs said. “We have 18 lockers. So now, all of a sudden, someone’s going to feel like I’m not as important because I don’t have a locker to myself. So, I throw it back to the team. How would you like me to handle this? You know, we’re only traveling 16 people. The goal is only to travel three littles, maybe, automatically, there’s people that are going to be not able to go. So, for me, it is keeping the players in a position where they know they still have value. Just because you’re not doing something on the floor doesn’t mean you’re not important.”

Make it faster

The changes don’t stop with the coaching staff and the roster. Now, Stubbs wants to introduce changes on the court. Part of that will be Duhoux’s responsibility to implement.

“[The setters need] to be able to lead the team,” Stubbs said. “We have given them the power to regulate the tempo. So, we want to run a little bit faster than we’ve run in the past. I think we have the athletic bodies that can run multiple sets, not just the high four ball, and allow them to verbalize so the relationship that they’re forming with the outside hitters is super important. We have two fairly good athletes in that position, so they will be able to adapt to what’s necessary and know that they have to be able to talk to the setters...[That’s] why Steven is so good because he’s done it himself, and he’s able to translate that information so that we can change our offense a little bit.”

Stubbs said that with her and assistant coach Deitre Collins-Parker both being former middles, they would like to see the position incorporated into the offense more.

“I think the way they will be successful is quickening up the pin sets,” she said.

Leadership is key

A lot of what Stubbs wants to do will depend on setters Ana Heath and Kasen Rosenthal stepping into leadership positions. It’s not just the setters, though. She wants competitiveness and fire from all of those on the court.

“[We had a] situation with a player,” Stubbs said. “I’m like, ‘Okay, are you comfortable stepping in front of her taking the ball?’ Well, no. Okay, then it’s not gonna work because she needs you to step in front of her to take that ball, because she’s gonna continue to try to do it and now we have a battle and we’re gonna fight, and we can’t have a fight right here all because you’re not willing, able, or capable of being the alpha dog out there.”

As for the setters, they need to be confident in what they do and willing to verbalize that.

“We’re going to continue to work with them on that because it’s not either one of their personalities to go up in someone’s face and say, ‘Score! I just got you one-on-one,’” Stubbs said. “That’s what Penina [Snuka] did. That’s what Dana Burkholder did. And Julia Patterson got better at it, but that wasn’t her personality, either. And so, the players that we’re bringing in will have that personality because I know that’s our staff’s personality. And so, we’re looking for players that are capable of doing it. And they don’t have to be a bitch about it, but you have to be ‘this is business.’”

Moving the pins around

When Sofia Maldonado Diaz arrived at Arizona, she had been playing middle blocker for the Mexican national youth teams. She has primarily played outside hitter for the Wildcats, although she has shifted to the right side to play opposite at times. There will be more of that with Jaelyn Hodge and Jordan Wilson as the outside hitters.

“Let’s keep Sofia on the opposite,” Stubbs said. “She’s done a good job this summer, in terms of her training and whatnot.”

While Stubbs couldn’t give a detailed assessment of what Maldonado Diaz has been doing in the summer due to NCAA rules, the senior spent part of July playing with the Mexican U23 team in the Women’s Pan-American U23 Volleyball Cup. The team placed second and Maldonado Diaz was the top scorer in the tournament.

With Owes no longer on the roster and the three starting positions likely taken by Maldonado Diaz, Hodge, and Wilson, that leaves Puk Stubbe, Sydnie Vanek, and Tess Fuqua as the reserve pins. Both Fuqua and Vanek are freshmen while Stubbe is a junior.

Getting the fans in

Stubbs hopes that the additions to the roster and a faster style of play will appeal to fans. The community is already showing an uptick in interest. The program has surpassed the coach’s goal of 700 season tickets sold. As of July 31, they had 701 season ticket holders, which is a record for the program.

“We need the fans here,” Stubbs said. “We need the support. I’ve said it before and I will continue to say it, I know they’re out there because they go to women’s basketball or softball. They go to men’s basketball and they’re active for football. So, our goal is to be fun and exciting and something that people want to come be a part of.”

One goal

Only one thing will make the season a real success in Stubbs’ opinion. It’s all about getting to the NCAA Tournament.

“Everything we say is to get to the tournament, make a run in the tournament,” Stubbs said. “And I’m okay to say anything less than that is falling short, and you got to kind of speak big to achieve big things. In order to do that, we have to treat this like a business yet show them that we’re human.”