It’s been a true exchange of ideas about how athletics and academics fit together since Arizona volleyball began bringing in more international players. It began almost four years ago when former head coach Dave Rubio brought in then-freshman Sofia Maldonado Diaz and transfers Merle Weidt and Dilara Gedikoglu. He called them “refreshing.” New head coach Rita Stubbs has continued it this season with the addition of Italian libero Giorgia Mandotti.
“I love the idea of a kid that can come in and have had experience,” Stubbs said. “And they’re not afraid to work. And that’s not a knock against the players that we have, but that’s all they know. Any team that they played on over there, they practice for five, six hours a day and it’s the norm. Here we’ve always been regulated on how many hours you have, so that becomes the norm. ‘Oh, can’t do that.’ Or they’ll watch more film or they understand players in different...places.”
As Weidt discussed at the time, in international club volleyball, younger players are kept on the straight and narrow by older players.
“In my part, in Germany, it’s much more experienced, because the players you play against, it’s their job,” Weidt said in 2021. “It is what they earn money with. So, if they don’t bring up a good performance, they’re not going to get paid. It’s still fun playing, of course, but there’s definitely certain moments in practice and also in the games where it’s just like, ‘Okay, now it’s business. Now we got to score.’ And so, I think that in the States, just because we are all a lot younger, there are just certain moments where people make mistakes across all NCAA volleyball that you maybe shouldn’t do because it’s a crucial moment for the team. And by you missing that serve, for example, you’re going to lose the game, because that’s an essential point. And so in Europe, that’s probably not happening as often simply because the players that are on the court really have this experience.”
Mandotti put it more bluntly.
“They don’t care about your feelings at all,” she said.
Mandotti said having teammates like that helped her, though.
“They’re like 15 other coaches...apart from the head coach, so it’s good,” she said.
Still, she wanted to come to the U.S. and check out the American educational system. That desire goes back several years.
Mandotti had hoped to be a foreign exchange student during her high school years, but the pandemic hit and that was out of the question. Even after she graduated from high school, she still had the desire. So, she kept working on it even after she started college in Italy and continued playing volleyball with her club. It took two years, but she finally landed at Arizona.
“I came here thanks to an agency,” Mandotti said. “I worked with them to create a profile for the coaches here to view to choose me.”
Mandotti wanted to see what it was like being a true student-athlete. She liked how academics and sports were joined in the U.S.
“In Europe, it’s very two separate things,” Mandotti said. “You don’t have university teams, you don’t have high school teams. You just go in clubs. So, the relationship between academics and sports is very up to you.”
That means finding your own way without the kind of extra help offered to athletes in the U.S. Mandotti was looking for that kind of environment.
“They don’t care about the other,” Mandotti said. “School doesn’t care about volleyball, and volleyball doesn’t care about school. So, it’s just time management and organization and everything. Nobody does that for you. Here, you have like the counselors and everyone.”
As for Stubbs, she knew she needed help at the libero position. Former libero Kamaile Hiapo had started almost every match for the past four years, but she would be spending her fifth year at BYU. Everyone knew it was an issue for Arizona even during spring tournaments.
“We were playing at UNLV and every team was serving our little people which isn’t normally the norm,” Stubbs said. “You tend to stay away from them because you assume that they’re able to pass. And it’s no fault of anyone that was in the program, but none of them had been a libero at this level, so they were learning. They were a DS or Ava [Tortorello] was a setter, and so it was a transition for them. But a couple people came up to me and said, ‘Okay, you guys are close. If you have A, B, or C, then you’re going to be in a good position, which is what every time we’ve played, they’re saying.”
The problem was having the money to bring someone in. Stubbs said you can always find players in that 5-foot-6 range who want to try to play the position, but the question is whether they can at this level.
Even with Mandotti, Stubbs had concerns. The major one was whether she could serve because, under international rules, liberos do not serve. It turns out that she could.
“I always love serving, because since I was little, I was always called from the older teams to go and serve and do like the DS here...serve and then stay in the back row,” Mandotti said. “But then like at 16 I stopped because I just was the main libero on my team. But in practice, I always asked to do that because I loved it. So, I just do it more competitively here.”
She proved that she could in the first match she started for the Wildcats. Mandotti served a run of six points to close out the first set against Long Island. In the second set, she served a string of eight straight points. She ended the match with two aces and just one service error. Could she do that against tougher competition, though?
Mandotti didn’t have the same kind of experience the next night against Grand Canyon, but she bounced back against No. 1 Wisconsin in her third start. In the first set, she served six straight points. That night she had one ace.
Mandotti is now third on the team with 0.29 aces per set. She has done that while playing the fewest sets among the regular starters. Her mark trails only Sofia Maldonado Diaz (0.31) and Ana Heath (0.30), both of whom came into the season known as Arizona’s best servers. The freshman libero is doing it while keeping her aces-to-errors ratio right around 1-to-1.
Of the court, Mandotti is falling in love with Mexican food. It doesn’t hurt that her roommate is Maldonado Diaz. They spend time sharing the food from their home countries. But the best part of living with her veteran teammate?
“I see her as the older players in my old team,” Mandotti said. “I refer to her. And we really are compatible in how we also manage the house, and so it’s easy. We have the same habits, and we are two clean people.”
Arizona Wildcats (5-6) @ RV Arizona State (12-0)
When: Thursday, Sept. 21 at 7 p.m. MST
Where: Mullett Arena in Tempe, Ariz.
TV: Pac-12 Arizona
Stats: ASU Live Stats
Season to date: The Sun Devils have a perfect record, but it has not come against the best competition. Their only match against a top 50 opponent was against UTEP, which is No. 30 in the unofficial RPI. Five of their matches came against teams outside the top 200. In their defense, they have yet to play at home. The entire pre-conference portion of their schedule was either on the road or at neutral sites. They have also accomplished the task under a new head coach.
Stubbs says: “I see a team that is 12-0. And now a team that hasn’t played at home because, for whatever reason, they couldn’t play in the preseason at home. So, they’ll be excited about that...I think they’re playing a lot harder [under their new head coach]. I think that they play within the realm of what they’re capable of doing. I don’t see them going out and trying to do the impossible.”
No. 7 Washington State Cougars (10-1) @ Arizona Wildcats (5-6)
When: Sunday, Sept. 24 at 1 p.m. MST
Where: McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz.
TV: Pac-12 Arizona
Stats: Arizona Live Stats
Season to date: The Cougs may not be perfect, but they’re pretty close—and they’ve done it against a good schedule. All 11 of their matches have been against teams in the top 200 with six of them against the top 100. They are 5-1 against the RPI top 100 and undefeated against teams from 101-200. Their only loss of the year was against Louisville, which was ranked No. 4 in the AVCA poll at the time. Their last three games headed into Pac-12 play were all against ranked teams. Wazzu won them all.
Stubbs says: “You have an older group and they’re not fazed by much of anything. They’re just going to go out there and do their job. They’ve had some good wins. They’ve been challenged. And so, it’s that for us, I’m glad we played Wisconsin because we’ll play a team that is used to winning and that is comfortable, that have experience. And so, it’s not something that’s unfamiliar. In the past, I believe that we went into several matches never knowing what we were walking into because we didn’t see it enough. And so, it’s a matter of every match that we played in preseason is preparing us for what we’re going to see In Pac-12 play.”