Aug. 11, 2003
Unlike a year ago, the Arizona volleyball team will head into the 2003 season with more answers than questions on its roster.
Last season head coach David Rubio and his staff was tasked with the challenge of not only replacing two graduated All-Americans, but also fielding a team that was built around an impressive, yet inexperienced freshman class. With a year's worth of play and a trip to the Elite Eight under their belts, Arizona's now experienced group of sophomores will be the anchor of the team as the once again youthful Wildcats head into the 2003 season.
Featuring a roster filled out by a decidedly dominant underclass, Arizona will have just one senior and three juniors on the roster this season. The dynamic sophomore class and a highly touted five-member freshman class will join the four upperclassmen on the floor.
"This is going to be the youngest team we've ever put on the floor at Arizona," says head coach David Rubio. "But it might also be the most talented too. We're going to have a number of freshmen and sophomores playing key roles. It's my hope that talent overcomes experience."
The departure of graduated transfer Laurie Gardner will once again leave the Wildcats without a setter that has played in Arizona's system in the regular season. However, Wildcats fans shouldn't fear much. Incoming freshman Stephanie Butkus has the physical tools and knowledge of the game that made her one of the most highly regarded setting recruits in the nation and transfer Kelly Halfaker, nee Griffin, has three seasons of Division I play already under her belt.
A native of Bridgeview, Ill., outside of Chicago, the 5-foot-11 Butkus was named first team all-state by the Chicago Tribune after her senior season last year.
"Stephanie is the perfect setter to follow (former Arizona All-American) Dana (Burkholder) and (former Arizona setter) Laurie (Gardner)," says Rubio. "She has good skills and sound fundamentals, but more importantly she'll be able to step in and play right away because of her mental approach to setting. In the Pac-10, the mental part of the game is more important than the athletic part."
Challenging Butkus for playing time will be New Mexico transfer Halfaker. A fifth-year senior, she gained valuable experience as a three-year starter for the Lobos and as Arizona's setter in the spring season. Halfaker averaged over nine assists per game and dished out over 2,000 assists in her first three seasons at New Mexico. She missed the 2002 season after hurting her knee on the second day of preseason practice.
"Kelly's experience at New Mexico is a valuable asset," says Rubio. "She knows what it takes to compete on this level and played well in the spring for us. Transferring in last semester gave her a chance to compete with our returning members and learn our system."
Another freshman, Tyler Bowman, might also see time in the setting position, but will most likely play in the back row as one of Arizona's liberos.
The Wildcats are set on the outside with a pair of sophomores and a redshirt freshman. Highlighting the returning outside hitters is 2002 AVCA National Freshman of the Year Kim Glass. In her first season in Tucson, Glass not only re-wrote the Wildcats' freshman record book, but also turned in one of the most prolific offensive seasons for an Arizona player of any class. In recording a school record 14 matches with 20 or more kills, Glass smashed Arizona's single season record for kills with 556 in 2002. She was twice named the Pac-10 Player of the Week and ended the conference year as not only Arizona's lone representative on the All-Pac-10 team, but as the conference's freshman of the year as well.
"Kim carried us for much of the season last year," says Rubio. "To have to type of season that she did as a freshman is remarkable. While her numbers from last year were impressive, we're hoping she won't have to take on so much this season. I believe we've got other players, both returning and incoming, that will take some of the pressure off of Kim, which in turn will make her even more dangerous."
Joining Glass on the outside is classmate Jennifer Abernathy. Moving into the starting lineup in place of departed four-year starter Lisa Rutledge, Abernathy will be asked to take on a larger roll this season. An athletic and explosive leaper, she showed impressive flashes of her abilities in 2002, finishing with 57 kills in 27 matches.
"Jen has the physical talent and ability to be a major factor for us this year," says Rubio. "She had a chance to get adjusted to the collegiate game as a freshman and now will be given an opportunity to play a more expanded roll for us."
Returning to action after redshirting last season is Meghan Cumpston. The 6-foot-1 outside hitter was a nationally recognized recruit coming out of high school in 2002, but spent last season honing her skills as a redshirt.
"Meghan has the tools to compete on this level," says Rubio. "Her abilities and her knowledge of the game have improved a great deal and the redshirt season definitely helped in her development."
A position that has long been one of the strengths of Arizona's volleyball program, the Wildcat middle blockers suffered a loss this summer when returning starter Angie Ayers went down with a knee injury and will miss the entire 2003 season.
Despite the injury to Ayers, the Wildcats will still field a formidable presence in the middle with returning starter Bre Ladd and 6-foot-5 Jolene Killough. Arizona also welcomes in freshmen Enobong Ibok and Kristina Baum.
Ladd enters her second season with the Wildcats after posting some impressive numbers in her first year. After initially struggling, the 6-foot-1 native Tucsonan finished her first season as the top Arizona freshman in school history in matches played (32) and matches started (32), block assists (114), total blocks (124) and blocks per game (1.09). She was named to the freshman All-Pac-10 team while also garnering honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors as well.
"Bre continually got stronger as the season progressed last year," says Rubio. "By the end of the year she was one of our most consistent and productive starters. Once she became more accustomed and familiar with our system and her teammates she really took off. We're expecting big things from Bre this season."
Junior Jolene Killough, a player that Rubio and the staff have high expectations for, will be called on to take a more expanded role this season. Killough played in 22 matches last year and made five starts. She finished with 42 kills on .305 hitting and recorded 24 total blocks.
"Jolene was a candidate to redshirt last season," says Rubio. "Due to some unforeseen circumstances she had to be pulled out of it and play. To do so after missing the first part of the season was very unselfish of her and showed her dedication to her teammates. Jo's a strong player at the net and with her size and reach she'll be a force both offensively and on the block for us this year."
Ibok, a freshman from El Paso, Texas, is likely to redshirt her first season at Arizona.
"In my mind," says Rubio. "Enobong has the athletic ability to be as good as Kim (Glass). Her upside is nearly limitless. She possesses amazing athletic talent, a sound mental approach and an impressive work ethic."
The loss of Ayers comes on the heals of the redshirt sophomore coming off a season that saw her move into the starting lineup. She began the 2002 season as a back up, but the retirement of Stefani Saragosa opened the way to a starting spot for the 6-foot-2 sophomore.
Ayers responded to her new starting role with 95 total blocks in just 88 games played. Her 1.08 blocks per game in 2002 was just a fraction behind Ladd's team-leading 1.09 and she finished the season posting 37 total blocks in Arizona's final seven matches. In addition to playing in the middle, Ayers was also expected to see time on the outside and as the opposite side hitter.
Ibok's classmate Baum will get a look at middle blocker, but will most likely play in the opposite position.
A position that never really had a true starter last season, either Ayers or freshman Kristina Baum was expected to fill the spot in 2003.
Ayers' injury leaves Baum as the expected starter in the role.
A Volleyball Magazine Fab 50 recruit, Baum will enter her first season at Arizona with the ability to make an immediate impact.
"She brings a complete game with her," says Rubio. "She has sound fundamentals and her ability to pass, serve, block and attack are already there. She also possesses a great mental approach to the game."
An All-CIF second team selection, Baum helped California High School to its first-ever league title in 2002.
Meghan Cumpston will also be given a look on the right side during the preseason.
One season after the NCAA adopted the libero as an official position it appears that the Wildcats will have a number of players to choose from in 2003. Returning junior Kelli Mulvany thrived in the spot after some early season struggles, and Rubio will also be able to call on junior Cassidy Crum and newcomers Tyler Bowman and Holyce Caldwell.
Mulvany, who has amassed 503 digs and a 2.43 dpg average in her first two seasons at Arizona, appears to be the heir apparent, but will certainly be pushed for the starting role by her teammates.
"We've got a number players that fill the libero spot," says Rubio. "Kelli has the experience in the position, but Cassidy, Tyler and Holyce will all push for floor time this year."
Coach Rubio is a firm believer that a tough regular season will pay dividends come NCAA Tournament time. With a Final Four, three Elite Eights and four Sweet Sixteen appearances in the last four years to his credit, it appears he might be on to something.
With a total of 30 regular season matches scheduled, the Wildcats face tough slate in 2003. In addition to playing in a conference that sent a Pac-10 record eight teams to the NCAA Tournament, four to the Elite Eight, two to the national finals and also had the national champion crowned from it, Arizona will also take on seven teams that qualified for the 2002 NCAA Tournament in non-conference action.
The Wildcats will open the season on the road at the end of August with a trip to Malibu, Calif., at the Pepperdine Classic. Arizona will take on 2002 Big East champion Notre Dame in the first match of the year and will square off against Eastern Washington, who finished 29-2 in 2002 and ranked 24th in the final AVCA poll, and host school Pepperdine, a regional finalist last season in the NCAA Tournament, to close out the weekend.
The Wildcats then return home to play host to a pair of tournaments, the 20th-annual Wildcat Classic, Sept. 4-6 and the Arizona Invitational, Sept. 12-13. Arizona will welcome San Diego State, Rhode Island and 2002 NCAA participants Santa Clara and Miami (Fla.) in the Wildcat Classic. The field for the Wildcat Invitational the next weekend is filled out with New Mexico State, American University and UC Santa Barbara. Both American and UCSB played participated in the NCAA postseason last year.
The opening of the Pac-10 schedule closes out September with a three-match road trip against Washington State, Washington and Arizona State. A trip to Los Angeles for a meeting with UCLA and defending national champions USC the second week of October is sandwich around home matches against the Bay Area and Oregon schools.
Arizona will take a break from conference play at the mid point of the Pac-10 season with a trip to Hawaii to take on the Rainbow Wahine on Oct. 19. Hawaii finished the 2002 season falling to Stanford in the Final Four.
Returning to conference play, Arizona will reverse its home and away opponents, hosting Arizona State, USC, UCLA, Washington State and Washington, while traveling to the Oregon schools and the Bay Area through out the end of October and most of November.
The Wildcats will conclude their regular season against Santa Barbara in California on Nov. 29.
The opening rounds of the 2003 NCAA Tournament are scheduled to start the weekend of Dec. 4-7. The 2003 Final Four, Dec. 18-20, is to played in Dallas, Texas this year.