Aug. 3, 2001
With a 28-5 overall record, 16-2 and a conference championship in the Pac-10 and more school records than any other team in school history, the 2000 Arizona volleyball team accomplished quite a bit.
For an Elite Eight team that lost three seniors, two of which were All-Pac-10 performers, that all played a significant role in Arizona's record breaking season in 2000 there are some who might think that the 2001 Wildcats might take a step back. Head coach David Rubio and the volleyball team aren't among them.
"Our goals and expectations are the same as last season," says the reigning conference coach of the year. "We want to win the Pac-10, get to the Final Four and win the national championship. Despite losing three significant players off of last year's team, with the players we have returning and the new recruits, we expect to be every bit as competitive this year."
True, Arizona did lose two 1,000 point scorers in middle blocker Marisa DaLee and outside hitter Allison Napier and an experienced back row player in defensive specialist Elvina Clark, but the cupboard isn't exactly bare either.
Four starters return for the Wildcats, including first-team AVCA All-American and 2000 Pac-10 Player of the Year Dana Burkholder, NCAA Central Region All-Tournament performer Jill Talbot and honorable mention All-Pac-10 honoree Lisa Rutledge. Senior Erin Sebbas will join classmates Burkholder and Talbot in the front row and junior Shannon Torregrosa is primed for a breakout season. Stefani Saragosa had her shoulder repaired during the off season and is expected to pick up where she left off in 2000.
The pieces are in place for success in 2001 and just as the expectations haven't changed, the Wildcats are determined to make sure the results won't either.
Perhaps the deepest group of setters in Arizona history is in place for the 2001 season. Senior Dana Burkholder returns to lead UA's potent offense. Her school record 4,068 career assists in three seasons are testament to her ability to guide the Wildcat attack. The first-team All-American and Pac-10 Player of the Year set up an Arizona offense that led the nation with a .320 hitting percentage, the best average in school history. She dished out a school single-season record 1,562 assists in 2000, an average of 13.58 assists per game - the best average in school history and 22nd best in the NCAA for 2000, but made defenses pay for not covering her at the net. She hit .350 for the season and averaged 1.71 kills per game while tallying two of her three career triple-doubles.
"Coming off of the Pac-10 Player of the Year and first-team All-American honors last season," says Rubio. "Dana heads the list of the top setters. She's arguably the best setter in the Pac-10 and one of the top two or three in the entire country."
Backing up Burkholder is classmate Lauren Benward. Ranked tenth on the all-time assist list in Arizona history, Benward has the ability to step in and lead the Arizona offense without missing a beat. In addition to her setting duties, Benward will be counted on as an attacker as well.
"Lauren is a very capable back up to Dana," says Rubio. "She's turned into a terrific setter during her time at Arizona and knows the offense. I expect that she'll see more playing time on the right side this season, as well as backing up the setter."
Newcomer Rochelle Ruen can expect to see playing time right away as well.
"She has to play right away" says Rubio. "Rochelle has to get the minutes and experience of playing if she's going to take over for Dana next year."
The two-time Idaho State MVP and Gatorade Player of Year comes to Arizona with an impressive resume and the physical attributes to help out right away.
"She's a great athlete and has a great head for the game," continues Rubio. "She has all the skills necessary to compete at the collegiate level, but needs to get stronger and some experience."
A traditionally strong position for the Wildcats, at least one Arizona player has been named All-Pac-10 from the position in the last four years, the departure of Marisa DaLee, combined with off-season surgery to Stefani Saragosa's shoulder has left some questions for the upcoming season.
"Our middle blockers are our biggest question mark for the upcoming season," says Rubio. "It's kind of a tenuous situation with Stefani's injury and her inability to play in the spring. We're not going to be as physical in the middle as we were last season, but that's not really as necessary now that our offense is much more diverse."
Saragosa, a junior, appears to be the heir-apparent in the middle, but the coaching staff was impressed with the spring showing of senior Erin Sebbas. Sebbas, who saw action in 47 games last season, tallied 35 kills and 25 total blocks for the Pac-10 champions.
"A lot of the confidence that I have for this season stems from the strides that Erin made during the spring," says Rubio. "The improvement in her blocking and attacking will allow her to be much more competitive this year. The improvements will help us maintain a high level of play in the middle despite the loss of Marisa (DaLee)."
A healthy Saragosa gives Arizona two valuable players in the middle. Coming off of a season in which she hit .361, 22nd-best in the nation last season, Saragosa went under the knife to repair her right shoulder that had been troubling her all season. Her recovery from the surgery kept her out of spring games, but healthy now, the coaches expect her to be a factor in the middle.
The improvements of Sebbas and the health of Saragosa make the Wildcats very formidable in the middle, however, the additions of newcomers Angie Ayers and Jolene Killough give Arizona enviable depth in the position.
Ayers, a four-year letter winner in volleyball in high school, is expected to see playing time in her freshman year, while Killough is expected to redshirt this season.
Arizona will head into the season at least two deep on both the right and left sides. Juniors Lisa Rutledge and Shannon Torregrosa, who were both invited to tryout with the U.S. National Team this past year, anchor a very physical and dominating left side while senior Jill Talbot and talented newcomer Kellie Burton bring a combined experience and skill to the right side.
Rutledge, a Freshman All-Pac-10 player in her first season and an honorable mention All-Pac-10 player last season, has continued to improve each season at UA.
"With the role that Lisa has assumed, she's become a full-time passer on the floor," says Rubio. "She's a much more intelligent player now than when she came to Arizona. She's always been a very physical player, but she much more intuitive now. The mental aspect is the one thing that's been missing from her game in the past."
As the team's returning leader in kills (343) and kills per game (3.04) opponents will have to pay close attention to the more savvy Rutledge.
With the departure of All-Pac-10 honoree Allison Napier, Torregrosa is expected to shoulder a larger share of the offensive load this season for the Cats. Expectations are high for the third-year player who averaged 1.90 kills per game last season.
"Shannon has progressed a lot since last season," says Rubio. "She has made significant strides not only as a volleyball player, but as a person as well. She might struggle a bit, as everybody does, making the transition from a part-time to a full-time player, but she has the potential to be the top player in the Pac-10 and eventually in the country."
Adding even more depth on the outside is redshirt freshman Kathy Garbacz.
On the right side indispensable Jill Talbot will resume her role as Arizona's clutch performer. The senior has proved that she is a marquee talent while garnering very little recognition for her efforts. One of the most dependable players on Arizona's roster, Talbot made people pay attention last season in the NCAA Tournament where she posted 40 kills in 70 attempts with only five errors (.500 hitting percentage) in Arizona's four matches. A team leader both on and off the court, her efforts have not gone unnoticed by her coach.
"There isn't a player in the country that I would trade for Jill Talbot," says Rubio. "She's consummate right side player. She does so much for our team and it never really gets recognized. She a full-time passer and has become such a threat on offense that teams will have to pay attention to her and respect her abilities."
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Talbot's leadership will be freshman Burton. Rated 24th in Volleyball Magazine's Fab 50, Burton already possess the physical traits for collegiate volleyball, but a playing behind one of the best right side players in Division I volleyball will make her even more of a threat for Arizona.
"Kellie is going to be Jill's back up on the right side and will benefit a great deal in doing so," says Rubio. "She has dynamic arm swing and impressive skills, but she's young and inexperienced. Playing behind someone with the talent like Jill will give her an opportunity to learn the position without all the pressure. She has tremendous potential and we're excited to have her."
Adding even more depth for the Cats on the right side is fellow newcomer Dusti Johnston. The athletic 6-3 freshman will also back up Talbot while learning the position.
Back Row/Defensive Specialists
The Wildcats return two back row players from last season and add three more to the mix this season. Christina Frost, who can also move up to the front row, and Rachel Williams both bring valuable back row passing and digging experience while Linda McCullagh, who had to sit out the 2000 season due to transfer rules, and newcomers Ilissa Larimore and Kelli Mulvany add depth.
Williams is the most experienced of the returning defensive specialists. Making 10 starts and playing in 106 games, the junior recorded 160 digs for an average of 1.51 digs per game all the while playing with a broke bone in her hand.
Frost, who saw action in 44 games last season, possesses a steady game and steely nerves needed for the back row.
"Christina was very solid last season and improved a great deal as the season went along," says Rubio. "I knew that as she got better, so would the team. She possesses a number of qualities that I really love- she's mentally tough, emotionally stable and a great competitor."
Returning to the floor this season is McCullagh. A transfer from Oregon State, where she did not participate in volleyball, she displayed progress in the spring season that impressed the coaching staff.
"Linda had a great spring and as a result will see significant playing time this season. She'll have every opportunity to make an impact in the back row for us in 2001. Her defense is solid and her passing continues to improve."
Newcomer Mulvany brings a tremendous amount of leadership to the program despite her youth. A four-year letter winner in high school, she was named the team captain her sophomore season at Orange Lutheran High School in Orange, Calif.
"Kelli is a leader on the floor. She's as good (of a leader) as we'll have here at Arizona. She knows the game and has tremendous amount of enthusiasm for it."
Larimore, who attended Arizona last year but did not play volleyball, impressed coaches with her efforts as a walk-on in the spring season.
"Ilissa is a very young player still learning the game," says Rubio. "She has a great work ethic and attitude. She's got a strong commitment to getting better as a player."
Playing in perhaps the toughest conference in the country does not keep the Wildcats from scheduling a challenging non-conference slate, and 2001 is no exception. Arizona will face nine teams that qualified for the NCAA Tournament this season and six teams that finished in the top 25 last year.
The Wildcats will take to the road to start the season with a 1,700 mile trip to Gainesville, Fla., to participate in Florida's Sun Trust Invitational. Arizona will face Marshall, South Florida and the host Gators during the two day tournament Aug.31-Sept.1.
UA's home opener will feature the 18th-annual Four Points University Plaza Wildcat Classic. Utah and Louisville will travel to the desert southwest to take part in the three-day event Sept.6-8.
From there it's the always competitive Pac-10 schedule. September will feature four of Arizona's six conference matches on the road, including a trip to Stanford which is looking to avenge the first season sweep at the hands of the Wildcats in school history and a two-match trip to Los Angeles to face USC and UCLA in the last weekend of the month.
The Wildcats remain home for the majority of the month of October with five of their seven matches played in McKale Center. USC and UCLA make visit at the end of the month with possible Pac-10 title implications on the line.
The first half of November concludes the conference season and the Wildcats will wrap up the season with their semi-annual Four Points University Plaza Thanksgiving Tournament at the end of the month. Arizona will host UC Santa Barbara, San Diego State and Denver in a NCAA warmup.