"This is an exciting time for Arizona volleyball because we feel like we have all the pieces we need to make a run at the conference championship and to make a run at getting into the Final Four," said Rubio, who is beginning his ninth year at the helm of the Wildcat program. "It's exciting because the program has never been in this position before, and putting the pieces together in this program for the last nine years has really been an educational process for me."
Eleven of those "pieces" are returning for the 2000 season, including five starters, from a team that went 21-11 overall and 12-6 in Pac-10 play last year. With a roster that featured 10 freshmen and sophomores, the 1999 Wildcats faced a brutal regular-season schedule that propelled them into the NCAA Sweet Sixteen for the third time in the `90s. The squad ended the year ranked 14th in the nation, its highest end-of-the-season ranking ever under Rubio.
After two years of being a very young team, the Wildcats continue to mature and look to be headed for heights never before experienced by the UA volleyball program.
The strongest area for the Cats again appears to be the setting position. Junior setter Dana Burkholder remains the UA's anchor on the attack after being named to the AVCA All-District 8 team and first team All-Pac-10 last season. Currently 12th in NCAA history in career assists per game (12.66), Burkholder set a new school record last season with her average of 12.89 assists per game.
"Dana raised her level of training throughout the spring, and that's going to be a significant factor for us," said Rubio. "There's just not another setter like Dana. She transcends setting, and in her last two seasons here, she is going to force her team to the next level."
Junior setter Lauren Benward is considered to be Burkholder's primary back-up. Benward stands 10th on the UA career list with 293 assists and appeared in 16 matches last year as both a back-up setter and a defensive specialist.
"Dana's obviously our starting setter, although Lauren has made significant strides toward becoming an even better player," said Rubio. "If Dana was ever injured or sick, Lauren would be able to step in and do a more-than-adequate job. She's an excellent setter who would be a starter for many other teams."
After playing seven games in four matches last season, sophomore Melayne Wooten will provide some additional depth at setter for the Cats this year.
"Melayne made some wonderful improvements in the spring, and the question mark will be whether or not she'll be capable of competing with Lauren for that second setter spot. Right now, Melayne is still developing," Rubio said.
Junior Jill Talbot is the projected starter at opposite hitter. She led the Cats in digs (285), service aces (41) and aces per game (0.38) last year and registered a .239 attack percentage.
"When the game is on the line, Jill is the person I want serving or passing or attacking. She's just a game player," said Rubio. "She's a great competitor, she's our best right-side player, our best passer, and she really determines how good we're going to be. That's a lot of pressure to put on one person, but as she gets better, so will our team."
Following a rookie season that saw her earn Pac-10 All-Freshman Team and honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors, sophomore Lisa Rutledge will return as a starter on the outside. She finished second on the team with 296 kills and had a .239 hitting percentage. The biggest unknown for the Cats seems to be the left side. Sophomore Shannon Torregrosa and senior Allison Napier are the top candidates who will compete for the starting job. Torregrosa appeared in 30 matches last year as a reserve outside hitter, starting eight of them. She racked up 183 kills and 77 digs on the year.
One of only three seniors on this year's squad, Napier ranks 18th on the UA career list with a .171 hitting percentage and is 20th in career kills (568). She finished third on the team in 1999 with 2.09 kills per game as a reserve outside hitter.
"The big question for us is who's going to be starting on the left," said Rubio. "Is it going to be Shannon Torregrosa, who has all this potential and is more physically gifted than anyone on the team, or is it going to be Allison Napier, who has always struggled with the consistency part of her game?
"They both had great spring seasons. Alli really stepped up her game at the end of the spring and showed that she is able to be consistent. Shannon also demonstrated the ability to be consistent. The biggest question is who's going to show up [when the season starts]. The reality may be they may both share time. We have some depth there on the left, which is nice."
Freshman Christina Frost is coming off a redshirt season and could see time for the Cats on the outside this year. At Salina (Kans.) High School, Frost was a two-time All-Kansas selection and three-time all-county honoree.
"Christina might have some playing time on the back row. She's not likely to see much time in the front row, although you never know because she's a blue-collar-worker type of player," said Rubio.
The Wildcats have considerable depth in the middle as well this year. Along with Napier and Elvina Clark, Marisa DaLee is one of three seniors on the team and is anticipated to maintain the starting spot in the middle that she has held each of her previous three seasons. Also named to the AVCA All-District 8 team, DaLee earned her second straight first team All-Pac-10 honor last fall after finishing second in the conference and leading the Cats with her .381 hitting percentage. She is Arizona's career leader in hitting percentage (.379) and has appeared in 223 consecutive games, the fifth-longest streak in UA history.
"Marisa is the person people recognize, not just because of her stature, but because of the numbers she puts up, match after match," said Rubio. "She's the kind of player you need to compete with the best teams in the nation and to win a championship."
Another middle blocker, sophomore Stefani Saragosa was hampered by injury through the spring. She earned honorable mention Pac-10 All-Freshman laurels and was second on the team last year with a .272 hitting percentage and 84 blocks. She put up some of the best numbers ever for a UA freshman, including 76 block assists, 20 service aces and 164 kills.
"The other middle position will be a dog fight. Because of some inflammation of some fascia in her shin, Stefani wasn't able to jump at all during the spring, so that opened it up for Erin Sebbas," Rubio said.
A junior, Erin Sebbas appeared in 21 matches last year, tallying 29 blocks. She has seen action as a reserve middle blocker for the Cats over the last two seasons, although her playing time could increase this year as the result of Saragosa's injury.
"Erin has made some huge strides. She played all last fall, competed all spring season and really developed into a solid middle," said Rubio. "As a result of not being able to play in the front row, Stefani became exceptionally good in the back row. So she has put herself in the position to be able to play all the way around, if she does come back as a starter."
The only true freshman on this year's roster is middle blocker Lindsay Rogers, from Mesa Mountain View High School in Phoenix, Ariz. At Mountain View, Rogers earned first team All-East Valley and second team All-Arizona recognition while leading her team to regional and state championships in 1999. "We're not sure at this point where Lindsay will fit in," said Rubio. "We're not sure if she's going to actually dress for matches, or if we're going to redshirt her. That will be determined once she gets into the program." The Cats have two returning defensive specialists who are expected to split the majority of playing time this year. One of the squad's three seniors, Elvina Clark had 110 digs last year as the team's primary defensive specialist. Sophomore Rachel Williams appeared in 18 matches last season, starting eight, and registered 131 digs and seven service aces.
"Elvina and Rachel both played such significant roles in the development of our team last year and in how well we played at the end of the year," said Rubio. "Those two players really made a huge impact on every game in every match and every rally, and I don't see that changing this year. Both will play a big part in our success this year."
Another newcomer, sophomore Linda McCullagh transferred to Arizona from Oregon State, although she did not play volleyball there last fall. A defensive specialist, McCullagh will have to sit out this season because of a transfer rule.
The 2000 schedule appears just as challenging as last season's. Ten of this year's opponents ended 1999 nationally ranked, and 13 teams on the 2000 slate participated in last season's NCAA tournament.
This year's non-conference lineup will feature early season road contests at both Brigham Young and Utah, as well as a home match with Florida. The Cats will also participate in a November tournament that could see them face perennial national powerhouse Pacific.
Arizona opens the season at the San Diego State Tournament, along with UC Santa Barbara and the University of San Diego, on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 1-2. The following weekend, the Cats play host to Baylor, Santa Clara and New Mexico State for the Starwoods Plaza Wildcat Classic on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 8-9. The UA wraps up regular-season play at the Community Bankers Classic on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 24-25, with Colorado State, San Jose State and host team Pacific.
"We upgraded our schedule last year because we felt we needed to challenge ourselves with the highest competition available. Even though we consider the Pac-10 the strongest conference in the country, what has happened is that four teams in the league have separated themselves from the rest of the pack," said Rubio.
"We wanted to play some of those top-level teams last year, and even though we suffered some heart-breaking losses, it really prepared us for what we saw in postseason play. We felt like there was a direct correlation between the level of competition we played last year and how we finished in the postseason. We knew we needed to do the same this year."
Arizona begins Pac-10 play with a match at Arizona State on Wednesday, Sept. 13. The Cats play their first home conference matches against Stanford and California on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 29 and 30, respectively. Their final league contest will be against Arizona State at home on Saturday, Nov. 11.
Rubio anticipates a much closer Pac-10 race this year. "There's quite a transition going on at Stanford right now, such that there's not going to be the gap between Stanford and the rest of the conference that there has been in the past," he said. "The playing field is leveling out, so it could be anyone's game at the top."