"We have a talented group of players, but they are young and inexperienced," David Rubio, entering his eighth season as head coach of the Wildcats, said. "Youth is a major part of our team, and in a lot of ways that's positive.
"We have a chance to build from last year's success and it will be exciting to see how well these players and this team can play."
Arizona went 22-7 last season and achieved its best finish ever in Pac-10 play, coming in fourth with a 12-6 league mark. The Cats return five starters from that squad, including All-Pac-10 performer Marisa DaLee, who became the first Wildcat to ever lead the league in hitting percentage last year, setting an Arizona record with a .386 mark. Outside hitter Raelene Elam, who finished second in the Pac-10 in service aces per game, is the Cats' only senior and should start on the outside, possibly along side junior Allison Napier (3.04 kpg).
The rest of Arizona's lineup will consist of freshmen and sophomores as the Cats feature 10 underclassmen. Arizona's attack will revolve around setter Dana Burkholder (12.46 apg in 98). Last year, Burkholder earned a spot on the freshman all-conference team by posting the fourth-best single-season assist total in school history.
"Dana is the cornerstone of our team she runs the offense and is our emotional leader day in and day out," Rubio said. "She had a great freshman season, but Dana sees room for growth and improvement. She's learning to work hard enough every day in order to reach our goal of winning a national championship. She is certainly good enough to lead our team in that direction, but you have to earn the right to play for a championship and she is learning how to earn that right."
"We are just scratching the surface of Dana's potential talent. Like all champions, Dana has high expectations for herself and her teammates."
Rubio has added six freshmen signees to the returning group, including Fab 50 honoree Lisa Rutledge, an outside hitter from Vista, Calif., and two middle blockers, Stephanie Saragosa of Chula Vista, Calif., and Shannon Torregrosa from San Diego. Rutledge is expected to move into a starting role on the left side immediately, while Saragosa and Torregrosa could share time at middle blocker next to DaLee.
The Cats must replace just one starter from a year ago, but that one loss will be tough to make up. Middle blocker Keisha Johnson Demps (3.69 kpg; 1.15 bpg) earned All-Pac-10 honors by leading the Cats in kills and blocks.
"Right now the middle is a little bit up in the air," Rubio said. "The nice thing is that we have a lot of options. Stephanie is a pure middle, while Shannon could easily play the position as well. We've also been playing with the idea of putting Ali in the middle. She played a lot of middle in the spring, and we feel she would be very good there.
"Stefani has the kind of frame of mind that says, If there is a middle blocking spot open I want it.' She is fiery and demonstrates great leadership skills. We're excited because she'll be one of the best attackers we have ever had."
"Shannon is the most physical player in this recruiting class. She's still very young, but physically she has the tools to become one of the best players in our school's history. She's like a young pitcher who throws 110 mph fastballs, but they're all over the plate. But if you can channel it, teach it and hone it, you've got something special."
Upperclassman Allison Napier returns in the outsider hitter position and is expected to have a great junior year. With her experience, she brings leadership and toughness.
"Ali has made the transition this year. I see a change in her. She was a little timid and tentative last year, but she has a new attitude. She's tougher and ready for the adversity that comes along with the role she's going to play."
With the graduation of Demps, even more of the offensive focus will be placed on DaLee (3.19 kpg; 1.06 bpg), who hit .400 or better in a match 15 times last season and ranked 12th in the nation in hitting percentage.
"Marisa has really blossomed into a great player and is learning how to work hard enough to be a great player every single day. She is going to be a big force for us, and everybody in the conference is aware of her talent. "
"Opposing blockers in the front row are going to be focused on Marisa giving us that much more reason to prepare our left-side attackers to play a bigger role for us. Marisa is going to be a great decoy and we should be able to take advantage of a lot of splits in the middle. Our will play a dominating role."
That crucial left-side role may be filled by Rutledge, a high school All-American last season.
"Lisa is one of the most physically gifted players I've seen. She hits the ball at the top of the antenna, she's a great passer, she plays great defense, she has an awesome work ethic and she's a great team player.
"I think the biggest factor for us is that Lisa is going to be able to ball-handle and be a passer. That immediately helps us become a better team."
Arizona's lone senior is Elam (3.32 kpg; 0.41 sapg), who will start on the outside. She had more service aces than any player in the Pac-10 last season and leads all returning Cats in kills. One of Arizona's most consistent players, Elam posted double digit totals in kills in 14 of the team's 18 conference matches last season.
"Every senior wants to leave their final year in a blaze of glory," Rubio said, "and I know Raelene has those visions. She's really our best player. She does everything for us really well at a very high level.
"This is her year, and she's ready to make it a big one. She's got the most talented team to work with since she's been a Wildcat."
The Cats return two other hitters from last season's first-year class, All-Pac-10 Freshman honorable mention honoree Jill Talbot (1.68 kpg; 0.71 bpg), an outside hitter, and middle blocker Erin Sebbas.
"In the big matches, Jill always steps up for us. You can count on it. She just never backs down in crucial moments.
"She has tremendous untapped potential talent. She could be an exceptional player. She is determined to be a great player and I'm excited to have Jill in the program.
"Erin had a great freshman year. She came in fairly inexperienced and improved a great deal. She's a tough kid who works hard every day. She's a grinder. She's someone you can count on every single day in practice and every match. She's going to be battling for that middle blocker position."
Another returning sophomore who will play a more crucial role this season is Lauren Benward (1.00 dpg), who must fill Burkholder's shoes until the Cats' starting setter returns from competing with the U.S. Junior National team in early September.
"Lauren has shown significant improvements after just a year of setting," Rubio said. "She becomes extremely important for us because of Dana missing fall training and the very first week of competition. Dana's absence puts the weight on Lauren's shoulders to lead the team and run the offense."
The Cats return two more players, junior defensive specialists Elvina Clark and Nicole McIntyre (1.86 dpg). Clark missed virtually all of last season with an elbow injury, while McIntyre was a key defensive replacement, often coming in for DaLee on the back row. Another player who may see time in that role is freshman Rachel Williams of Upland, Calif.
"Rachel has a chance to make an impact right away," Rubio said. "She's a good passer, plays great defense and is fearless. She has the attitude and demeanor that a DS should have. She is just a tough kid and I like that about her."
The Cats' other incoming freshman is outside hitter Christina Frost of Salina, Kan.
"Christina is somebody who we're very fortunate to have on the squad," Rubio said. "She is lightning quick. She has great feet, is a good jumper and has a nice arm swing. She's going to add some nice depth for us on the left."
Perhaps the most dramatic change for the 1999 Wildcats will be who the team will see across the net. Arizona's already-tough schedule has undergone a remarkable upgrade that will make it one of the nation's toughest. The Cats will take on five teams ranked among the top 11 in the nation at the end of last season; Nebraska (3rd); Hawaii (5th); BYU (6th); Stanford (9th); and Southern California (11th). In addition, UCLA and San Diego, each of whom finished in the top 20, appear on the Wildcat slate this season.
"The schedule is not even close to being what my philosophy was in the last seven years," Rubio said. "My attitude in the last seven years was to try to get as many W's as I can in preparation for the conference season. A tougher schedule will mentally prepare our team for the battles we will face in the NCAA tournament. So I think in the long run it's something that will help us out. We're used to playing against the Stanfords and UCLAs in big matches but we need to go out and see some of the best teams in other regions. It's good for us to match up against them and see how we fare."
Rubio thinks the Pac-10 will be much stronger one-to-10 than ever before.
"The conference has taken a dramatic step forward and is much more competitive from top to bottom. As a result, we'll find that the traditional volleyball powers won't necessarily be at the top of the standings at the end of the season."
As a talented and young team, the Cats will be an exciting group to watch as they build from last year's success. Expectations are high and while facing what may be the toughest schedule in school history, Arizona's season is slated to be one of its greatest challenges to date.