The 2004 season brings exciting possibilities for the Arizona volleyball team. Unlike a year ago, when Head Coach David Rubio’s team had to replace three starters, the ’04 Wildcats return all six starters and the libero from last year’s squad that made Arizona’s eighth-straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
"We return the entire starting six from last year," Rubio notes. "That alone is an indicator that we’ll be much improved."
Included in that group is two-time All-American Kim Glass, two-time All-Pacific-10 selection Bre Ladd and honorable mention All-Pac-10 outside hitter Jennifer Abernathy.
"This team is ready to compete at the next level," Rubio claims. "Assuming everyone stays healthy, we will compete at a very high level. This team has the potential to get to the Final Four and win a national championship. A lot of things have to fall into place in order for that to happen, but we have a legitimate shot."
Below is a position-by-position breakdown of the 2004 Wildcats.
In the three years since the departure of two-time All-American Dana Burkholder, Rubio believes there has been a void at the setting position for the Wildcats, which has had critical consequences due to the importance of the position. "Without question, the setter is the most influential position on the floor," Rubio explains. "Rallies are determined by the setter’s decisions and how she executes."
Because of its influence, Rubio believes the most intriguing match-up for the Wildcats this season will be at setter. Stephanie Butkus will be challenged for the starting spot by freshman Amy Dyck. Last season, Butkus suffered through the perils of being a starting setter as a freshman.
"Stephanie was put in a difficult position last year to be starting as a freshman," Rubio notes. "I admire her for having to go through all those trials and tribulations at this level. The off-season has been a revelation to her. As much as she struggled in the fall, she improved at least that much in the off-season. She has really put herself in position to be the starter."
However, Rubio also says that Dyck, a two-time Gatorade Player of the Year in Idaho, is every bit as good an athlete at her position as he has coached. "Amy has the intangibles ?- work ethic, drive, determination ?- to be as good as any setter that’s ever played here. This will be the first time she’s been put under the gun at a high level, though, so it will be a crash course for her."
Regardless of who gets the nod, Rubio has confidence in strength of the position. "We now have both experience and depth at setter, which is huge," he notes.
According to Rubio, the strength of this year’s team revolves around the outside hitting position. "I feel like with our returners we have the perfect combination of experience and depth," he explains. "We now have a balance of players who can pass and terminate and also have a good working knowledge of how the position should be played at the highest level. This position in general will be a tell-tale sign of how good we’re going to be because it is a full-time primary passer."
Highlighting the group of returners is Glass. After two seasons, she is already seventh all-time at UA in career kills with 1,206. Last year she set Arizona single season records in kills (650) and attempts (1,584), and after two seasons holds career records for matches with 10 or more kills (31) and matches with 20 or more kills (18).
"Kim is due for a breakout season based on how she performed in the off-season," Rubio says. "She has grown both as a person and as a player, and that will be evident on the court. She’s extremely athletic and has the intangibles you can’t teach that mark great players. Our team, in a sense, will go how Kim goes."
Joining Glass on the left side is Abernathy. An honorable mention All-Pac-10 selection, she was named American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) National Player of the Week for Nov. 3, 2003, after averaging 6.14 kills per game on .522 hitting at No. 9 Stanford and No. 6 Cal. Abernathy finished in double-digit kills 20 times last season, including the last 10 straight.
"Last year Jen developed at a very fast rate in terms of her working knowledge of the position and she continued with that speed in the off-season," Rubio explains. "Combined with Kim, she really provides us a powerful punch on the left side. As long as she is healthy, she will have a breakout year."
The opposites, sophomores Kristina Baum and Meghan Cumpston, will battle for the starting spot. Baum started 31 of 32 matches last season and was named honorable mention Freshman All-Pac-10. "Kristina started as a freshman all last year," Rubio notes. "That alone provides her the opportunity to come into the season with a tremendous amount of confidence."
Cumpston appeared in 23 of 32 matches last season and by the end of the spring season was the starting opposite. "Meghan showed that she’s ready to step up and compete on a day-to-day basis," Rubio says. "She’s a passer, an offensive threat and a nice presence on that pin. It will be an interesting battle to see who wins that position."
A position that has long been one of the strengths of Arizona’s volleyball program, the Wildcat middle blockers will again be a formidable presence this season with returning starters Jolene Killough and Ladd. Arizona also returns redshirt freshman Enobong Ibok and welcomes freshman Dominique Lamb. "We have great experience, depth and athleticism at this position," Rubio claims. "I’m very excited about the returners and newcomers. It will be the cornerstone of our team. Should we pass the ball well, we will have terrific offense in the middle this year."
Killough started all 32 matches last year, surpassing all of her first two-year career totals across the board. She led the team in hitting percentage, total blocks and blocks per game. "Jolene had an exceptional off-season," Rubio says. "She showed on a regular basis that she’s ready to step up her game. At 6-5, she has an intimidating presence and she’s really coming into her own. As a senior, she’s one of the players that has to anchor this team and she’s ready for that role."
Ladd enters her junior season with the Wildcats after having been an honorable mention All-Pac-10 player in each of her two seasons. However, the Tucson native underwent shoulder surgery in the off-season. "Bre was out for six months, so the question is whether she’ll play like she did last year," Rubio explains. "That said, I am expecting a breakout year for her, either at the middle or on one of the pins. I expect her to be 100 percent. It’s time for her to step up and play at the level she’s capable of."
Ibok, a redshirt freshman from El Paso, Texas, was recruited as a project player. "With Enobong, we started with a blank piece of paper," Rubio notes. "By the end of the off-season, she had improved enough that I thought she could compete for a starting position. She has tremendous potential, but she needs to develop the confidence that’s required to play for us."
Rounding out the group is Lamb, a four-time All-Fiesta Region pick that was ranked the No. 18 recruit in the country by PrepVolleyball.com. "Dominique is one of the top five athletes I’ve ever seen play volleyball," Rubio claims. "She’s as fast, quick and explosive an athlete as I’ve ever seen. Because of her physical attributes, she, too, will be in the mix. She comes from a solid volleyball background in Arizona Juniors and I’m really excited about her future."
A big blow for the Wildcats came on the first day of spring practice, when sophomore Angie Ayers, who redshirted last season after tearing her ACL, re-injured her knee. She will miss this season, as well.
The Wildcats will have a number of players, seven to be exact, to choose from at the libero position in 2004. "This position is the greatest competition on this team," Rubio says. "The libero is the second most important position on the floor outside of setter, and we have good experience and depth. We will have a real battle every day. I’m excited that players will have to compete to win the position."
Senior Kelli Mulvany played in all 32 matches last season and posted a career-high 347 digs, the best on the team. "Kelli is a three-year starter that comes with great confidence, experience, knowledge of the game, and most important, good skills. Experience alone puts her in position where she’ll be difficult to beat out."
Senior Cassidy Crum appeared in 31 of 32 matches last year, making three starts. "This is Cassidy’s third year at Arizona," Rubio explains. "She had a terrific spring and developed into a fine libero. Her passing and defense have improved and she is a tremendous hard worker. She will be right in the mix."
Tyler Bowman played in 29 of 32 matches as a freshman last season. "Last year, Tyler had a transitional year, and as a result, she wasn’t able to play to her potential," Rubio says. "However, in the off-season, she made the commitment to her position and to the sport, and as a result, has the potential to become a great libero. Her heath will be a big part. We hope to work through her health issues."
Sophomore Holyce Caldwall played in just five games last year. "Holyce didn’t see much playing time last year," Rubio notes. "Her confidence is an issue. If she can overcome that, she’ll be in the mix."
Freshman Krista Chin, a three-time all-conference pick, a first team all-state selection by the Chicago Sun Times and honorable mention all-state pick by the Chicago Tribune, will challenge for a starting spot. "In 13 years here, I have never had a player like Krista, because defense has never been a high priority for me," Rubio says. "She is a phenomenal defensive player and has shown that she’s capable of playing at this level as a freshman. As her serve receive improves, her chance as a starter improves."
Rounding out the position is freshman Emily Harper. "Emily will provide depth," Rubio explains. "She played at a high level for one of the top club teams in southern California. For her to compete, she’s going to have to work hard on her skills and competitiveness. She’s a great teammate, a hard worker and a welcome addition to the team."
Arizona, the preseason No. 17 team in the nation, will face eight teams that were ranked nationally in the preseason poll, including five in the nation’s toughest conference, the Pac-10. In a preseason vote of the conference’s head coaches, the Wildcats were picked to finish sixth in the 10-team league.
"I’m a firm believer that a tough regular-season will pay dividends come NCAA Tournament time," Rubio says.
Arizona opens the season Sept. 1 at San Diego State before heading to the Wahine Classic, where it will face Eastern Washington, San Diego and No. 13 Hawaii.
The following weekend, Arizona hosts the Four Points University Plaza Wildcat Classic. Included in that tournament are Nicholls State, No. 9 Pepperdine and No. 20 Louisville.
On Sept. 17-18, the Wildcats close out non-conference play in Washington, D.C., at the American University Tournament. There they will face host American, Temple and Albany.
Arizona opens Pac-10 play on Sept. 23 at No. 6 Stanford, followed by a Sept. 24 match at No. 10 California. The following weekend isn’t any easier as the Wildcats host No. 3 UCLA and No. 1 Southern California. Also included in the Pac-10 slate is No. 7 Washington.