TUCSON, Ariz. - After graduating three-time All-American and the school’s all-time kills leader Kim Glass, third team All-American Jennifer Abernathy and four-time All-Pac-10 player Bre Ladd, the 2006 Arizona volleyball team has some huge voids to fill. In addition, the Wildcats lost both assistant coaches, who totaled a combined 13 years in the program, to head coaching positions.
"To lose three seniors of that caliber is unheard of," Head Coach David Rubio says. "We also lost both assistants, which has made the transition that much more difficult."
Last year’s squad, which was one point away from the program’s second-ever Final Four appearance, finished the year 25-6 overall and 14-4 in the Pacific-10 Conference, good for a second-place tie.
"This is obviously going to be a transition year for us. We will have several new faces in the starting lineup. Along with the new faces come question marks. Despite the fact that I think we’ll be athletic, a large part of me says we'll just have to wait and see."
While it will be hard to match last year’s success, the 2006 squad returns four starters, including All-Pac-10 honorable mention selections Kristina Baum and Dominique Lamb. Baum was the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) National and Pac-10 Player of the Week last year after averaging 4.12 points, 3.50 kills on .383 hitting, 2.62 digs and 0.62 blocks in wins over No. 3 Stanford and No. 13 California. Lamb was one of 12 players nationally to be selected to the 2006 USA Women’s National Volleyball A2 Team that competed in the Women’s Open Division of the USA Volleyball Adult Open Championships in May.
In addition, libero Brittany Leonard returns to provide the Wildcats a solid defensive base. An honorable mention Pac-10 All-Freshman Team pick a year ago, Leonard set the Arizona single season mark for digs per game at 3.70.
At setter, Arizona is stacked, as Stephanie Butkus returns for her senior season. Butkus missed most of last season with a knee injury. Junior Amy Dyck, will filled in brilliantly in Butkus’ absence, will continue to challenge for the starting spot.
"With four starters returning, I still feel like we have a core group that will make the transition smoother," Rubio says. "The spring allowed several players to come out from under the shadow of last year's seniors. Our chemistry was excellent. That will be one of the true strengths of this squad."
The team also welcomes the fourth-best recruiting class in the nation, according to PrepVolleyball.com. Included in the group are three Top-100 recruits, including Tucson native Whitney Dosty, the fourth-ranked recruit in the nation.
"We’re going to rely on some incoming freshmen," Rubio says. "There’s no way around it. They will have to be impact players for us. That said, I’m invigorated and excited about the season and the challenges it will present to me and my new staff."
Below is a position-by-position breakdown of the 2006 Wildcats.
SetterThe setting position should be a strength for Arizona this season, as it has two returners that have both started, along with a talented freshman. "We certainly have depth and experience at setter," Rubio notes. "Whereas it’s been a question mark in the past, I think it’s going to be a strength for our program this year. It will be a highly contested position, which will make for very competitive scrimmages, and I think that is very important to the development of the team."
After missing a large part of last season, Butkus returns for her senior year healthy. "Steph is looking forward to a great senior year," Rubio explains. "She trained very hard in the spring and I saw some really good development not only in her setting, but also in her leadership skills. She is healthy and is committed to training, as evidenced by her staying in Tucson all summer. She is the most experienced setter we have in the program, which gives her the advantage."
Dyck, who was last year’s starting setter for the majority of the season, also returns. "You can never replace experience and Amy now has it," Rubio notes. "She is understanding what it takes to be a high-level athlete. She also knows that to be a setter in the Pac-10 requires more than athleticism ?- it takes a conceptual understanding of what the position requires. She has improved dramatically this last year and I hope it continues through the fall."
The Wildcats also welcome freshman Ashley Hamilton into the mix. A Volleyball Magazine Fab 50 selection and ranked 71st nationally in the PrepVolleyball.com Senior Aces, Hamilton was part of two state championship teams at Lone Peak (Utah) High School.
"Ashley is very physical and is the tallest of the three," Rubio says. "She also has the most high-level training and the highest level of competition before coming to the U of A of any of them. There’s no question she’s capable of setting her freshman year. The biggest key is whether or not she defers to the other two. If she doesn’t, she has a legitimate shot of competing and playing."
In the graduation of Glass and Abernathy, Arizona lost 60 percent of the team’s offense. "The two biggest holes left by last year’s seniors are at outside hitter," Rubio says. "You can then deduce that our success this year will be determined by how our players perform in those positions. I feel like we have talented, young athletes who will be able to perform at a high level."
Leading the way for the Wildcats will be Baum, who will also split time at middle blocker. "Kristina is going to be trading off between middle and opposite, depending on the needs of the team," Rubio explains. "At opposite, she’ll be the most experienced player on the floor. It’s a natural position for her. She’s a terrific blocker, very offensive and she’ll also be healthy. She’s the person the players look to in crunch time."
Arizona also returns sophomores Brooke Buringrud and Randy Goodenough, both of whom saw limited playing time last season. "Brooke is a level-headed player with good aptitude for the game. Her keys will be staying healthy and gaining strength," Rubio says.
"Randy had a terrific spring. She has tremendous talent and athleticism, but is a work in progress. She has the ability to score points and we will rely on her to do so. She’s also a six-rotation player and we will need her to serve receive in all six rotations."
The Wildcats also welcome Dosty, a 2005 first team all-state selection by the Arizona Republic and the Southern Arizona Player of the Year by both the Arizona Daily Star and the Tucson Citizen.
"Whitney is a freakish-type athlete," Rubio says. "Being 6-4 and touching 10-8 is rare in today’s collegiate volleyball game. However, she is young to the game and will be a work in progress. That said, we know she is a big part of the future of this program."
Rounding out the group of outside hitters is freshman Alanna Resch, who will see time at libero. "Alanna is pound-for-pound one of the best athletes in the program," Rubio claims. "At 5-9, she’s small in stature, but has great feet, terrific jumping ability and can serve receive in all six rotations."
This year’s middle blocker position has the opportunity for several players to come in and be starters. Returning two-year starter Lamb anchors the position, but filling Ladd’s shoes is one of the most important decisions Rubio will have to make. "This position tends to be the heart and soul of the team," Rubio explains. "Character and toughness mean as much as speed and jumping."
Lamb spent time in the summer training with the A2 Team, where she gained valuable experience. "Dominique is the most gifted athlete I have coached ?- she’s quick, explosive, and very dynamic and she’s wonderful to coach," Rubio says. "So it’s natural that we are expecting more offense from her this year."
Baum will also see time at middle blocker. "Kristina is a multi-positional player and we feel where she’ll help us most at this point is in the middle," Rubio explains. "We need her on the floor in all six rotations. Her leadership and experience warrants that. She’s a versatile athlete that can move from position to position based on her team’s needs. I’m looking for a big year from Kristina."
Freshman Jacy Norton, the 84th recruit in the PrepVolleyball.com Senior Aces and a two-time all-state selection, should also see time at middle.
"Jacy brings a lot of experience to the table, even though she’s a freshman," Rubio notes. "She played at a high level in club and I think she’ll make a smooth transition to the college game. What I love about Jacy is her internal drive and spirit. Strength will be an issue for her and will determine how successful she is now and in years to come. She needs to get stronger."
Rounding out the group is Kara Bauman. "It’s nice to have a local player on the team," Rubio says. "Kara played club for Dana and will provide much-needed depth. We’re thin in the middle and this allows us to train at a maximum strength throughout the year. She’s a hard worker and a good person. She, too, needs to get stronger."
Arizona is stacked at libero, the second most important position on the floor behind the setter, according to Rubio. "This year, as in previous years, the most competitive position for us will be the libero," he says. "I like having a lot of liberos in the program ?- that’s why we have eight. Serve receive, defense and serving have to be the priorities for this position. The player who can demonstrate on a regular basis the ability to perform those skills will be the starter."
Leonard, who started most of last season as a freshman, will lead the group. "Brittany is tough and competitive," Rubio says. "I like the fight she brings to the team. She has a great ego and now has a full year of Pac-10 experience under her belt. She, at this point, is the incumbent to the position. The key for her is how she handles herself when she makes mistakes."
Junior Katie Jackels, who saw time at the position last year, also returns. "Katie has great energy and enthusiasm," Rubio notes. "She’s a dynamic athlete with good feet and she plays terrific defense. Her confidence is the biggest area of improvement. She has the athleticism to be a great libero."
Arizona has a group of three other liberos returning from last year ?- Kim Nash, Emily Harper and Audrey Bockerstette. "Kim is a tough kid who will fight every single day in practice," Rubio says. "Emily had a great spring ?- she really showed she has improved enough to be someone who can play big minutes for us. The question will be her dependability. Can we depend on her every day? Audrey is an exceptionally hard worker and a great teammate. She had a great spring and showed she can continue to improve."
"Alanna is an exceptional athlete and has the ability to be an All-American in this position. That said, she has to improve in several areas ?- passing and defensive mechanics, and she needs to learn what it takes each day to be successful at this level," Rubio notes.
"Jamey is the most unknown player on the team," he says. "She comes with good recommendations from her club coaches. I know she’s had good training and has played at a high level. I’m looking forward to seeing how she competes in fall camp."
"Makenzie is a dynamic and enthusiastic player," Rubio claims. "She, too, has great athleticism. It will be interesting to see how she handles the level of competition in the gym each day and the grind of daily workouts."
For the past decade, Gonzalez has coached some of the best junior, collegiate and international players in the United States and around the world. "Chris is one of the best volleyball trainers in the country," Rubio says. "I have admired his style and how his players have performed for quite some time. To land a coach of his caliber is amazing. He will finish off where we’ve lacked in technical training. He will fine-tune our current technique. He’s a great volleyball mind."
Burkholder, a two-time first-team All-American setter, is Arizona’s only Pac-10 Player of the Year (2000). "Dana was the best hire I could have made," Rubio explains. "Losing Rita after 10 years was difficult and the best choice was Dana. She brings so much to the program. She has immediate credibility. She has had an array of playing opportunities outside of the U of A, which has broadened her perspective. Her enthusiasm and energy are terrific for the program."
Arizona will once again face a grueling schedule in 2006. The Wildcats play 14 matches against nine teams that competed in last year’s NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats will also face six teams (California, Louisville, Stanford, UCLA, USC and Washington) that are ranked in the Top 25 in the preseason AVCA/CSTV Coaches Poll.
The Pac-10 schedule will again be difficult as the conference continues to show its dominance. Last year, six Pac-10 teams competed in the NCAA Tournament and all six advanced to the second round. Three teams advanced to the Sweet 16, two to the Elite Eight and Washington won the national championship. It was the fifth year in a row that a Pac-10 team won the national title, including the third different team in three years.
"Expect the usual suspects ?- Stanford, UCLA, Washington, California and USC ?- to be strong again," Rubio says. "The difference is going to be the bottom half of the conference. The Pac-10, in my mind, will be stronger overall than in recent years, which is good and bad news."