For Arizona’s volleyball team, a lot has changed since Dec. 7, when a Jane Croson serve went wide and the Wildcats were eliminated by San Diego, in San Diego, in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Croson, for one, is gone: She left the team and moved back to Hawaii.
Also moving to Hawaii: middle blocker Olivia Magill, who transferred there.
The Wildcats lost libero Candace Nicholson, the UA’s all-time digs leader, to graduation, as well as outside hitter Shaquillah Torres, whose career was cut short by injuries.
To counteract that, UA coach Dave Rubio added six new players, including three transfers.
“There was not much of an offseason,” Rubio said. “From the end of Memorial Day weekend to now, it’s been full speed.”
Arizona finished with a 21-13 record last year, a five-game improvement from 2012, and even with the departures, the Wildcats still return the core of their roster — most importantly, star outside hitter Madi Kingdon, a preseason All-Pac-12 selection.
Pac-12 coaches, though, don’t seem all too bullish on this year’s Wildcats, picking them to finish ninth in the conference. Nationally, the coaches are a little higher on the UA, giving them the 30th- most votes in the country for the Top 25 poll.
But Rubio isn’t too concerned with all of that.
“Unless humans have advanced and can tell the future,” Rubio said, “I really am not too worried about it, at this particular time, that people are prognosticating that we are ninth or first or wherever they may put us.”
Arizona opened practice last week and will start its season Aug. 29 against South Dakota State.
Here are a few questions that have to be answered between now and then.
How much will the loss of Magill and Croson hurt?
Magill was a talented blocker — she was a driving force behind Arizona’s upset of No. 1 USC in October — but Rubio is confident the Wildcats have the pieces in place to deal with her departure. There’s Rachel Rhoades, a senior; Halli Amaro, second on the team in blocks; and the 6-foot-6-inch McKenzie Jacobson, a redshirt freshman.
“We feel like we’re not going to miss a beat,” Rubio said.
He’s a little bit more concerned with the loss of Croson, a talented outside hitter, playing opposite Kingdon. The addition of Kalei Mau should help, as well as the emergence of sophomore Ashley Harris, who Rubio said has been the “brightest and biggest surprise” in the early going.
The 6-foot-1-inch Mau comes from Minnesota, where she barely played her freshman season, recording four kills in two sets played last year. Harris, at 6-foot-8, was used situationally for the Wildcats in 2013, finishing with eight kills, seven digs and 20 blocks.
Who replaces Nicholson?
At libero, it’s Ronni Lewis’ job to lose.
Nicholson is gone, her name at the top of the all-time digs leaderboard with 1,642.
Lewis is a senior, with 631 career digs. So, don’t expect her to catch Nicholson, but Rubio thinks she’s ready for the starting role.
“She’s in a fight for her life with some of the other kids on the team,” Rubio said. “But she’s handled herself well.”
Kennedy Wesley, a graduate transfer from Gonzaga, is also in the mix, along with sophomore Laura Larson.
In her senior year, what does Kingdon need to do for the Wildcats to improve on 2013?
In short, most of the same things she’s been doing for the last three years.
“If you were to compare Madi to the kind of player she is to other sports,” Rubio said, “she would be the Nick Johnson of our team. She’s elite, and well-skilled in every aspect of her position. Madi is in that elite-level category.”
Kingdon was an honorable mention All-America last year, leading the Wildcats with 508 kills. She needs 551 kills this season to pass Barb Bell for the second-most in UA history. Kim Glass, with 2,151, is probably a little out of reach, but Kingdon is already in the top 10 all-time in four other categories (10-plus kill matches, 20-plus kill matches, kill attempts and digs per set).