By Matt Park, Arizona Communication Services
Who: Arizona (10-2) at No. 16 Arizona State (11-1)
When: 8:00 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Tempe, Ariz. (Wells Fargo Arena)
Coverage: Pac-12 Networks (Live Stats)
On Tuesday, Arizona will travel to Tempe to take on instate rival and 16th-ranked Arizona State. The match marks the start of the Pac-12 season for head coach Dave Rubio and his 2013 squad, while it also kicks off the year-long Territorial Cup Series battle.
A key difference between the 2012 and 2013 Arizona volleyball teams is the level of experience among its respective players. The 2012 roster featured no seniors and four juniors. While in 2013, there are two seniors and six juniors to complement six freshmen and four sophomores. Of the 18 players, ten are returners.
The veteran squad must ensure the unity of the team, so the new arrivals will feel comfortable playing with the veterans.
One player who has played a vital role in leading the Wildcats to an overall 10-2 record in non-conference play is junior Madi Kingdon, who currently leads the Pac-12 in double-doubles (digs/kills) and was just named Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week for the first time in her career. In fact, she earned the first volleyball player of the week honor by a Wildcat since Tiffany Owens won the award in 2010.
With newcomers like freshman Penina Snuka and junior-transfer Jane Croson immediately receiving significant playing time, it is important for experienced players like Kingdon to ease the transition of recruits to their new surroundings.
“Madi’s best leadership skill is to play at the high level that she is capable of, on a consistent basis,” Rubio said. “That is going to help Penina because if Madi passes well when Penina is having an off day, like many players do, and we’re scoring off of Madi’s sets, then that is going to take less pressure off of Penina.”
Kingdon’s leadership also shines in her willingness to do what it takes for her team to win, even if it means for her to take a step back.
“In past years, I have been taking an enormous amount of swings,” Kingdon added. “With Jane here, she has taken a lot of pressure away from me with her sharing the attacks and has helped me keep my shoulder nice.”
Kingdon’s ability to play at a high level stems from her love of competition and hunger to improve, and she encourages her teammates to develop the same outlook as well.
“Madi’s game is really complete,” Rubio said. “So for her to get better, it’s the little things. When you’re that good, you have to work harder to get just a little better. The nice thing about Madi is that she wants to be great, and she’s willing to work hard enough to accomplish the goals in front of her.”
In Kingdon’s first season, she was named to the All Pac-12 Freshman Team, and in 2012, Kingdon earned Pac-12 honorable mention all-conference honors. Just this past summer, Kingdon became a member of the Pac-12 all-star team that competed in China, but the outside hitter is constantly seeking ways to improve.
“Playing in China helped me because I was playing with and against high skill-level players,” Kingdon said. “It showed me what good players were doing, and I took that back here and applied it to my game.”
Kingdon has especially taken her defense to the next level.
Last season, Arizona hosted the Sun Devils to start conference play, and leading up to the match, Kingdon revealed one of her favorite rituals during volleyball matches at the McKale Center.
“Our fans are loud,” Kingdon said. “They’re rowdy. When they do the ‘Roof’ cheer when someone gets a block, that’s pretty exciting,” said the Phoenix, Ariz. native in the interview.
Fast forward to now, Kingdon is leading Arizona fans to a lot more “Roof! Roof!” chants.
As a sophomore, Kingdon finished the season with 44 blocks. Through 12 matches this year, Kingdon has already posted 35 total blocks. Averaging almost a block per set, she is on pace to shatter her previous season totals. So, what explains this improvement?
“Since the season started, I’ve focused a lot more on my defense,” said Kingdon. “With me, hitting comes naturally since I’m a heavy hitter. So, it made sense for me to work on blocking and digging, but also playing at a high level against such good players has helped me improve on defense.”
In addition to her defensive improvement, her willingness to learn from experience influences her teammates to take on the same attitude.
Against Portland State, sophomore Olivia Magill posted a career-high 10 blocks – the most by an Arizona player since 2010. Then in Arizona’s thrilling win this past Saturday over UC Santa Barbara, sophomore Halli Amaro recorded 13 blocks, tying the second most in a single match in Arizona history.
“Blocking is one of those skills that experience makes a difference, along with good technique,” said coach Rubio. “And the experienced players have a thorough understanding of what they are trying accomplish.”
Blocks aren’t the only stat in volleyball that correlates to experience. Senior Candace Nicholson became Arizona’s all-time leader in digs (1,313) this past weekend and Kingdon is also on pace to surpass previous season highs in digs, averaging 3.29 digs per set compared to last season’s 2.89 digs per set.
Experienced players are in a great position to offer knowledge about the game because of the lessons learned from their past. The ten returning players remember the disappointment of barely missing out in last year’s NCAA tournament when one more win might have sealed a spot, but moments like these can be a blessing in disguise, as the new season offers the opportunity for redemption.
With players like Kingdon and Nicholson and the addition of new assistant coaches, the 2013 Arizona volleyball team holds a lot of experience that every player and coach can draw from.
As the Wildcats head to Tempe to begin the vigorous Pac-12 season, the knowledge learned from every member’s past and present experience will play a vital role in shaping the outcome of the season.