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Volleyball looks ahead to '04

DAVE HARDEN/Arizona Daily Wildcat
UA head coach Dave Rubio will bring back nearly all of his players next year, including freshman setter Stephanie Butkus (left).
By James Kelley
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, December 10, 2003
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Cats to return all but one member of current roster

-A first round exit and a 17-15 record would normally be an embarrassing year for Arizona volleyball.

But this was hardly a normal year.

The Wildcats overcame an 0-5 start in the Pacific 10 Conference, which dropped their record to 6-9 overall, to finish 10-8 in what is widely considered the best volleyball conference in the country.

"I'm very proud of this team, and maybe as proud as any team I've ever coached, because of what we had to do to get to the playoffs," UA head coach Dave Rubio said. "I still think it's pretty remarkable that we were able to pull it off and play at the level we needed to. We're such a young group, and to be able to do that, I thought it showed quite a bit about what the team is all about and about the character of the team."

The Pac-10 was so good this year that it has a record five teams in the Sweet 16, all of which didn't lose a game in the NCAA Tournament's first two rounds. The Wildcats were not one of them, though, falling in the first round 3-1 to Wisconsin.

Sophomore outside hitter Jennifer Abernathy believed this was a bad season, but the team learned an important lesson: Work harder.

"We ended with a bad taste in our mouths, and you never want to end your season like that," Abernathy said.

Rubio believes the team peaked too early in the season, causing the Wildcats, including coaches, to expend so much energy just to get in the tournament that they found it hard to get back to their earlier form.

"The finish was obviously disappointing for all of us, and I think that we all wish that we would have played better," Rubio said.

The UA's run to qualify for the tournament included three wins over top-10 foes, including a pair over UCLA and one against California. The team also beat No. 11 Washington and ended the season winning 12 of its last 16 matches. Over that span, the UA had seven sweeps and a five-match win streak. It only lost to No. 9 Stanford, No. 2 Hawaii and No. 1 USC - twice.

"I actually thought at the time when we were beating UCLA, Cal and Washington - that four-week stretch - I thought we were playing as good as just about anyone in the country," Rubio said.


The Wildcats played well with a team dominated by freshmen and sophomores - in fact, they will lose only one player, senior setter Kelly Griffin-Halfaker, to graduation.

Rubio said the experience the players gained cannot be taught, and will benefit the team next season.

"For a young team to perform that well, I thought it was pretty remarkable - especially during the stress that goes along with knowing you have to perform that well to make the playoffs," Rubio said. "It's one thing to know what you have to do, and a whole other thing to actually go out and do it."

Freshman setter Stephanie Butkus had an up-and-down season to start the year, including losing her starting job to Griffin-Halfaker for a short time, but still tallied 1,269 assists - third in the Pac-10.

"No one really knows what Stephanie had to cope with unless you're really in her shoes every day," Rubio said. "She had to deal with the pressure of setting as a freshman on a top-level team along with having to deal with me. I'm not easy to deal with every day.

"I think her ability to handle that without breaking down and without her losing her spirit to play is remarkable and quite a compliment to her."

Butkus' assist total was the eighth-best in school history.

Sophomore outside hitter Kim Glass also had an astounding year, rewriting most of the UA record book. Glass tied or broke at least six school records, highlighted when she broke her own record for kills in a season with 650 - almost a hundred more than last season. She also broke her 2002 record for most kills per game with 5.60.

"I think she broke every record," joked Abernathy, Glass' best friend and roommate. "Kim's always going to break records."

Not to be outdone, Glass' fellow Thundercat on the left side had a breakout year as well, earning a AVCA Player of the Week honor, despite playing hurt with stress fractures. Abernathy estimates she was hurt 70 percent of the season.

"I think it went well for me," Abernathy said. "I got a chance to develop a lot offensively."

With almost everyone returning, the Wildcats now look forward to contending for a title next season. Abernathy believes the Wildcats "definitely" have a chance to win the national championship next year.

"I think if we don't set our sights on that, we would be underachieving," Rubio added.

The UA also will get back redshirt sophomore middle blocker/outside hitter Angie Ayers, who missed this year with a knee injury she suffered before the season. The loss of Ayers, an honorable mention freshman All-Pac-10 last year, necessitated the Wildcats' reliance on unproven junior middle blocker Jolene Killough, who had a career-best 16 kills in Arizona's first-round tourney loss to Wisconsin.

Killough was eighth in the Pac-10 in hitting percentage and fourth in blocks, while sophomore middle blocker Bre Ladd was 10th in the conference in hitting.

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