Annual Wildcat Classic marks volleyball's season opener

By Ron Parsons

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Arizona's women's volleyball team jumps headfirst into the 1995 season Friday, facing Missouri and UC-Santa Barbara in the Wildcat Classic Tournament.

The Wildcats, ranked No. 16 in the USA Today/AVCA preseason poll, also play Texas Tech on Saturday. All games are at the McKale Center, and admission is free.

Arizona opens with three games in two days against respectable opponents.

Let it never be said that coach David Rubio was shy about season openers. And after two weeks of rigorous two-a-days, Rubio said the UA is ready to play.

"We're young. We need to get some matches under our belt, get the bugs out," Rubio said. "And more than anything, it's good to play against another face."

One of those faces is UCSB. The Gauchos finished the 1994 season 28-7, return four starters, and are ranked one place ahead of Arizona in this year's poll.

"They have one of the best traditions in the country," Rubio said of UCSB. Two years ago UCSB coach Kathy Gregory, who has a career record of 490-234, was named NCAA Coach of the Year.

"Santa Barbara is one of the most physically talented teams around. It would be a great win for us if we could beat them," Rubio said.

Rubio sees the Wildcat Classic and other preseason tournaments as a chance to help his team gain experience before beginning the rigors of the Pacific 10 Conference season.

"These competitions are critical for us," he said. "The opportunity to play quite a few games before the Pac-10 season is going to give our team a chance to solidify. We need to get some game time for our young kids."

Assistant coach Steve Carlat agreed. "It's an important tournament for us. It allows us to test ourselves, to see where we're at. We'll get a lot of information in these three matches," he said.

Coaches will be looking for the Wildcats to work on one of the most important aspects of the game: service. "We need to work on our receive of service, and our serves," Rubio said. And Carlat stressed "taking care of our side of the net."

The tournament will also help coaches finalize line-ups and work on strategy. "In these early matches, you get to refine and revise," he said.

One of the questions during the preseason was who would start at setter. Senior Laura Bartsch, third on the UA career assist list (2,941), was the incumbent, and an integral part of two NCAA Sweet Sixteen teams.

But redshirt sophomore Michaela Ebben was playing well enough to make coaches take a look at her, too. Just last week, Rubio said Ebben was "right there in the hunt for a starting position."

In the ensuing week since then, however, Bartsch has impressed coaches enough to cement her starting spot, at least for now. Rubio said he didn't make the decision until Wednesday morning.

"Right now, (Bartsch) is exhibiting a little more confidence. She's running the team a little better," Rubio said.

Another dilemna the UA had to deal with was how to replace middle blocker Tamika Dennis, who is redshirting this year. Two players, sophomore Stephanie Venne and junior Laura Reckmeyer, have stepped forward to claim spots.

Arizona's most important offensive player, left outside hitter Barbara Bell, practiced sparingly throughout the first part of the preseason. A junior, Bell has undergone three knee surgeries to repair torn ligaments in her knee. But in the past week she has begun to train more vigorously, a good sign.

"She's had her best week of practice. It's encouraging for us to know she's a little more healthy," Rubio said. "She knows it's time for her to step up."

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