Before the pandemic, Paige Whipple had her life planned. She would graduate in May and move on to a life in sports ministry. She had a job already lined up with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes that would allow her to work with local high schoolers.
Akia Warrior planned to spend her final year playing volleyball in a major conference after transferring from Belmont, then move on to teaching. She, too, wanted to devote her life to high school athletes.
Both made statements this week that indicated that those were still their plans. This would be their last go-round as college athletes.
“It’s just crazy for me to think that my time playing volleyball in college is almost at an end,” Warrior said. “Just because, like Paige, volleyball has been a large part of my life since I was really, really young. And especially playing it at two different schools now, it’s just really crazy to think that my college career is ending.”
Whipple has spoken often this season of how she no longer sees herself just as an athlete. That need to be defined by volleyball is slipping away. She has also dealt with a great deal of back pain that forced her to miss three matches in mid-February.
Yet, she wanted to see how the season went before deciding whether she would take advantage of the extra year of eligibility offered by the NCAA. If she got a real senior season, she could be at peace walking away.
The season has certainly had its ups and downs both on the court and off. One more cropped up on Saturday as it was announced that injuries had caused USC to pull out of the Sunday match that was to be the final opportunity for Whipple and Warrior to play at McKale. The program will still hold a senior day celebration, but there will be no last goodbye. After four years, Whipple’s final home match would be a five-set loss to USC.
On Wednesday, she reflected on her time at Arizona.
“I think for me, it really set in, I think it was two weeks back,” Whipple said. “I did media after our Sunday match, I think it was. I walked into McKale and no one else was left in there. It was just me and my stuff was still sitting on the bench. And I kind of stood in the middle of the floor just for 20, 30 seconds and really soaked in it because I played a lot of matches in McKale. Spent a lot of time in McKale, and that’s coming to a close. Obviously, volleyball in general, but being here at U of A has been a huge chapter in my life, and so I try not to really think about it too much. I’ll get emotional, but it’s been a cool time.”
For Warrior, things are different. She has not spent much match time on the court at McKale. She has also already been through one senior day in her career, and she will complete her master’s degree in May.
Early in the season, head coach Dave Rubio experimented with a 6-2 system that allowed both setters on the roster to play. But freshman Emery Herman is the setter of the future and he wanted to use this free season to develop her. So, Warrior soon moved to a permanent position on the scout team in practice and the bench during matches.
“I appreciate someone like Akia who’s sacrificed a lot to come here and is not particularly happy with the role as a backup setter but has done a fantastic job of not showing she’s unhappy and being a great team player,” Rubio said.
When her final match is played—whether that is at Washington State next week or in the NCAA Tournament—Warrior will turn to a career in education. She will be looking for a place to teach high school biology and coach volleyball, a way to continue a life around the sport and to influence the next generation of players.
Both seniors got the opportunity to influence younger athletes this season. They were two of only five upperclassmen on a team full of extremely talented freshmen.
“I think this is kind of the first year that I’ve really felt like an older person,” Whipple said. “Last year, even as an upperclassman as a junior, there was a large senior class and so I think this is the first year I’ve really felt like the older one. But it’s been cool to have so many young people. And having the experience in the program that I have, it’s been cool to kind of be able to teach them a little bit about things that go on and kind of lead them along as they’re learning the ins and outs of the program.”
There are still battles to be fought even if these are the final matches of Whipple’s successful career at Arizona. Rubio said that he could see Arizona entering the conversation for an at-large bid in the abbreviated 48-team NCAA Tournament if they won out. That was a tall order, though, as it would have meant sweeping both USC and first-place Washington State. The likelihood is even more remote now.
But there are other possibilities. On Thursday, an article by Greg Hansen of the Arizona Daily Star stated that volleyball coaches from around the country were advocating for a full 64-team tournament, even at this late date.
After last Friday’s match at California, Rubio told us that he believed the Wildcats would have a good chance of an at-large bid if the bracket included 64 teams.
“It needs to happen,” Rubio told Hansen. “There’s a groundswell from every conference in the country to expand the bracket. The men’s and women’s basketball tournaments weren’t diminished. Why volleyball? After all we’ve gone through in this odd year — after all every team has gone through — we should reward as many of these young women as possible.”