Dilara Gedikoglu was the top American Athletic Conference rookie of 2019. It was a great honor, but she wanted more. She wanted to be part of a great conference team. She had just moved from Alanya, Turkey to Tulsa, Oklahoma, but the transfer portal was calling her.
“I was chosen Freshman of the Year in (AAC), but the level here is higher,” said Gedikoglu. “I was also playing at a very high level in Turkey at home.”
Arizona had its own needs. Katie smoot decided to move to California after his junior season with the Wildcats. Who would take his place?
Enter Jackson Cursty, a former All-Pac-12 center tackle for the Wildcats. Jackson had been a friend of Gedikoglu since she played professionally in Turkey. She also had the experience of being a high performing midrange player before being transferred to the Pac-12. Jackson was Mountain West’s freshman of the year at UNLV in 2009. The following year she was an all-conference artist before heading to Arizona for her final two seasons.
Jackson contacted his former trainer and brought up the idea of landing Gedikoglu in Tucson. It seemed to suit both parties well.
“We were looking for a really strong and complete player who can play first and last,” said the head coach. Dave rubio noted. “We were looking for someone who could come and help us. Paige (Whipple) was sort of the main player in six rotations so we needed someone to support Paige at the time and give us a bit of depth in that position. And Dilara was ready to be transferred mid-season.
Gedikoglu was effective for Arizona on defense, passing and serving immediately. She appeared in all 21 games of her second season and started in nine. Four Wildcats appeared in all 75 sets. Another played in 74, and Gedikoglu was just behind with 73 sets to his name.
She was one of the best waitresses on the team, a skill Rubio praised all season. He often spoke of his service saying that he thought it could be the elite. She finished third on the team with 0.19 aces per set.
She also helped her team in other ways. She had 0.22 assists per set, the highest among players who haven’t played a passer or libero. His 1.71 recoveries per set were fourth for the team.
There were, however, concerns. Gedikoglu only managed 0.73 eliminations per set. The only regular player who had less was a Libero Kamaile Hiapo who plays a strictly defensive position. His success percentage of 0.069 was also behind all other regular players.
These concerns have persisted this season. To get to where she wants to be, her attack has to improve. Over the past two weeks, Rubio has seen this improvement in his ability to judge what blockers are doing on the other side of the net. In his opinion, his playing made a “180 degree” change.
“She sees the game much better as a striker,” he said. “She sees what’s in front of her. His attack selection now has some real thought behind it. Before, it was enough to jump as high, hit as hard as possible, hope for the best, and at our level, that won’t work.
Gedikoglu feels that she is also improving. After talking to her parents, she was confident enough in this assessment to talk about her reduced playing time to Rubio.
In the first eight games of this season, she has only appeared in every set her team has played five times. She started against New Mexico State in Las Cruces, but left the game in the second set of a five-set game and did not return. Then, in the ninth game of the year, she didn’t play at all.
“I think it was San Diego state, it was the second time in my career that I didn’t touch the ball at all,” she said. “And it’s a bit disappointing for me because I try to do my best on the pitch every day. I try to be the best teammate I can be. And I just want to talk to him and ask him if there’s a reason … because I don’t see any reason why he doesn’t put me on the pitch.
Rubio knows how valuable Gedikoglu is in the back row, but he also knows that because she’s not as tall as the other bowling hitters, the front row can be difficult for her.
“Dilara, because she’s smaller, she must be a lot smarter,” he said. “His attacking selection has to be much bigger. There is less margin for error because she doesn’t jump that high. And so where Jaeyln (Hodge) can get away with just because she’s so athletic, and it’s the same with Sofia Maldonado, but Dilara, it must be a lot better to pick and attack the edges of the block, which is more difficult. She must be better at hitting the ball around the block, which is also sometimes more difficult. “
Still, he felt that she made some good points about her lack of playing time at the end of the game out of conference. He’s also seen her put in the effort to be more than just a passer and defender.
“I’ve seen her attack with thought and with the ability to see what’s in front of her and pick the right line of attack,” said Rubio. “So she’s really focused.”
Since that conversation with her coach, she has played more often, usually replacing Sofia Maldonado Diaz in the last row. Gedikoglu believes this not only gives him the opportunity to be on the pitch, but also allows his teammates to regroup.
“Sometimes I can see these players are struggling on the pitch as well,” she said. “Just put me on the ground. She can breathe, I can do my thing and then you can put her back on when she feels better … I think we’ve had some kind of an honest conversation on this point.
The conversation certainly helped, but it’s the effort in the practice that will help make it a permanent arrangement. It’s not just about gaming performance.
“I think it’s a bit difficult transition for her from a volleyball standpoint because she’s a very black and white person,” said Rubio. “She doesn’t feel… that she’s doing better (if she doesn’t play). Where I’m so process-oriented and I’m like, “You’re going to have to take these steps to be able to play well.” And so I think it’s been a tough change of mind for her.
Rubio is starting to see the changes he needs to see in order for Gedikoglu to be the kind of player they both want her to be. With only four bowling hitters currently playing, there are opportunities available. She has to grab them.
“I’m sure Dilara would like to expand her role,” he said. “And she’s putting herself in a position to definitely be evaluated as a front row player now because of the way she plays… We’ve had a lot of meetings about it. And I said, ‘Look, you’re not putting me in a difficult position yet.’ I said because you’re not playing net at the level that forces me to make a decision … right now it’s an easy decision. I said your first row skills are ahead of your first row skills … but as soon as you start buying a little more with training then you’re going to put me in a position where I have to take decisions, that’s what you want. Each player must do it for his coach.