One of the best times of year is upon us, as the Arizona Wildcats will begin Pac-12 play in football, soccer and volleyball this week.
Before their respective conference openers, Ryan Kelapire and Kim Doss took a look at one big question facing the UA in those sports.
Arizona football — How long will the losing continue?
Even though the Wildcats dropped their season opener to BYU, they kept the game close in a hostile Las Vegas environment. It gave UA fans a good reason to believe this team could be competitive in most, if not all, games this season. Maybe even win a couple they aren’t supposed to. Considering how bad things got under Kevin Sumlin, that would be a successful year in most fans’ books.
The losses to San Diego State and NAU flipped that script in a hurry. Getting blown out by a Mountain West team—albeit a good one—and losing to an FCS team erases all the goodwill Jedd Fisch and his staff built up throughout the offseason. Now it’s on them to give Wildcat fans new reasons to believe in the rebuilding process again.
Ending this 15-game losing streak would be a good start, but it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s unlikely Arizona will be favored in any more games this season, and the immediate schedule is daunting, with games against Oregon and UCLA up next.
The Wildcats have a quarterback carousel and a shaky offensive line to boot. Their defense is improved, but still couldn’t get the stops it needed against NAU. How will it hold up against Pac-12 offenses? — Ryan Kelapire
Arizona soccer — Can the Cats score enough to win Pac-12 games?
First-year head coach Becca Moros stepped into an almost impossible situation, having just two weeks of formal training to prepare her team for its season opener. Predictably, Arizona looked like a work in progress during the non-conference season, going 3-4 with a 9-12 goal differential and 84-131 shot differential.
The Wildcats, 125th in RPI, were shut out in three of their four losses, as generating offense has proven difficult as they learn their new possession-oriented system, which requires quick, precise passing from every player on the pitch. It doesn’t help that Arizona is very young and dealing with several injuries.
So far, Jill Aguilera has been the team’s only reliable scorer, accounting for four of its nine goals. No one else has more than one. (Aguilera, by the way, only needs five more to break the program’s all-time scoring record.)
The Wildcats enter conference play 11th in the Pac-12 in goals per game and last in shots per game. Pair those offensive struggles with a defense that is allowing the most goals per game, and Arizona is going to have to find a way to jumpstart its attack or finishing 10th in the Pac-12 is looking like a real possibility even though Moros vowed it wouldn’t happen. — Ryan Kelapire
Arizona volleyball — Can the underclassmen play consistently enough for the team to reach the NCAA Tournament?
Going into the fall season, head coach Dave Rubio set out the goals for the season. One was to win at least 80 percent of the non-conference matches. The other was to get to the NCAA Tournament after missing the last two.
The Wildcats went 8-3 in non-conference play, missing the 80 percent target. That leaves a lot of work in the conference portion of the season if they are to reach the second goal, and most of that burden is going to fall on the youngest members of the team.
On offense, the team relies heavily on three sophomores and a freshman. Setter Emery Herman and outside hitters Jaelyn Hodge and Sofia Maldonado Diaz returned from the spring season ready to take the next step forward. Hodge, especially, has seen a huge leap in production. They are joined by freshman opposite Puk Stubbe, who arrived with a wealth of experience from playing beach volleyball on the Dutch national team.
Getting Hodge, Maldonado Diaz, and Stubbe all performing at their peaks simultaneously will have a huge impact on whether the Wildcats can reach their goal of getting back to the tournament. In the early going, Hodge has been the most consistent, but none of the top offensive threats have been very efficient. All three are hitting below .200 on the season.
The good news for Arizona is that Hodge had one of her best matches against Texas, the No. 1 team in the country—the team most like those the Wildcats will face in the Pac-12. At Texas, she had 16 kills on .275 hitting and eight digs over four sets. She also threw in two aces and two blocks. That’s the kind of performance the team will need from her in conference play.
Maldonado Diaz hasn’t been as dominant as she was last season when she was Pac-12 Freshman of the Year. The improved play of Hodge has some effect on that, but Maldonado Diaz has shown flashes of her play from last season. Most notably, she had 17 kills on .300 hitting in a five-set victory over Northwestern. More nights like that are needed from last season’s breakout star.
The Wildcats set out with what looked like a fairly challenging non-conference schedule, but many of the teams haven’t lived up to expectations. To make matters worse, Arizona lost matches that looked like potential wins on paper.
They now move into league play where half of the teams are in this week’s AVCA Top 25 and eight are in the top 70 of the unofficial RPI. At No. 69, Arizona is the last member of the Pac-12 in the top 100. The team dropped 18 spots from last week despite going 3-0 over the weekend primarily because all three opponents were outside the top 220.
The league will help Arizona’s RPI to some extent, although the effect will likely be less than it has been in previous seasons. How well their young stars develop will ultimately determine whether they can help themselves. — Kim Doss