The Arizona Wildcats volleyball team returns home this week to host the Cactus Classic after going 2-1 at the LUV Invitational in Nashville, Tenn. last weekend to begin their season.
The Wildcats will face Eastern Kentucky (2-1) and GCU (3-0) at 12:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Friday, respectively, and then will cap off the tournament against Radford (3-0) on Saturday at 1 p.m.
“It was a tough road trip, so it’s nice to get back home to try to get some rest and to be back in McKale,” Arizona head coach Dave Rubio said Wednesday.
Arizona, now unranked after being preseason No. 24, beat East Tennessee State 3-1 in Nashville and defeated Middle Tennessee 3-0, but were upset by Lipscomb, 3-1.
“I thought it was a good weekend, despite the loss to Lipscomb,” Rubio said. “Lipscomb was a tough matchup early for us because of the experience they brought and they bring to the table. We’re very inexperienced and young.”
The Wildcats only have three seniors on their roster this season compared to eight freshmen. UA also lost its top setter, hitter, and libero from a season ago.
“(We’re) very athletic, but in this day and age, experience counts for maybe a little more than having a really talented, athletic team,” Rubio said.
“I think in a lot of sports, when you see a team like Villanova win the national championship in basketball, and a lot of them are four-year players versus the one-and-dones, those guys just handle themselves (better) and make better decisions.
“(They are) a little bit more mature in difficult moments and so I think for us, especially in game two (against Lipscomb) where we lost 31-29, we had a chance to change the complexion of that match, but we just made too many young errors so hopefully that will change as time goes on.”
Despite the loss, Rubio said the Wildcats are “exactly where we want to be.”
“I think one of the things you lose quickest when you’re a young player or freshman is your confidence,” he said. “Despite the fact that the loss was disappointing, I never felt like we gave up, I never felt like we quit during the games, so I liked the energy level. I like how we competed. We just were not making the right plays at the right times and that will come with time, so for me, the confidence is a big deal.”
The Wildcats will have a chance to build confidence and continuity in the Cactus Classic, and eventually, Rubio thinks Arizona will be a “great team” this season.
“The question is just when is that going to happen?” he said. “And it may not happen for a while. Who knows? But there’s too much talent here for it to eventually not turn around and for us to jell into a top-10 type of team.”
The Wildcats reached the Sweet 16 last season for the first time since 2005, and were picked to finish eighth in the Pac-12 in 2017, which is where they finished in 2016.
Dahlke replaces Mau as go-to hitter
After the departure of Kalei Mau, an All-Pac-12 outside hitter, junior Kendra Dahlke has been pegged to be Arizona’s lead hitter this year.
Dahlke had a breakout season as a sophomore last season, tallying a team-high 496 kills, but Rubio thought she struggled in Nashville.
“But I think those things are going to happen when you’re taking on a new role like Kendra’s taking on,” he said.
“I think there’s a long history at the position that she’s playing. First it was Tiffany Owens, and then it was Madi Kingdon, Kalei Mau, and now it’s Kendra Dahlke’s turn and sometimes when you transition into that role, it becomes very daunting. I think it takes time to get used to that role psychologically. For her, it’s just a matter of her playing more efficiently. She kinda feels like she has to put her team on her back for us to play well. So I think she’ll grow into that role as the season moves on.”
Dahlke agreed with Rubio’s assessment.
“Personally I was struggling with my attack lines and mostly just trying to pick up the team because we were down,” she said.
Dahlke had 33 kills in Nashville with a .157 hit percentage, a noticeable drop from the .204 hitting percentage she posted as a sophomore.
“I think she’s still trying to get ahold of being the go-to person and being the one that we rely on the most, which is a lot of pressure, but we’ve been talking and she’s been getting better at it,” said UA setter Julia Patterson.
Patterson’s wait is over
Speaking of Patterson, Rubio said he is “really pleased” with the sophomore’s development.
Patterson is taking over for Pac-12 Setter of the Year Penina Snuka, who graduated in May.
Patterson averaged 10.09 assists per set in Nashville and posted two double-doubles (assists and digs).
“Julia was fantastic,” Rubio said. “The stats that I use – kind of an unorthodox level of stat-taking — compared to Penina when she was the standard for us. [Patterson’s] numbers were right next to hers, so her influence on the sets and on the matches was very similar to what Penina’s was last year.
“She doesn’t have as much help and experience yet, but certainly she’s doing her part.”
Patterson was a highly-touted recruit out of Los Alamitos, Calif. in 2016, but played sparingly as a freshman, appearing in 39 sets.
However, Patterson wasn’t supposed to play at all. She was expected to redshirt, but was forced into action after Snuka’s backup, Raphael Temple, tore her Achilles.
But in 2017 and beyond, Patterson will be a centerpiece for Arizona volleyball.
“It was awesome,” Patterson said of the weekend in Nashville, her first taste of action in a major role. “I’ve been waiting for so long. ... It was really fun out there.”
Whipple, Gutierrez step up for Wildcats
Rubio said freshman Paige Whipple’s performance has been better than expected.
Whipple, the No. 27 overall recruit in the 2017 class, had 20 kills (.283 hitting) and 19 digs in Nashville.
“She’s far beyond my expectation in terms of what she’s been able to do and how she carries herself,” Rubio said of the outside hitter. “Her and Kim Gutierrez, our libero, are the two reasons why we’re even competitive in a match like Lipscomb.”
Gutierrez, a transfer from San Francisco, had 34 digs in Nashville (3.4 digs per set).
The senior had 1,114 career digs in three seasons at USF, and is replacing libero Laura Larson who had 505 digs last season, nearly breaking the UA’s single-season record.
But as Whipple and Gutierrez have already learned, the Pac-12 is a whole different animal than high school or the West Coast Conference — even if conference play hasn’t started yet.
“Teams like Lipscomb that don’t have as much notoriety as the Pac-12, they’re going to come out with all their guns blazing,” Whipple said.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire