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Arizona volleyball: Wildcats fall to Radford in five sets in Cactus Classic finale

Coach Dave Rubio struggled for positives after the Wildcats blew a 2-0 lead

Photo via @ArizonaVBall on Twitter

A crowd of just over a thousand spectators was reduced to slack-jawed amazement at McKale Center by the performance turned in by a scrappy team from Southern Virginia.

That team, the Radford Highlanders, punched their way past the mighty Arizona Wildcats, storming back from an early two sets to none deficit to win the Cactus Classic in five stanzas.

Radford, hailing from a town with slightly more residents (17,403) than a full house at McKale (14,545), waged an outright assault on the soft underbelly of the Wildcats’ attack, hitting perfectly-timed volleys that were consistently just out of reach of diving Arizona players.

They roared back in a match, despite being eight points away from straight-set elimination in the third set, pounding Arizona in the final two-and-a-half sets.

Arizona head coach Dave Rubio, who warned anyone within earshot of the mighty Highlanders on Friday night, attributed much of the Cats’ struggles to inexperience and miscommunication.

“It’s pretty clear as the nose on my face that we’re just really inconsistent, and we don’t have the ability to sustain a level of play,” Rubio said. “Especially when a team starts to push back a little bit, and that’s just what happened today.”

Things started well for Rubio and company Saturday, winning the first two sets by scores of 25-15 and 25-20, before the tide turned.

Learning experience

Arizona libero Kimberly Gutierrez, one of three seniors on this year’s roster, says Saturday’s loss is an eye-opener for the team ahead of a brutal road trip next weekend against Florida A&M and Florida State.

“I think we have to prepare a little bit more on the technical side, but it’s more about how we approach the week and our mental side,” the Tijuana native said. “And I think going on the road, it’s going to work, we’re going to work hard on our mental side as well as our technical side.”

Rubio was disappointed with the effort turned in by the team’s experienced players, who he thought left too much to the team’s freshmen.

“I’m looking for our upperclassmen to pull us through, because they’re the ones that have been through the program for two or three years,” Rubio said. “Talent will only get you so far, so when we have exceptional talent it has to be evenly-distributed, especially when we get into conference.”

Rubio commended Radford junior Maddie Palmer for her effort against Arizona, as she posted 16 kills on 49 attempts with 10 digs as well.

“Tonight, number 21, their best player did that,” Rubio said of Palmer’s presence in the final sets. “She completely controlled the match after she served us when we were up 18-13 in the third set. And so we don’t have someone on our team that’s developed that sort of characteristic yet.”

UA senior Jade Turner believes the Wildcats will learn a lot from Saturday’s searing defeat.

“I think the one thing that we can do is to kind to recognize that we are a young team and that those problems are going to kind to come with that,” Turner said. “And with that, we need to learn how to dig ourselves out of the hole. And I think it gave the freshmen a really good opportunity to figure that out just a little bit before we head to Florida.”

Heading to the Sunshine State

The Wildcats return to the court next weekend, with games against Florida A&M on Friday, before a game against 15th-ranked Florida State on Saturday.

The Seminoles’ ranking is bound to drop, after they lost to Colorado State in three sets Saturday, echoing the woes faced by the Wildcats.

Rubio hopes his team can put Saturday’s loss behind them in practice this week, so they can try to turn the page against a pair of tough opponents.

“I’m hoping with a few more days of practice that we’ll be that much more efficient,” Rubio said. “I can’t get too far ahead, it’s really kind of match by match for us now.”

Follow Christopher Boan on Twitter at @cgboan