We knew it was bad. We’d already seen three Arizona starters go down with concussions this season, missing anywhere from two to eight matches. Then, the most devastating loss came this past weekend when Kendra Dahlke joined the group to push it to four known concussions.
Even then, we didn’t realize the full extent of the problem. Coach Dave Rubio revealed that the team has actually had five concussions this season, with defensive specialist Erin Williamson added to a list that includes Shardonee Hayes, Liz Shelton, Paige Whipple, and Dahlke.
Most of the players have missed just a few matches, usually a single weekend’s slate. Shelton, however, has missed the entire Pac-12 season, taking away critical size and athleticism that would have helped the Wildcats in their five conference losses.
The concussions have come in different ways. Shelton and Whipple both took volleyballs to the head. Dahlke took a knee to the head while trying to save a ball that was out-of-bounds. Williamson hit herself with a weight bar while working out just a few days after Whipple was injured. The flukes have made Rubio consider that it might be time to buy a lottery ticket.
“It’s really been an unusual—obviously an unusual year for us,” Rubio said. “The icing on the cake was when Kendra—in the first seven points of the UCLA match—gets hit in the head, played in a fog all match. We were so close in the game with the Bruins.
“Obviously, it’s frustrating, but I told the team that we have enough talent to beat teams and to win,” he continued. “I think subconsciously sometimes, when you’re down two starters, when things start to go hard, they let go of the rope. I saw that in the USC game in game four. I hadn’t seen that before.
“‘Hey, we’re supposed to lose, we don’t have everybody, so it’s okay to lose. We have an excuse.’ I don’t think they really say that to themselves, but I think subconsciously we start to feel sorry for ourselves.
“And, obviously, we can’t do that, regardless. We have enough people on our team that can play well. Katie Smoot and Candice Denny have certainly shown that,” Rubio said.
On the bright side, Rubio said that the unprecedented injuries do have an advantage. He noted that he’s been forced to look at some of his players in different ways, to find out what they could do. That has provided critical experience for some of the younger players who will need to be leaders in the future.
“Eventually, we’ll get healthy,” he said. “And in the second half of the season is when we’re going to be really good. We get everybody back, and our system starts to really click. And, now, we’re better because the players who normally wouldn’t play have had to play, and we have more experience and more depth should we need to call on some people.”
Whipple noted that it’s given her the opportunity to see what the next two years will be like.
“Against USC, without Kendra, I had some big shoes to fill, taking over that leadership role,” she said. “She’s our ‘one.’ I kind of had to step into that. It wasn’t really overwhelming, but it was just, I have to step up and do this now. It was kind of a glimpse into what next year is going to look like.”
The Wildcats (14-6, 3-5) hope that the rest of this year looks healthier. With Colorado (11-8, 3-5) and Utah (11-8, 3-5) coming to McKale this weekend, they have a chance to put an end to their four-game losing streak.
Arizona fell to No. 46 in the RPI after the LA trip, but they are still well ahead of No. 63 Colorado and are not too far behind No. 38 Utah. These are two teams they will be competing with for a spot in the NCAA tournament, so wins could go a long way towards securing that berth.
The AVCA voters still believe in the Wildcats, keeping Arizona in the top 25 despite their losing streak. The team dropped from No. 23 to No. 25 this week.
Statistically, Arizona outranks both the Buffs and the Utes in every category except blocks and service aces. In aces, they outrank Colorado, but not Utah.
Of course, those stats were amassed with Dahlke in the line-up, and there’s no word on whether she will be cleared for the upcoming weekend. Rubio said he is also unsure about Shelton.
“You’d have to ask Liz [when she will be back],” he said. “ I’m not sure. Liz kind of controls her own fate on this thing.”
Whether the Wildcats are at full strength or not, Whipple and Smoot both had double-digit kills in the match against USC, with Smoot posting a career high. That experience on the road can only help them, regardless of whether Dahlke is able to take the court.
“I don’t think anything different really goes through my mind compared to when we’re preparing without the injuries,” Smoot said. “I think it’s just we have shoes to fill. We need to step up and play that much harder to get the job done.”
How to watch
The Colorado match begins at 7 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 19. It will be aired live on Pac-12 Mountain.
The Utah match will be aired live on Pac-12 Arizona beginning at noon on Sunday, Oct. 21.