After a nearly perfect non-conference schedule, Arizona (16-6, 5-5) proved they were worthy of a Top-25 ranking by making a strong showing in early Pac-12 play. Part of that was a road sweep of Oregon (13-7, 6-4) and Oregon State (10-12, 0-10) the second week of the conference slate.
Now, those teams are trying to return the favor, and it couldn’t come at a worse time for the 23rd-ranked Wildcats.
After a rough four-match stretch, Arizona righted the ship with victories over Utah and Colorado last weekend. The wins were an absolute necessity if the team hopes to return to the NCAA Tournament this year, but what they lost was potentially devastating.
During the deciding set against the Utes, Kendra Dahlke went down with a foot injury. She has been getting around campus on a knee scooter and is expected to be out for at least two weeks. While there’s hope that it’s just a strain, head coach Dave Rubio said they are still unsure about both the injury and the length of her absence.
“At this point, we don’t know,” he said. “It’s a foot issue. We don’t know to what extent. The x-rays are negative in regard to any type of fracture, but other than that they’re waiting on the MRI.”
The Wildcats will start off with what should be the easier of the two matches against Oregon State. The Beavers were picked 10th in the preseason poll, just behind Arizona.
While the Wildcats have proven the doubters wrong, Oregon State has performed below expectations while struggling with injuries. Not only have the Beavers lost all 10 conference matches, but they’ve been swept in six of them.
“They’re recovering from injuries,” Rubio said about the Beavers. “We’re going to face an Oregon State that has their best player (Haylie Bennett) back. One of their top players who was an opposite [hitter] who got hurt, I think the week before [the match against Arizona]. So, they’re going to be much more formidable.
“Despite their record, I was telling our players, any team in our conference can beat you if you’re not ready. And with our line-up changes and with Kendra being out, it’s kind of the new norm for us that we’re going to have a new line-up. So, you just hope that we’re ready to go.”
Oregon State is strongest in the defensive-oriented stats. They rank fifth in the PAC-12 in digs and are behind only Stanford in allowing the fewest aces by opponents. They are also third in blocks. In all other categories, the Beavers rank in the bottom quarter of the conference.
When Sunday rolls around, the Ducks will be looking to avenge the five-set home loss they suffered at the hands of the Wildcats earlier this season. Since that loss, both teams have gone 4-3, but Arizona has also lost their biggest offensive weapon.
Oregon has proven itself to be a strong all-around team, but are strongest on the offensive side of the game. They rank in the top half of the conference in every statistical category except blocks, service aces, and opponent hitting percentage. The Ducks are in the top three in hitting percentage, assists, kills, and digs.
The Wildcats will be hoping for big matches from Paige Whipple, Devyn Cross, Katie Smoot, and Candice Denny. They also need setter Julia Patterson to recover form the viral infection that sapped her strength last weekend and kept her out of practice early this week.
“We’ll certainly put our USC line-up, and that will be Candice opposite and Katie on the left in place of Kendra,” Rubio said. We’ll move the chess pieces around a little bit. You know, we’re running out of bodies.”
Cross had a strong weekend against the Mountain schools, garnering the PAC-12 Defensive Player of the Week award for her part in 13 of the team’s 22 blocks. Against the Utes, she tied her career high with nine blocks.
“My dad asked me, ‘Did you even have that in your mind, just going out there and getting all those blocks?’ Cross said. “And, honestly, I was just trying to follow the scouting report was all I was doing.”
The Wildcats need both the scouting report and the execution to be just as strong this week if they hope to upset the No. 16 Ducks.
Honoring a Wildcat volleyball great
Former Wildcat setter Penina Snuka will be added to the Ring of Honor at McKale Center on Friday. The All-American will be honored during halftime of the match against Oregon State.
How to watch
Friday night’s match against Oregon State will air live on Pac-12 Arizona beginning at 7 p.m. MST. The Oregon match will be available via Arizona Live Stream beginning at 11 a.m. MST on Sunday. Stats and play-by-play for both matches can be viewed on Arizona’s Live Stats.