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Arizona volleyball returns home to face No. 15 Washington

The Wildcats face their third ranked team in the past two weeks

Arizona and Washington are teams walking similar paths. Both squads have ridden success in the preseason and early conference to Top 25 rankings. They also rely heavily on young players.

Though the Wildcats have leaned on senior Kendra Dahlke, she is one of only two recruits from 2015 who has spent all four years with the program. The Huskies have only one senior on their entire roster.

The two teams enter the Friday match sporting identical 3-1 conference records, with the Huskies dropping a four-setter to Utah at home in their last match. Overall, Washington has overcome a difficult schedule to stand at 11-3 for the season compared to the 14-2 Wildcats.

Match outlook

Arizona will need to be strong on serve-receive, as Washington runs out five servers who have double-digit aces on the year. In comparison, the Wildcats have only two players who have reached double digits: Julia Patterson and Makenna Martin.

The Huskies are led in the service game by Destiny Julye, who has 20 aces to only 13 service errors this season. With most players averaging about as many errors as aces, Julye stands out in this facet of the game.

In addition to Julye, who ranks first in the conference in service aces, the Huskies are also represented in the top 10 by 10th-ranked Samantha Drechsel.

Washington has used a number of different lineups over the season as they try to get their young players experience and settle on their roles. Only three players have started all 14 matches, with four (the three starters and the libero) appearing in all 54 sets.

Arizona has outperformed Washington in almost every statistical category this season. As a team, the Huskies rank in the bottom half of the conference in hitting percentage (9th), opponent hitting percentage (9th), assists (7th), kills (8th), blocks (7th), and digs (11th). They only outrank the Wildcats in service aces, where they are first in the Pac-12.

The caveat when comparing stats this season has always been the relative strengths of schedule, though. Arizona has amassed their stats against the 73rd-ranked schedule in the country, while Washington has faced No. 7.

Arizona will have to overcome their injuries (more on that later), but Dave Rubio has been able to move some players around and throw in new wrinkles.

“The nice thing is that when we lost Liz (Shelton) it certainly made us rethink some things,” he said. “And then when we lost Katie (Smoot) with an ab pull, the alternative was putting Candice (Denny) over there. And the only reason is because Candice has played some opposite during club.

“It gives us potentially—we didn’t know it then—some scoring punch,” Rubio continued. “The thing that we’ve lacked over on that side of the court was anyone who can really score, and with Candice over there, it actually gives us someone who potentially can score for us. And with her running the slide, which is a different set than Liz and Katie run, it really gives us some punch over there.”

As for Washington, Rubio is ready for another typical Pac-12 battle, despite the young team the Huskies will bring to McKale.

“[Washington and Washington State] are both extremely physical,” he said. “Washington is in a transition year. They’re always going to be good because they have so much talent, but they graduated five seniors last year.”

Let’s get to know Washington and find out what to expect this week.

Huskies to watch for

Kara Bajema started her volleyball career at a small high school in northern Washington as an outside hitter, but has played both middle blocker and OH for the Huskies. She has gone from a school with fewer than 500 students to leading the nation’s 15th-ranked team in both kills and points per set this season. The junior ranks sixth in kills and seventh in points per set in the Pac-12.

Bajema averages 3.61 k/s on 9.61 attacks, and puts up 0.28 service aces per set. Altogether, she’s contributing 4.31 points per set to a Huskies team that has faced off against ranked opponents seven times this season, winning four of those matches.

Bajema is also second on the team with 2.35 digs per set.

Perhaps most impressive, Bajema has actually improved her kills and points per set since conference play started. Facing only Pac-12 foes, she is averaging 4.11 k/s and 4.69 pts/s. She has also brought up her service aces per set to 0.33 and has a better ace-to-error ratio.

Other top contributors to the Washington offense are Samantha Drechsel, Destiny Julye, and Lauren Sanders.

Drechsel is a sophomore playing her first season of indoor volleyball for Washington after transferring from Maryland. She’s averaging second on the team with 3.13 k/s and 3.70 pt/s. She has started nine of the team’s 14 matches, appearing in 52 of 54 sets played.

Julye is the lone senior playing for the Huskies. The outside hitter served as a key reserve and spot starter in previous seasons, but has been a crucial member of the serve rotation for her entire Washington career. She is leading the conference in service aces per set while averaging 2.08 kills and 2.95 points per set. This season, she has started nine matches and appeared in all 14.

Sanders joins Julye with 2.08 k/s, but lacks the same serving efficiency. With 1.08 blocks per set, she is one of two Huskies who are averaging at least one block per set. The sophomore middle blocker is contributing 2.68 pts/s.

The Huskies’ offense is guided by freshman setter Ella May Powell. Powell ranks sixth in the conference with 10.43 assists per set.

Injuries

Rubio said that he still has no timeline for Shelton to return to play. She suffered a concussion on Sept. 19 and hasn’t played since.

Sophomore hitter Katie Smoot will likely be out, as well. She is dealing with an abdominal injury that has kept her out of the last two matches.

Devyn Cross came down awkwardly on her ankle against Oregon State, and was briefly removed from last Sunday’s match. She was in a boot on Tuesday, but said she expects to play this weekend.

“It’s pretty much just a precaution to make sure it doesn’t get worse,” Cross explained. She added that it was particularly uncomfortable when she had to walk between classes because “my schedule just sucks.”

How to watch

The University is inviting those who attend to wear pink for the event, and are offering free shirts to the first 500 fans.

The game will be televised on Pac-12 Arizona and Pac-12 Washington beginning at 6 p.m. MST.