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Arizona prepares to host USC and UCLA, a big opportunity to boost postseason resume

Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

After two weeks that featured three five-set matches and the two longest road trips in the Pac-12, Arizona volleyball is glad to get back to McKale where it will host No. 14 USC and No. 25 UCLA this weekend.

As important as playing in front of their fans is, the chance to solidify their postseason resume against the last two top 25 teams on their schedule is even greater.

“I don’t think it’s pressure,” coach Dave Rubio said about the matchup against USC. “I think it’s an opportunity for us to play a team that’s going to be seeded very high in the tournament, and getting a chance to play them at home.”

The No. 14 Women of Troy (19-8, 11-5) were led by sophomore Brooke Botkin when they won a four-setter against the Wildcats last month, but junior Khalia Lanier also had 11 kills in that match. Lanier has been out with an injury that Arizona has come to know well: concussion. In addition to Lanier’s absence, USC has been without two other players. They have still gone 5-3 since they hosted the Wildcats at Galen Center.

“The question is going to be, are they going to be at full strength?” Rubio said. “They have three kids out, I think, with concussions. And the other question is, are we going to be at full strength?”

The biggest opportunity presented by USC is the chance for a resume-boosting win against a top team. They present the final chance for Arizona to beat a team that has a top ten RPI. The Women of Troy have been sitting at seventh for the last few weeks. A win would push the Wildcats back into the thirties, which is where Rubio said he believes they need to be to secure a postseason berth.

No. 25 UCLA (12-11, 7-9) will not present the same RPI-boosting opportunity that their crosstown rivals do, but a loss to the RPI’s 33rd-ranked team is certainly something Arizona needs to avoid. With only Cal (RPI No. 93) and ASU (RPI No. 90) left on the schedule after Sunday, Arizona needs to beat teams that they will be competing with for a berth. The Bruins are one of those teams.

In Arizona’s favor, UCLA has struggled since they swept the Wildcats back in October. The Bruins have gone 2-6 since that meeting, including a loss to Cal and a tough five-set win over Oregon State, the Pac-12’s last-placed team.

Arizona will also be as healthy as they have been in a while. While middle blocker Devyn Cross had not yet cleared concussion protocol as of early this week, Kendra Dahlke returned to action against Utah and Colorado last weekend. Makenna Martin also returned, although her leg was heavily taped and she did not occupy her usual position at libero.

Dahlke is just thrilled to be back in competition.

“Emotionally, it just makes you hungry to get back on the court,” she said about her various injuries this season. “It’s frustrating being not able to play, but ultimately it just kind of makes you excited when you are able to play.

“Just from a rhythm standpoint, it sometimes will throw things off, but that’s why practice has been so important for me, especially, just because I’ve been kind of in and out for the last couple weeks.”

While her teammates have kept things afloat when Dahlke’s been out, having all of his six-rotation players back on the court at once will be a big advantage for Rubio this weekend. Arizona just has to hope that the rhythm is back for everyone as they prepare for their final homestand.

How to watch

The match against USC will be streamed via Arizona Live Stream beginning at 6 p.m. MST on Friday. The UCLA match will be aired on both Pac-12 Arizona and Pac-12 Los Angeles beginning at noon on Sunday. Fans can follow both matches via Arizona’s Live Stats page.