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Arizona volleyball heading for the ‘Twilight Zone’ against Utah and Colorado

Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

Arizona’s last extended road trip is a battle for the postseason. The 20th-ranked Wildcats (18-8, 7-7) hope to safeguard their path to the NCAA tournament, while opponents Colorado and Utah are looking for resume-boosting wins.

Something’s gotta give.

The Wildcats helped themselves tremendously by getting a road split last weekend against the Washington schools. Taking the match against Washington State provided the RPI boost that could make the difference for Arizona when the tournament field is announced at the end of the month.

Still, coach Dave Rubio said he thought they could have gotten the road sweep.

“In the 27 years I’ve been here, I’ve never experienced anything like (the win over the Cougars),” Rubio said. “A team that showed enough resolve, enough determination not to let (the injuries) affect the way that they played. So, it was a terrific win for everybody.

“And I was really disappointed, I felt like despite the fact that we were missing so many people, the people we’re putting in there are very capable. Whether it’s Zyonna (Fellows) or if it’s Candice (Denny) moving her to the right, or Katie (Smoot) going in and playing on the left, or Whittnee (Nihipali) now serving, or Victoria (Svorinic) now playing in the back row, they’ve all done that before. It wasn’t like we’re really mixing things up, and they’re having to play in different positions.

“And I think that’s why we functioned so well in the Washington State game and, I think, in the first two sets against Washington. We were able to compete and at least take a set off of them. But I was disappointed. I felt like we were in a position to win. Maybe my expectations are a little bit too high, but I think better that than not having them high enough.”

Washington State has been No. 10 in the RPI for the past two weeks. The win helped Arizona improve their own RPI from No. 43 to 39. Rubio has said that being in the thirties should get the team in, and the numbers from the last few years back him up.

Since 2013, the last four at-large teams in the tournament have averaged from a high of No. 44 to a low of No. 50 in RPI. The lowest-ranked team to get in over that period was Michigan State, who got in with an RPI of 54 in 2015.

The problem is that Utah and Colorado are nipping at Arizona’s heels, both in the conference standings and in the RPI race for an at-large berth. The Utes are currently sitting at 43, while the Buffaloes are No. 50. Both are fighting for their postseason lives and have some advantages this weekend.

Not only will Arizona be playing on the road for the second straight week, but they will have to deal with a trip that requires interstate travel between Friday night and early Sunday afternoon. They will do this while coming off the longest road trip any team faces in the Pac-12: the Arizona-to-Washington trek.

Oh, and one last thing. They have to deal with the altitude in Boulder while recovering from injuries.

“It’s like the Twilight Zone when you go to Colorado. It’s just a different deal. Utah’s not quite as bad, but Colorado...” Rubio said, laughing. “The elevation, it certainly plays a part of it. And every year I’ve been there, it’s always different. And both those schools are right below us in the win/loss column. Now, we’re heading for the finish line here, every match means even that much more and playoff berths are at hand here for everybody.”

As for those injuries, Rubio says that he thinks they will be as healthy as they’ve been in a while when they face the Mountain schools. Kendra Dahlke returned to full practice this week, but he said that they would have to see how she recovered from that. When the team boarded their vans for the airport on Thursday, she was still wearing a boot.

The availability of starting libero Makenna Martin, starting middle blocker Devyn Cross, and starting hitter Liz Shelton are also still up in the air. Martin and Cross were added to the list after sustaining injuries in the Washington State match. Martin and Cross made the trip with the team, but Shelton didn’t appear to be with the group as they left McKale Center on Thursday morning.

Regardless of who is available, the Wildcats will need to be sharp to come home with two victories. As last week showed, it’s also not a given that the match against the “easier” opponent will actually turn out to be easier. Arizona can’t get caught looking past anyone right now.

On paper, Friday’s match against Utah should be the more winnable contest. The Utes entered the season ranked in the preseason AVCA poll, but have struggled to a 13-12 overall record and 5-9 in the Pac-12.

Since facing Arizona on Oct. 21, Utah has gone 1-3, including dropping a match to California that gave the Golden Bears a season sweep of the Utes. They now stand in tenth place in the conference standings ahead of only ASU and Oregon State.

As a team, Utah is strongest on the offensive side of the game. They rank fifth in both kills and assists, and they are third-best at serving aces. The problem is that they are in the bottom half of the conference in every defensive category: digs (9th), blocks (7th), opponent hitting percentage (12th).

The second match should be the more difficult one. Not only has Colorado (14-11, 6-8) been slightly more successful than Utah this season, but they also present logistical problems.

The Wildcats will be on the court in the Huntsman Center until at least 8:30 p.m. on Friday night. They will then have to hop a plane for the 520-mile trip from Salt Lake City to Boulder. Arizona will be back on the court to face Colorado at noon on Sunday.

While Arizona swept Colorado in Tucson, the Buffs have gone 3-2 since leaving McKale Center. Their last match was a five-set loss to Stanford in Palo Alto. Only one other team has pushed Stanford to five sets this season. That team was the No. 1-ranked BYU Cougars, who hosted the Cardinal in Provo.

Despite the fight they showed against the Cardinal, the Buffaloes have struggled to put up the kind of numbers that the rest of the conference has produced this season. They are in the bottom half of the conference in every statistical category except hitting percentage (6th) and blocks (3rd).

If Arizona plays up to their abilities, they stand a good chance of coming back to Tucson 20-8. But anything is possible in the Pac-12, especially on the road.

How to watch

The Utah match begins at 7 p.m. MST on Friday evening. It will be available via Utah’s live stream.

Colorado’s live stream will carry the match on Sunday beginning at noon.

Fans can also follow along during both matches on Arizona Live Stats.