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Arizona volleyball opens the season 2-0 at the Hornet Invitational

What did we learn from the Wildcats’ wins over Cal State Northridge and Utah State?

Courtesy of Arizona Athletics

The Arizona Wildcats beat Cal State Northridge and Utah State on Friday as they opened the 2018 season at the Hornet Invitational in Sacramento. Here are recaps of each match.

Match 1: Arizona 3, CSUN 0 (25-17, 25-14, 25-19)

Two weeks ago, Julia Patterson talked about the bad taste last season left in the mouths of the Arizona volleyball team. They were anxious to get rid of it as soon as possible. Not only did they get that taste out of their mouths on Friday, they did it in historic fashion with a .464 hitting percentage--the best opening match percentage in school history.

The Wildcats opened play against head coach Dave Rubio’s alma mater, Cal State Northridge. Less than an hour later, they had secured a straight-sets victory over the Matadors in dominant fashion.

Senior OH Kendra Dahlke has talked all preseason about her determination to step up as the team’s leader. While she showed that she’s the biggest offensive weapon for Arizona, sophomore Katie Smoot stepped forward from the opening whistle to prove that others will help Dahlke carry the load.

Dahlke led the team with 15 kills in the match. Her 29 attacks and 3 errors gave her a..414 hitting percentage. She also got a solo block. Smoot added 8 kills and no errors on 12 attacks, amassing a .667 hitting percentage and throwing in two aces to boot. Patterson led the team with 34 assists, while throwing in three kills of her own.

Smoot led off the match with the first kill of the season for the Wildcats. She followed with another kill and two aces to score four of Arizona’s first five points. The team was up 5-1 and wouldn’t look back, taking the set 25-17.

The second set proceeded much like the first, with Arizona simply overwhelming CSUN. Through the first two sets, there were no lead changes. While there was one tie in each of those sets, Arizona never trailed.

Things were much tighter in the third set, as the Matadors tried to extend the match. There were four ties and three lead changes, the first time all morning that Arizona trailed.

Once the score reached 8-8, though, the Wildcats were ready to assert themselves. They slowly added to their lead, never trailing again. Malina Kalei Ua put an end to things with a service ace punctuating the 25-19 win.

Match 2: Arizona 3, Utah State 2 (15-25, 25-20, 25-19, 21-25, 15-4)

Earlier this week, Rubio described Utah State as big and physical. In the nightcap, they came out as the aggressor.

Arizona scored the first point off an error from sophomore Gabbi Shumway only to have Tucson area native Kassidy Johnson start a 4-1 run by the Aggies.

The Wildcats kept it close until about midway through the set. After closing the USU lead to 16-14, Arizona stalled. After two straight attack errors gave the Aggies a 19-14 lead, Rubio had seen enough and called a time out.

USU was unfazed, continuing their run when play resumed and winning the set by a score of 25-15. They would close it out on a 9-1 run.

The Wildcats regrouped in the second, although it was a close affair. Arizona didn’t allow the Aggies to take a lead at any point, but they seldom led by more than 2 points.. After USU tied the set at 3-3, Arizona led until the final whistle on the strength of 6 kills from Dahlke and 17 assists by Patterson. The Wildcats took the set 25-20.

It looked like Arizona had taken control of the match when they took the third set to go up 2-1.. The Aggies still had some fight in them, though. They pushed it to a fifth with a 25-21 victory in the fourth.

The final set turned into a mere formality. With Arizona ahead 3-0, the Aggies finally got on the board after an extended rally led to an attack error by Paige Whipple.

The error didn’t distract the Wildcats, who responded with a 5-1 run that pushed the lead to 8-2 at the end change.

The end change was followed by more Arizona dominance. The Wildcats ran the score to 11-2 before Bailey Downing was able to end the run off an assist from Johnson.

Arizona scored the next three to earn themselves a match point at 14-3. USU put the ball down in the back corner to save the first match point, but a service error by Madi Olson-Shepherd gave the Wildcats the win with a 15-4 final in the fifth set.

Dahlke again led Arizona with 28 kills on a .400 hitting percentage. Smoot added another 8 kills, but her percentage dropped to .190 in the late match. Elizabeth Shelton threw in 12 kills and 6 errors on 22 attacks for a hitting percentage of .273. Patterson averaged 12.5 assists per set, tallying a total of 62 in the five-setter. Makenna Martin led the team with 17 digs and the only two aces served in the match.

The Wildcats will wrap up their stay in Sacramento with a match against host Sacramento State on 4:30 PM on Saturday.

3 things we learned

  1. While Dahlke is undeniably the offensive leader, the strong sophomore class will be vital to the team’s success. True sophomores Katie Smoot and Paige Whipple and redshirt sophomore Elizabeth Shelton kept the the opposition honest. Smoot tallied 11.5 points in the first match, trailing only Dahlke for the Wildcats. Shelton had the second-highest point total in the second match, adding 15.0 to Dahlke’s 28.0.
  2. The Wildcats were able to hang in when things got tough. Mental toughness was something that both Dahlke and Rubio stressed during the preseason. Coming back to beat USU in five after dropping the first suggests that they are already cultivating that resilience.
  3. The serve game was a bit inconsistent. Two weeks ago, Rubio said that this was the biggest weakness for the Wildcats, who were serving neither hard enough nor fast enough in his estimation. Against CSUN, Arizona had 12 aces and 8 service errors--an average of 4 aces and 2.66 service errors per set . That was one of many factors in their ability to control play. In the second match, those numbers were not as encouraging. While they improved their errors per set--with 7 errors in 5 sets for an average of 1.4 per set--they fell to just 4 aces. The combination of the two suggest that they either weren’t as aggressive with the serve against Utah State, the Aggies were tougher on defense, or both.