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Arizona volleyball looks to stay undefeated as the Cactus Classic kicks off

The 2018 Wildcats have their debut at McKale against Lipscomb, San Diego State, and the Pacific

Arizona Athletics

Playing three matches in less than 48 hours is a tough ask of college volleyball players. The fatigue and the pain take their toll on both on the court and off.

“I’m ready to collapse every time,” said Arizona junior middle blocker Devyn Cross. “Tendonitis in my knees doesn’t necessarily help, so it’s pretty much my body is just kind of like...you need to go lay down for the next two days and not doing anything, which is usually what happens. I’ll just spend the rest of Saturday and Sunday laying in bed.”

Cross and her teammates pushed through it last weekend, though, getting off to a 3-0 start to season at the Hornet Invitational. This weekend, they will do it again as they play their home opener in their own tournament, the Cactus Classic.

Last weekend, the Wildcats started very strong, but had more difficulty as the tournament progressed, being pushed to five sets by Utah State and winning a four-set match marred by a low hitting percentage and long rallies. Arizona head coach Dave Rubio felt that was something that will help the team in the coming weeks.

“I think all the teams right now around the country are trying to figure out how are they going to fix the deficiencies that they have, the holes that they have,” he said. “But I thought it was a good tournament for us. I thought it was really a solid way for us to compete at the right level of teams. They pushed us and it wasn’t easy for us. I didn’t want to schedule a team that wasn’t going to be a threat for us and that’s what happened. We had to really play and it was a struggle for us at times.”

Senior OH Kendra Dahlke was the star on offense, maintaining a consistent brilliance through all three matches. The ability to stay mentally strong was the difference in the close sets, according to Rubio.

“The numbers she put up were as good as any outside hitter I’ve ever had,” he said. “I mean, when you get 60 attempts, 28 kills and four errors. Those are just for the weekend. I mean, those are just terrific numbers and it’s about next weekend, though, for everybody. Not so much what happened last weekend, but we’ll certainly take it and she was the reason why we were able to close out those close matches. She gave us stability out there. If you look back a year ago, she really struggled with all those sets and, as a result, we struggled, but instead she’s got the emotional mental awareness now and maturity to be able to handle the difficulties when she may not be playing as well. So, you know, you just kinda keep hoping that she continued to do what you did last weekend.”

While Rubio praised her ability to carry the team when needed, he also stressed that it’s important that they have other options.

“That’s one of the things we’re trying to figure out is how to score more other than Kendra,” he said. “Kendra right now serving and scoring at a terrific clip, but we’ve got to get more balls in the middle. Got to score more through the center of the court.”

As they prepare to face Lipscomb, San Diego State, and Pacific beginning Friday morning, the team hopes to cut down on some of the issues they faced last weekend by keeping the rallies shorter.

“Probably what needs to improve on that we’ve talked about most, really, is just being able to finish rallies instead of keeping them going so long, being able to execute quicker,” Cross said. “Our passing was phenomenal. Our serving was great. It’s probably just being able to execute sooner rather than later.”

To do that, they will need to prepare for three tough teams that will be looking to put big wins of their own on the board.

“The teams that are coming in are very good,” Rubio said. “I mean, Lipscomb, we obviously lost to last year. They beat Iowa, Big 10 and very good program, and they beat SMU also. And so that’s the first match at 10:00. And so they’re going to give us everything we can handle. And then San Diego state is loaded with talent. I mean somewhat surprising that they’ve struggled this last weekend, but they’re really, really loaded with talent. The Pacific very, very good as well. So it’s going to be, I think, a step up for us. I think everyone kind of gets an idea of what their team needs for the following week and start working on those things.”

Let’s meet the teams.

Lipscomb University Bisons (2-0, ASUN)

The Cactus Classic will start with a 10 am match between Arizona and Lipscomb out of the Atlantic Sun Conference. As Rubio noted, the private Christian university in Nashville has fielded a team that is known for getting wins against much bigger schools in major conferences--including Arizona.

The Bisons come in a perfect 2-0 after taking down SMU and Iowa last weekend at their own LUV Invitational. Lipscomb swept the Mustangs and pulled out a five-set win versus the Hawkeyes. In their lone exhibition match this season, they pushed Tennessee to five sets before losing.

They come into the Cactus Classic ranked as the No. 11 mid-major team by Volleyballmag.com. PrepVolleyball tags them as the No. 28 team in the country in a projection of the teams that could end up in the NCAA Tournament.

Being able to not only challenge but beat teams from strong volleyball conferences isn’t new for Lipscomb, either. Last season, Arizona went to the LUV Invitational as the No. 24 team in the country, and was promptly dismissed with a 3-1 loss to the Bisons.

By season’s end, Lipscomb had a 16-13 overall record and went 8-6 in conference. Their season ended against first-seeded Kennesaw State. They wound up No. 85 in the RPI, almost 20 spots higher than Arizona.

In their attempt at keeping Arizona from getting revenge for last season’s loss, the Bisons will rely heavily on ASUN Player of the Week and preseason Player-of-the-Year selection Carlyle Nusbaum. The senior outside hitter took the weekly honor for a record 10th time last week after the wins over SMU and Iowa.

Last season, Nusbaum finished fourth in Division I by putting down 5.22 kills and amassing 5.57 points per set. Only one other player in ASUN history has a higher kills per set average. She had 522 kills for the season, putting her atop the ASUN for the stat and 17th in the country.

In addition to Nusbaum, head coach Brandon Rosenthal has twelve returning players. Over half of them have at least some experience as starters, while a third played at least 100 sets last season.

The Bisons were picked to finish third in the ASUN preseason poll.

San Diego State Aztecs (1-2, MWC)

Unlike Lipscomb, San Diego State came out flat in their home tournament, going 1-2 in the Aztec Invitational last weekend. The Aztecs were also picked to finish third in their conference, the Mountain West, but have some work to do to fulfill the coaches’ faith in them after dropping matches to Portland and Cal State Bakersfield.

Last season, SDSU finished 16-15 with a 10-8 conference record, but ended up No. 142 in RPI. Their season ended with a loss to Colorado State, who was ranked 24th in the AVCA poll.

The loss also saw the ends of the careers of three all-conference performers. The Aztecs placed two players on the All-MWC team and two more received honorable mention nods. Of the four, only Deja Harris returns. Gone are fellow All-MWC honoree Devyn Pritchard and honorable mention selections Baylee Little and Alexis Cage.

Fortunately for SDSU, Harris is a special player. She is looking to become the first Aztec to make the All-MWC team all four years. She is currently one of only three players who have received three such honors over their careers. The conference coaches certainly believe she can do it, as she was one of the seven players on the preseason all-conference team.

If last season is an indication, teams will need to focus on stopping Harris. She was the only player in the MWC who was in the top seven of points per set (3.84), blocks per set (1.28), and hitting percentage (.344).

In addition to Harris, the Aztecs return 9 other players. They added five transfers--including two former PAC-12 athletes--and five freshmen.

University of the Pacific Tigers (1-2, WCC)

The Pacific Tigers are spending their second weekend in Arizona, having played in the Sun Devil Classic last week. The Tigers dropped matches to New Mexico State and ASU in Tempe, while picking up a win against the University of Texas-Arlington.

The Tigers went 17-14 last season with a 11-7 record in the West Coast Conference. With an RPI of 99, they earned a berth in the National Invitational Volleyball Championship (NIVC) tournament, where they were one of eight hosts. They lost to UC Irvine in a five-setter in the second round.

The WCC team had seven athletes who played in at least 100 sets last season, but are an extremely young team this year. Head coach Greg Gibbons’ roster features eleven players, eight of whom are underclassmen.

With only 11 athletes, the Tigers also have less depth than the teams they will face this weekend. In comparison, Lipscomb has a 15-player roster, SDSU lists 21, and Arizona has 20.

The Tigers’ returners are led by a pair of sophomores, setter Hanne de Schrijver and OH Kaitlyn Lines. De Schrijver came to Stockton from the club system in Belgium, where she competed against top European competition. She was named to the WCC All-Freshman team last year after posting 7.14 assists and 1.88 digs per set in a total of 106 sets. Lines had 161 kills in 83 sets played last season.

How to watch

The matches will be streamed on Arizona Live Stream at https://pac-12.com/live/university-arizona.