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Arizona volleyball relying on Kendra Dahlke, defense as Pac-12 play approaches

The 8-1 Wildcats try to get head coach Dave Rubio his 500th Division I win at the Wildcat Classic

Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

Dave Rubio has the chance to reach his 500th Division I win this weekend, but he’d rather you didn’t ask him about it. In fact, he didn’t even know the milestone was approaching until last week.

“I was hoping we were going to avoid that,” Rubio said when asked about the looming accomplishment. “If you’re in any one place long enough, you’re going to get a pretty large number. Here I am on 27 years. I think for most coaches, you really don’t think about the wins and losses. You’re kind of in the moment of trying to prepare for the next.”

More important to Rubio and his team is continuing to fix the issues that cost them last week in Las Cruces. After eight straight wins to open the season, the Wildcats lost a five-set match to New Mexico State.

As fate would have it, Arizona gets to try to fix the remaining issues while also trying to avenge that loss. The Aggies will join UC-Davis and Tennessee-Martin in the field of the Wildcat Classic beginning Friday morning.

The Wildcats will face a field that consists entirely of teams with winning records for the first time this season. Rubio said that it’s probably the toughest field Arizona has played so far.

It will need to be, considering that the team opens Pac-12 play against ASU and Stanford next week. The Cardinal entered the season number one in the AVCA poll and were picked to win the conference.

The major story for Arizona in the early going has been the incredible play of Kendra Dahlke, who has led the team in kills in all but one match this season while hitting an incredible .316.

Rubio said that the defense deserves a great deal of credit, too. Before the season started, Dahlke expressed her own excitement about the team’s defensive specialists. The praise of head coach and star player have proven more than warranted.

“Our littles have been outstanding,” Rubio said. “Makenna Martin, Emi Pua’a, and Malina (Kalei Ua). Those guys are the reason that we can really kind of stay close. When we struggle offensively, those guys will kind of keep us in system and continue to put ourselves in position to score points. Had we not had those guys play as well as they have, then our record would probably be a little bit different than it is.”

Perhaps most surprising on the defense is the emergence of Kalei Ua, a freshman. The 5’4” defensive specialist is one of the two smallest players on the team. She was also one of the most unheralded of the 2018 freshman class. In fact, neither she nor Arizona were on each other’s radar until her club coach, former Wildcat Candace Nicholson, recommended her to Rubio.

“I committed in April of this year,” Ua said. “So, I’m kind of late to this, and Pac-12 volleyball really wasn’t something that I wanted until maybe November. So, I feel like I’m late in the game. Most girls in my position have been committed since they were sophomores. So, my mindset coming into this was just go all-in. Just do what they want. Do what they ask, and see what happens.”

What has happened is that Ua has found herself on the court more than any other UA freshman, appearing in each of Arizona’s 33 sets played. She even got the starting nod against New Mexico State when Shardonee Hayes was unable to play.

Ua has contributed 49 digs, six service aces, and nine assists over 33 sets with her best match coming against Sacramento State.

With the defense keeping them in rallies, setter Julia Patterson effectively guiding the offense, and Dahlke putting up the kind of numbers that could make her an All-American by year’s end, the Wildcats are looking for consistent offensive help for Dahlke. When they begin conference play next week, relying on career nights from her every night is unlikely to be a winning strategy.

“We still have a tremendous room for growth. In the match against New Mexico State, in particular, there were a couple of areas in our offense that were really lacking,” Rubio said. “We didn’t have any offense behind the setter. Candice really struggled in that match. We had very little offense on the other outside hitter opposite Kendra. And, so, Kendra was carrying us. The only reason we were in the position we were was because Kendra had a career match.”

When New Mexico State was able to make the game difficult on Kendra in the fourth set, they came back and eventually put the match away. In Rubio’s words, “live by the sword, die by the sword.”

To get to the point where they are not dying by that sword in the gauntlet of the Pac-12, the Wildcats need to iron out the weaknesses in their game this weekend. Let’s meet the teams they will face while attempting that.

Tennessee-Martin Skyhawks (6-4, Ohio Valley Conference)

The Skyhawks have a winning record coming into the Wildcat Classic, which should help their confidence. Unfortunately, most of those wins have come against lower-level competition, with the best arguably being over Central Arkansas.

Tennessee-Martin also has a bad loss against Southern Illinois, who is 3-7 on the season and ended last season at No. 248 in the RPI. The only major conference team the Skyhawks have faced is Louisville, who beat them easily in straight sets.

On offense, Tennessee-Martin has three players with at least 90 kills. Senior OH Megan Fair leads the way with 99 kills in 40 sets for the season. She’s also accounting for 2.03 digs per set. She has appeared in all 10 matches the Skyhawks have played so far, starting in nine.

Fair is complemented by junior Hannah Phillips who has 96 kills on the season. She has improved on her 2017 1.86 kills per set and career mark of 1.74 k/s. So far in 2018 Phillips is putting the ball to the floor 2.29 times per set. She’s also contributing .043 blocks per set.

Rounding out the trio is middle blocker Gintare Mackeviciute. The junior has 91 kills in 39 sets played this year. The member of the Lithuanian senior national team is in her first year at Tennessee-Martin after playing for the 2017 NAIA national champion Lindsey Wilson College.

Sophomore Kenzie Hinshaw claimed the starting setter position last season. Although she played in a dual-setter system, she was 8th in assists in the OVC in 2017. This season, she has at least 40 assists in five matches with a high of 51 coming in a loss to Southern Illinois and a win over Memphis.

Arizona should be able to overcome the Skyhawks, who have struggled with hitting this season. Compared to the Wildcats’ .269 team percentage, Tennessee Martin is hitting .173. They are also being outhit by their opponents, allowing a .188 percentage on the other side of the net compared to .181 allowed by UA.

New Mexico State Aggies (8-2, Western Athletic Conference)

Last week, NMSU associate head coach Keith Rubio was able to notch a win against his brother Dave. This week, the team is “fired up” to get another shot at the Aggies and hopefully help their coach to 500 wins, according to Ua.

In order to do that, the Wildcats need to correct a few issues that cropped up last week. Consistency and efficiency, especially on serve-receive, are the primary ones on Dave Rubio’s mind. They were poised to take that match, but were unable to close the deal.

“[New Mexico State] really played a terrific match,” Rubio said. “We put ourselves in a position to win the match. We were up 23-18, two games to one, and, by all accounts, typically you’re going to win that match. But a couple things happened. The server back there for New Mexico State [Natalie Mikels] really put it on Kendra. And Kendra, I thought, responded well. If we had passed just a little bit better, that would have given more options offensively. But the server for New Mexico State, at the most critical moments, really played well, and we didn’t respond particularly well to that. And, then, that really gave them momentum going into the fifth game. Although, in the fifth game, we were up 7-3, and we just couldn’t get ourselves to play well enough toward the end of game four and set five to win the match. And, like you said, since the season started, we’ve been able to pull that off.”

The Wildcats get another chance to respond at 7 PM on Friday.

UC-Davis Aggies (7-2, Big West Conference)

The other Aggies in the Wildcat Classic field have played a schedule very similar to Arizona’s in the early going—if not a bit stronger—and have acquitted themselves well. UC-Davis was picked to place sixth in the Big West preseason poll, but have given some indications that they may be better than that.

The team’s two losses this season have come against good competition. The Oregon State Beavers have been receiving votes in the AVCA poll since the preseason, while NAU upset the No. 8 Florida Gators last weekend.

The offensive effort for the Aggies has been led by senior outside hitter Emily Allen. Allen is trying to enter the UC-Davis record books as the fourth player in school history to have both 1000 kills and 1000 digs.

Last season, Allen finished second on the team with 279 kills. To get to the 1000 mark, she needs to better that number by 86 this season. A much smaller improvement is needed to get her to 1000 career digs. She tallied 286 in 2017, and only needs 297 to become the 10th Aggie to hit the 1000 mark.

Allen has reached double-digit kills in every match this season, getting a season high 20 against both NAU and Santa Clara. Her 4.30 kills per set lead the team, while her 3.06 digs per set trail only the team’s libero.

Allen has contributed eight service aces on the season, as well. The only major downside of her season has been below-average hitting, with only a .209 so far.

Allen is supported by junior Lauren Matias, who is putting down 3.00 kills per set while hitting .247. No one else on the team has more than 62 kills on the season.

Senior setter Maddie Merlino is guiding the offense effectively, although she doesn’t statistically threaten her Wildcat counterpart. Merlino assists her teammates 8.27 times per set compared to the 11.70 assists per set of Arizona’s Julia Patterson.

Merlino does produce more defensive stats than her opponent, though. Her 2.83 digs per set outpace Patterson’s 2.00 d/s by a good margin. She also slightly outpaces Patterson on blocks per set.

Defense is where the Aggies could give the Wildcats some problems. While facing similar non-conference difficulty, the Aggies have held their opponents to a .159 hitting percentage compared to Arizona’s opponents’ .181.

UC-Davis has 650 digs in their 33 sets for a rate of 19.7 d/s. On the other side of the net, Arizona has only 481 total digs and 14.6 per set. That rate is lower than the season rate for the Aggies’ nine opponents.

While the Wildcats have far more firepower than the Aggies, their defenders may be as important as the bigs this game. They will need to keep Arizona in the game, as they have in many matches this season.

When the teams face off on Saturday afternoon, the Wildcats will have their last chance to work those kinks out before the Sun Devils come to town. If they are able to get at least two wins over the course of the tournament, their coach will become the sixth coach at Arizona to reach at least 500 victories in his sport.

How to watch

All three matches will be streamed on Arizona Live Stream. Fans can also follow along on Live Stats and Twitter.