The Arizona Wildcats completed its nonconference season this weekend as hosts of the Wildcat Classic, sweeping three matches to improve to 11-1. Beginning next week, the Wildcats will begin their journey through the Pac-12 volleyball minefield, playing ranked teams week in and week out.
The Wildcats’ opening match Friday against UT-Martin went as expected. It was a fairly uneventful straight set (25-19, 25-14, 29-27) victory against an over-matched opponent—even with Kendra Dahlke out of the lineup.
Some of the younger players got some extra time on the court during real competition. Head coach Dave Rubio has mentioned several times the team needed to develop consistent help for Dahlke, so that might have been better than having the team’s best player on the court against UT-Martin.
In Friday’s second match, Arizona avenged last week’s loss at New Mexico State, winning in straight sets (25-18, 26-24, 25-17) to give Rubio his 500th career win. With Dahlke back on the court, the Wildcats fought out a tough three-setter.
Most impressive was the second set when Arizona fought back from a 23-18 deficit against the Aggies. In almost a mirror image of last week’s fourth set, the Wildcats were able to turn around what NMSU did to them in Las Cruces, snatching victory out of the jaws of defeat.
The tournament wrapped up with a tough four-set victory over UC-Davis on Saturday. Although the Aggies are a smaller team than Arizona, they have played a very similar schedule. Their defensive stats were comparable, and the match showed why.
UC-Davis was able to hang tough with Arizona through strong defense, but struggled in offensive statistics. The relative lack of size and strength eventually let the Aggies down. The Wildcats won the match 3-1 (25-22, 22-25, 25-20, 25-18).
Whether the out-of-conference tournament season prepared the Wildcats for what is to come is open for debate. Rubio said that the major issue in the preseason is staying emotionally invested when the team isn’t facing Pac-12 competition. They certainly haven’t faced the kind of physicality of conference opponents.
Arizona should have no problem with emotional investment next week, as it opens up with the rivalry match against Arizona State on Thursday and then hosts preseason No. 1 Stanford on Sunday. On the other hand, they will have to contend with considerably larger, stronger players.
Whatever questions about the team remain, the weekend did have some revelations and reasons to celebrate.
Kendra Dahlke’s foot
The media hadn’t spoken to Dahlke since the Cactus Classic two weeks ago. Sometimes, that’s just to give a player an emotional rest and allow others to get some media attention. Sometimes, it’s something bigger.
So, when Dahlke walked out in street clothes and a boot on Friday morning, it was a bit of a surprise. As it turns out, Dahlke had been advised to take the week off.
“I have a little bit of an issue with my foot coming out of last weekend and going into this weekend,” she said. “So, we were just really working on resting. The doctor assumed that it was probably just inflammation. I have an extra bone in my foot; just one of those weird things.”
Dahlke returned in the evening match against New Mexico State. She said it was the first time she had jumped in a week. Her team needed her, too.
“Kendra didn’t play all week, and so it took her a little while to kind of get in her rhythm,” Rubio said. “But it was nice that toward the end of sets two and three, she started to get a little bit more comfortable out there.”
Once she got back into rhythm, Dahlke was an essential reason Arizona was able to overcome NMSU in the second set on Friday and withstand the defensive skill of UC-Davis on Saturday.
Dave Rubio’s longevity
Rubio has spent the entirety of his Division I coaching career at Arizona. On Friday, he notched his 500th Division I win, making him one of six coaches at Arizona and the second Pac-12 volleyball coach to reach that number.
He joins fellow Wildcat coaches Mike Candrea, Fred Enke, Jerry Kindall, Lute Olson and Frank Sancet with the honor.
Rubio has been a bit hesitant to talk about the achievement this week, putting it down to being at one place as long as he has. He said that the other coaches on the 500-win list at Arizona are legends, and he “certainly doesn’t think of [himself] that way.” Regardless, Rubio was pleased to share the milestone evening with people who are important to him.
The UA athletic department and the community made sure the night was special. A relatively large crowd was on hand to cheer for the Wildcats. The pep band was in the stands for the first time this season.
A group of club volleyball players got to take the floor in an exhibition, then gathered with the Wildcats for pictures after the victory. Fans left with posters honoring the achievement.
“I guess it’s just kind of fate, my brother [NMSU associate head coach Keith Rubio] being on the other side,” Rubio said. “And I’m really close with that staff. You know, Mike Jordan has been at New Mexico State for 20 years and done a fantastic job there. And if I had to do that, it would be nice to do it against someone who I really like and care about, and, certainly, my brother.
“So yeah, it was, it was a nice situation for me. It was a good crowd [that was] into it.”
Holding each other accountable
Throughout the nonconference season, Arizona has played tight sets in the early going. In the latter third of those sets, the Wildcats tend to pull away decisively. However, this weekend, they showed that they can come back from late-set deficits and at least close the gap, if not win.
The second set against NMSU looked like a loss for Arizona when they fell behind by as many as eight points. The Aggies held set point at 24-20. Not only did the Wildcats save that point, but they saved three more. Arizona ended the set on a 6-0 run to win it and go up 2-0.
The second set against UC-Davis didn’t end up in Arizona’s favor, but the Wildcats fought back to make a game of it. Arizona fell behind by as many as eight points late in that set, too. With the score at 19-11 in favor of the Aggies, the Wildcats went on a 9-2 run to cut it to a one-point lead.
Arizona was not able to overcome the deficit as they had the previous day, but the resilience suggests that they can maintain level emotions in difficult situations. Rubio has stressed the importance of stability, and his team has displayed it at big points this year.
“I think when we’re down, we are all pretty close and we all aren’t afraid to hold each other accountable and say, ‘We need to step it up. We need to do this, we need to make it work’,” sophomore outside hitter Paige Whipple said.
“And I think that just shows how sure we are about the process and trusting the process of getting better each day. There’s going to be struggles. There’s going to be issues, but everyone’s grinding through it, and we’re just here for one goal and that’s just to get better and whatever comes, comes.”
The freshmen pitch in
One reason the Wildcats were able to come back against UC-Davis was the play of the freshmen. Defensive specialist Malina Kalei Ua has gotten a lot of playing time throughout the nonconference season. As things have progressed, outside hitter Whittnee Nihipali has joined her on occasion.
Saturday, Nihipali and Ua were also joined by middle blocker Zyonna Fellows. Rubio credited the change with the Wildcats’ ability to made a go of things in the second set and eventually win the match.
“Whittnee going back there and serving. She’s a terrific server,” Rubio said. “That really gave us some momentum. So, even though we lost [the second set], the momentum going into the third set. And so, that helped.”