Two of the biggest contests for any college team are their conference opener and their rivalry game. For Arizona volleyball, those contests have been combined every year since 2012, with the Wildcats opening yet another Pac-12 season against ASU on Thursday.
“The in-state rivalry means maybe a little bit more than the others just because of what’s at stake,” Arizona head coach Dave Rubio said.
Rubio and his players have talked about the need to look beyond the name on the jersey, but he has admitted on several occasions that it can be difficult to keep the players emotionally invested prior to Pac-12 play.
“In some respects, being finished with non-conference is a relief,” he said. “It’s always a grind. The four weeks, and we’re playing two matches in one day and then one match on Saturday. It’s just a hard routine to go through.
“And it’s nice to start to get into conference. The kids will be more physical. One of the hard things about playing non-con is you’re trying to motivate your kids to take other teams seriously. I don’t have the problem with that coming up on Thursday, not with ASU coming to town.”
Besides, for both players and coach, there’s always a little bit more about an in-state rivalry game.
“I’m excited,” senior outside hitter Kendra Dahlke said. “We haven’t opened with them at home in a while. It’s just exciting. It’s always a really good match against them. It’s always super competitive, they’re super competitive.”
Even though ASU was picked to finish 11th in the preseason conference poll, they present a different challenge than the small-conference teams that Arizona has faced in the non-conference season.
Overall, Rubio believes that the Sun Devils have improved over last year’s team.
“They’ve got different personnel, transfers that I think are going to make an impact on their team. Made them a little steadier, a little more physical,” he said.
Which Sun Devils to look for
In addition to the relative size and strength of Pac-12 players, the teams also tend to have more players who have experience in high-level competition. The Sun Devils are led by one player with international experience and two who transferred into the program after having success elsewhere.
Junior outside hitter Ivana Jeremic leads the team in both total kills (156) and kills per set (3.93). She also maintains a hitting percentage of .251, well over her career average of .196 and solid for her position. She ranks in the top 10 in the conference for both total kills and points.
Jeremic isn’t just strong on offense. Her all-around game places her among the best on her team in defensive stats, too. Her 177 digs ranks her second on the team in total digs, while she’s third in digs per set with 2.85.
She can get up to block, as well. Jeremic is third on the team in total blocks (24) and fifth in blocks per set (0.59).
The native of Gornji Milanovic, Serbia has started ten of the team’s twelve matches this season. She averages 2.70 k/s over the course of her career.
Her experience in international volleyball includes playing for one of the best national programs in the world. Most age levels in the Serbian women’s and girls’ national programs rank in the top five internationally.
Experienced help for Jeremic arrived this season in the form of accomplished transfers. Senior Alyse Ford comes to the Sun Devils after spending her first three years at USC. Sophomore Claire Kovensky moved across town from Grand Canyon University after winning the WAC Freshman of the Year honor for the Antelopes last season.
Ford is a 5’10” outside hitter who was part of a USC team that went 25-10 and made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament last year.
As a member of the Women of Troy, Ford was all-conference honorable mention in both her freshman and sophomore seasons. She was also on the All-Freshman team in 2015.
“As a freshman at USC, she was as good a freshman as there was in the country,” Rubio said. “She’s certainly made an impact on them. She’s an athletic, gifted young lady. Certainly, can play volleyball at a very high level.”
Last season, she saw a decrease in both playing time and stats. She went from playing over 100 sets in each of her first two years to only 81 in 2017. Even her averages saw decreases, with her kills per set falling from over 2.60 in both 2015 and 2016 to 2.31 in 2017.
Ford has seen her attack stats recover in the early going of 2018. She’s improved her kills per set to a career high of 2.97, totaling 86 kills in 29 sets so far. Her numbers place her second on the team in kills per set and fourth in total kills.
“Clair Kovensky, the player who transferred from Grand Canyon, is also making an impact,” Rubio said. “She’s playing and starting, playing a pretty large role for them.”
Kovensky is second on the team in total kills and third in kills per set. In 41 sets played, she has put down 91 kills for an average of 2.46 per set. Between the two transfers, ASU presents a balanced attack behind Jeremic.
Comparing the teams
As of September 18, HERO Sports ranks Arizona’s non-conference schedule at No. 142 compared to No. 118 for ASU. Unofficial RPI numbers have the 11-1 Wildcats at No. 59 so far this year, with the 9-3 Sun Devils coming in at No. 81.
Based on those numbers, both likely need to finish at least .500 in conference to go to the NCAA Tournament this season. For Arizona, a miss would be only the second time under Rubio that they stayed home multiple years in a row. (While they stayed home for the third straight year in 1992, the first two were under previous head coach Rosie Wegrich.)
Rubio said he doesn’t know if the schedule prepared Arizona for the increased athleticism and power of Pac-12 play, but he felt it was necessary to gain some confidence in the early going considering the team’s struggles last season. He also believes that the team has made a complete turnaround from last year, and are prepared for more success as a result.
“It’s a 180 difference from last year,” Rubio said. “I knew that was going to happen with everyone staying—fortunately, everyone staying. It’s just more experience. A year of skill training. Their aptitude is better. They’re mentally and emotionally in a better place. So, we’re just a little bit better in every area, which makes it a whole lot better as a team.”
The stats so far this season back up that sentiment, even if they have come against a relatively weak schedule. Dahlke’s 5.56 k/s and 5.82 points/set have her well ahead of everyone else in the conference in both categories. Julia Patterson’s 11.44 assists per set rank her third in the PAC-12, behind the setters for Oregon and Stanford.
On the other side of the net, ASU players outpace Arizona in two categories. Sun Devil Courtney Leffel’s 4.44 digs per set place her 5th in the conference compared to Wildcat Makenna Martin’s ninth-ranked 3.92 d/s. ASU’s Megan Beedie ranks third with a .400 hitting percentage, while Arizona doesn’t have a player in the top 10.
As a team, Arizona has shown a stronger defense than ASU in the preseason. The Wildcats rank in the top two in conference in opponents’ hitting percentage, kills, assists, and blocks. The only team defensive stat in which ASU outperforms Arizona is service aces by opponents, where both teams are middle-of-the-pack.
If Arizona’s defense continues on pace and Dahlke performs anywhere near her season averages, the Wildcats should take the match.
Whatever happens on Thursday, Arizona will need to move on quickly. On Sunday, they will be in Palo Alto facing Stanford, the preseason No. 1 and current No. 2 team in the country. It will be the two teams’ only meeting this season.
Dahlke has been suffering foot pain for the past two weeks and sat out the UT-Martin game last Friday. Fortunately, the pain is finally fading.
“I was down yesterday. I didn’t do any jumping or anything. I’ve just been really resting it a lot,” she said. “Today’s the first day without pain, and I was practicing. So, that was really exciting.”
Shardonee Hayes was injured prior to the concluding game at the Borderland Invitational on Sept. 8th.
How to watch
The match will air on PAC-12 Arizona beginning at 7 PM MST on Thursday.