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What the Cactus Classic told us about Arizona volleyball

The Wildcats went 3-0 over the weekend to improve to 6-0 on the season. What did we learn about them?

<span data-author="62953">arizona-volleyball-cactus-classic-dahlke-patterson-cross </span> Courtesy of Arizona Athletics

There was a lot to like about the weekend for Arizona Wildcats volleyball. I mean, you can’t really hate three straight-set victories at home to move to 6-0 on the season, can you?

Arizona head coach Dave Rubio and his team certainly felt that there was a lot to improve on from its performance in the Cactus Classic, though.

The Wildcats opened the weekend with an easy three-set win over Lipscomb. The team ended the first day of their home tournament with a difficult match against San Diego State, then started the final day looking even more out-of-sorts against Pacific.

Kendra Dahlke was again the star for the Wildcats. The MVP of both the Cactus Classic and the Hornet Invitational came out against Lipscomb and posted an 18-kill night in three sets. After back-to-back matches of over 20 kills in last weekend’s tournament, Dahlke had matches of 18, 20, and 16 kills in only nine sets this weekend. For the season, she’s averaging 5.76 kills per set and leads the Pac-12 in total kills with 121.

For all of her brilliance, yesterday’s match against Pacific showed what can happen when a good defensive team is able to limit Dahlke and her teammates aren’t able to pick up the slack.

Both the Tigers and the Wildcats went 2-0 against San Diego State and Lipscomb on Friday, but Pacific looked like the aggressors from the start on Saturday. From the first whistle, they built a 5-2 lead. During this stretch, Dahlke had four attacks, but no kills. She wouldn’t get her first kill until the 11th point of the set. By that time, the Tigers had built a 7-3 lead.

Pacific started the second set quickly, as well. In both of the first two sets Arizona needed to chip away at the lead. Not until about two-thirds of the way through did the Wildcats take control of either set.

Rubio felt that the strength of Pacific was that they not only kept Dahlke under wraps, but they also limited her teammates. He has spoken throughout the preseason and early season about how important it is to develop other options on offense, to not let everything fall on Dahlke’s shoulders.

“Pacific, I knew it was going to be a really long, hard match for us,” Rubio said. “The type of team they are, a really high-functioning team with all the skills. And they did a nice job early, really, against not just Kendra but everybody. I mean, they were soft blocking us and they were transitioning and coming back and scoring points on us.

“Their hitters have great vision, and they have good range, and they can hit the ball around the block,” he said. “And, you know, they’re a tough team to defend once they’re in their system. The key for us was to get them out of system. Our block is formidable, but not when they’re chasing the ball around the court. So, we needed to kind of reduce the options they had and we knew where the ball was coming back. Once that happened, our blocking became more of a factor.”

For middle blocker Devyn Cross, the state of the team’s blocking was a major lesson that came out of the weekend. Getting the details right needs to be the focus going forward.

“Probably what needs to be worked on most after this weekend is our blocking,” she said. “Overall, we did a really good job. Our defense was kinda spotty here and there, but now it’s just mostly the little things like ball placement, hand placements, just real focused on the little things.”

While they had some difficulties, other players were able to step up when Dahlke was contained. Elizabeth Shelton, Julia Patterson and the serving were able to put up points early in the match against Pacific.

Paige Whipple stepped in for Katie Smoot, who was dealing with illness, and accounted for 25 kills. Twelve of those came in the San Diego State match, where she also received serve nine times, recorded seven digs and had two assisted blocks.

Arizona’s freshmen also continued to get experience. Defensive specialist Malina Kalei Ua is seeing regular time on the court, appearing in every set so far this season and getting a start this weekend. Her defensive work has been important to Arizona throughout the season. Whittnee Nihipali also got in for two sets this weekend, recording a kill against San Diego State.

On defense, the team recorded 11 total blocks—three solo and 16 assisted—against the Tigers to bring it to 47 for the weekend. Only Shardonee Hayes and the defensive specialists didn’t record at least one assisted block in the final match. For Hayes, it was an aberration, as she had six assisted blocks against San Diego State and five against Lipscomb.

Emotional and mental strength are the final area that both Rubio and his players say are vital to future success. Arizona was able to withstand the pressure from both Pacific and San Diego State in the last two matches because of their mental strength, but it’s not something that Rubio wants them to have to do in the future.

“It’s certainly nice to know that you can do that,” he said. “And I think mentally and emotionally, we’re in a good place, but you certainly don’t want to be there as a coach, that’s for sure. I get a little stressed out when we’re down like that.”

At this point in the season, the team is still a work in progress, Rubio said. He believes that they can be something special, though.

“There’s no question that based on personnel, the players that played full time, a year later, I knew that that experience and the development and improvement would come back. I just didn’t know at what level,” he said. “And as I told the players here I think have a chance to be really good, but it’s going to take us time to get there and then we got to work on the things that are going to be able to be successful later on when we get deeper in the season and hopefully on the post season play.”