When Arizona kicked off the conference season against ASU on Thursday, they had already reached 11 wins—their entire win total in 2017. Meanwhile, Stanford wrapped up their non-conference schedule at 8-1 before notching their ninth win against Cal. But not all schedules are created equally.
Stanford’s single loss came in the first week of the season. They lost on the road to current No. 1 BYU, who was ranked No. 9 at the time. They have tallied wins against then-No. 5 Penn State and then-No. 1 Minnesota, as well as emerging victorious twice over then-No. 3 Texas. Entering their eleventh contest of the season, the Cardinal will be facing just their third unranked opponent.
On the other side of the net, Arizona will be facing their first ranked team all season. As of Sept. 22, Stanford had played the 12th-ranked schedule in the country, while the Wildcats faced a slate ranked No. 152.
Of course, the teams had different expectations and goals coming into the season. Stanford followed their 2016 national title with a 30-4 2017 season that ended in the Final Four.
Arizona is coming off an 11-18 record that saw them miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2012. The Wildcats also have one of the youngest rosters in the country, and needed to play against teams who tested the skills they need to improve on, according to head coach Dave Rubio.
“The thing that I do know is that all the teams we played were very good teams,” Rubio said about the non-conference schedule. “Now, they weren’t overly physical. That’s the thing we didn’t really face, a team that can bring size and real athleticism to the table. But all those teams could really handle the ball. They all had some really good arms who made you defend and really play volleyball. Those are the kinds of teams that would normally beat a team like us, because we tend to be bigger and more physical, but have less aptitude and less skill.”
Now, Rubio takes his young Wildcats into Palo Alto to face a team who presents problems of both physicality and skill.
Cardinal players to watch
When listing Stanford’s players, one after another has multiple superlatives and honors by her name.
Who’s the reigning and two-time Pac-12 Setter of the Year? Stanford junior Jenna Gray, of course.
Who was the Pac-12 Libero of the Year in both 2016 and 2017? Her name is Morgan Hentz, and she’s also a junior in Palo Alto.
How about the 2017 Pac-12 Conference, AVCA National, and espnW National Player of the Year? Oh, that would be the Cardinal’s 6’6” outside hitter Kathryn Plummer, another junior.
Of the 28 players who were named first or second team AVCA All-Americans last year, how many played for Stanford? Four—and they all returned in 2018.
“I think everybody understands that Stanford is in a class by themselves,” Rubio said. “Them and BYU have shown that they’re ahead of everybody. The question is, can you catch up to them within the next three and a half months? Now they’re going to continue to improve as well, but can we shrink the gap?
“And we only play Stanford once unfortunately. I’d like to play them a couple times — now and then at the end of the season to see where we are in relation to them, but I’m going to face Stanford the same way I face ASU. It’s not going to be any different regardless of who we play. We’re going to go out and be prepared and put ourselves in position to win.”
While Arizona has several of the top players in the conference, statistically speaking, those stats have been amassed against less physical teams than they will be facing going forward. It’s also difficult to compare them to the stats of other teams’ top players, since only Cal has a worse strength of schedule going into conference play.
Eight conference teams have schedules ranked in the top 50. The other four—Oregon State, ASU, Arizona, and Cal—are all outside the top 100.
Only one shot
With the unbalanced schedule, Arizona will only face Stanford once this year. Whether that’s a good thing or not is open for debate.
Rubio said that he would like to be able to play the Cardinal early and again late in the season, so they can gauge where the team is as the season progresses. As things stand, Arizona will go from facing lower-ranked teams directly to their toughest game of the season with only ASU in between. Having the only meeting on the road makes the task even more difficult.
Missing the top team in the conference gives Arizona an easier schedule than some of the teams they will be battling for an NCAA berth. That can work both in their favor (giving them one less loss) or against them (giving them one less opportunity for a signature win and a bump in RPI).
Of course, the Wildcats will go in hoping for the win. They say that they prepare for Stanford just like everyone else, but the match has a special meaning to Bay Area native Katie Smoot.
“I’m excited to play in front of my family,” she said. “And I want to beat Stanford really bad, especially to show my family how far we’ve come since last season when Stanford crushed us.”
The odds are not in their favor. At the very least, they will be able to take the lessons of Sunday and use them against the remaining schedule, which should only get easier once Stanford is off the list.
Starting OH Liz Shelton missed the ASU match while in concussion protocol. Rubio said that she was injured in practice on Wednesday. Concussion protocol is what kept Shardonee Hayes out of action for four matches over the course of eight days, so Shelton will likely miss the Stanford match.
How to watch
The match will be aired on the Pac-12 Networks (National, Arizona, and Bay Area) beginning at 12 p.m. MST on Sunday.