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Arizona hangs tough in 4-set loss to No. 2 Stanford

Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

Arizona needed to find out how ready they were to face the physical teams of the Pac-12. They found out on Sunday, and it was reassuring.

There was little expectation that the untested Wildcats would take down the No. 2 team in the country. They were playing in Maples Pavilion, where Stanford had won 22 consecutive matches—the longest streak in the country. A team that has played for—and won—national titles. A team that has faced one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the county and came out with only one loss.

When Stanford put the finishing touches on their 23rd straight home win (25-17, 25-27, 25-20, 25-21), though, the young Wildcats had shown that they were up to the task. Excepting the first set, Arizona led for considerable portions of every set and took the second set after leading from early on.

The topic of conversation on fan boards and even in the introduction to the match on the Pac-12 Network was the easy non-conference schedule Arizona played. No one knew quite what to make of the Wildcats, despite their win total and gaudy numbers.

Arizona coach Dave Rubio has consistently said that he felt it was necessary to instill confidence in his young players and help them develop the necessary skill to be an elite team. After 27 years of leading Arizona, maybe we should have trusted him. His team’s play certainly backed him up on Sunday.

In the first set, the Wildcats looked like they might get blown out in three easy sets. The Stanford serve seemed to overpower them. They struggled to pass the ball effectively. They couldn’t seem to get out of their own way, committing six service errors. The set reached 4-4, then the Cardinal put their foot down and ran away with it, winning 25-17.

Arizona could have gone away. Last year, they might have. But Rubio says his team is much stronger emotionally and mentally this year, and they set out to prove it.

The Wildcats ran out to a 7-2 lead in the second set, forcing Stanford coach Kevin Hambly to call a timeout. Out of the timeout, Arizona pushed the lead to 9-3 on a kill by sophomore Paige Whipple and service ace from senior Victoria Svorinic, who served well throughout the match to give the Wildcats a chance.

The Cardinal chipped away at the lead, eventually saving five set points, but the Wildcats never crumbled. The set ended on a Devyn Cross block—one of seven from her for the match.

Arizona came out with renewed belief in their ability to compete with one of the best teams in the country. They led for almost half of the first set until the Cardinal finally tied things up 9-9. Stanford led for the rest of the set, although Arizona was able to save two set points before succumbing.

The fourth set was more of a back-and-forth affair: the Wildcats pushing out ahead, then the Cardinal taking the lead, only for Arizona to catch back up. It wasn’t until the 15-15 point that Arizona finally gave up the lead for good. Again, they saved two final points—this time for the match—before Kathryn Plummer finally scored the winning kill for Stanford.

While Kendra Dahlke again led the team in kills with 15, it didn’t feel like a one-woman show. Whipple also got double-digit kills, finding the floor 10 times.

In addition to her seven blocks, Cross was credited with eight kills on a .389 hitting percentage. Shardonee Hayes followed up her strong showing against ASU with seven kills on a .778 hitting percentage.

The team had seven service aces with Svorinic and Katie Smoot leading the way with two each. Julia Patterson played her usual strong game as the floor general, getting 37 assists, two kills, nine digs, and a service ace.

As has been the case in earlier matches, where Arizona struggled was the unforced errors. Service errors were especially problematic. As a team, the Wildcats wasted 14 serves. Almost half of those came in the first set when Stanford was dominating.

While there’s no scoreboard for moral victories, the Wildcats’ effort proved that they can compete against the top teams in the country. The toughest team they will face is off the board, and they stood toe to toe with them.

There are no guarantees, but that bodes well for the Wildcats when they face strong, but lower-ranked Pac-12 foes like the Oregon schools, the Washington schools, the LA schools, and the Mountain schools.

Arizona goes back on the road to face Oregon and Oregon State next weekend.