The tough match against Stanford last Sunday convinced outsiders that the Arizona Wildcats are able to hang with elite squads.
The AVCA voters were impressed enough with the loss that Arizona (12-2, 1-1 Pac-12) moved into the top 25 after several weeks of holding in the “others receiving votes” category.
For Arizona coach Dave Rubio, though, it didn’t tell him anything he didn’t already know.
“There’s no moral victories for us,” Rubio said. “And, despite the fact that we played Stanford as close as anybody, to me all it proves is it reinforces what I already knew about our team. I felt like we’re pretty good. But there’s a separation, and it doesn’t matter how big or small the separation is, it’s still a separation.”
Rubio has said all season that his team had the talent and the athleticism to be an elite squad. They just needed to refine their skill and improve their confidence. His players expressed some of that confidence as they prepare for Friday’s match at Oregon.
“All we had to do was prove that we can play with [Stanford], that we can compete with them, and that we actually could have beat them,” junior setter Julia Patterson said.
Arizona proved that, both to outsiders and to themselves. That bodes well for the rest of the season, where it will face eight more teams currently ranked in the top 25.
All of Oregon’s losses have come against ranked opponents. It opened the season with losses to then-No. 3 Texas and defending national champion Nebraska, which was ranked second at the time. The Ducks were swept by No. 5 Penn State in the Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge, but also came away with a signature win against then-No. 1 Minnesota.
Last weekend brought a five-set win over No. 22 Washington State. Arizona will be Oregon’s sixth ranked opponent this season.
While Arizona didn’t play a tough non-conference schedule, the Wildcats proved that they’re able to compete with the best in the country last week.
Arizona presents the Ducks with problems of their own. Kendra Dahlke, the conference leader in kills and points per set. Patterson, who is No. 3 in assists. Devyn Cross, who is No. 5 in blocks per set and No. 8 in hitting percentage. Makenna Martin, who is ninth in digs per set.
The Ducks are one of the better hitting teams, with a .263 team hitting percentage. On the other side of the net, Arizona has one of the better opponents’ hitting percentage allowed, ranking second in the conference. The Wildcats are also better than the Ducks in blocks per set, with the teams ranked first and second in the conference in kills.
The teams split their matches last season with each taking their home contest in five sets. There is not much that separates the two teams on the stat sheet this season, either.
Arizona has amassed better defensive stats, but has done so against an easier schedule. Both the Bennet Rank and Power Score on HERO Sports show the teams as virtually indistinguishable as of Sept. 25.
With the match being held in Matthew Knight Arena and Arizona with a significant injury, Oregon has the slight edge going in.
Liz Shelton will continue to miss time for Arizona while in concussion protocol.
When asked about recovery and return estimates, Rubio said he wasn’t sure.
“She’s still wearing sunglasses,” he continued. “That’s all I know. She’s not close to being cleared at this point. I put the original timeline on it at three weeks, six matches, but maybe it’s going to be more than that. With concussions, you just don’t know, and everyone’s a little bit different in how they recover.”
Oregon Ducks to watch for
Although Oregon can’t average a 6-foot-5 front line like Stanford can, Rubio said that the challenge when playing the Ducks is dealing with their speed.
“Oregon is like the 500-pound gorilla,” he said. “It’s different than Stanford. Stanford’s just big and brutal. Those guys (were) just physical, big, strong. Oregon’s fast, sleek, quick, explosive. Really great athletes, and player-for-player probably more athletic than anybody in our conference.
“They run an offense that’s so fast. It’s hard to prepare for an offense like they’ve got. Their setter is terrific. A senior. Big, physical, can really move it around. It’s going to be a handful for us on Friday.”
As for the individual players, the 12th-ranked Ducks (9-3, 2-0) have two coming off award-winning weeks. Middle blocker Ronika Stone and outside hitter Lindsey Vander Weide won Pac-12 Offensive and Defensive Player of the Week honors while leading their team to wins over in-state rival Oregon State and Washington State.
Stone had 29 kills on a .419 hitting percentage over the two matches. She also had 13 total blocks, six digs, and an ace.
For the season, the junior ranks fifth in conference with a .363 hitting percentage. She averages 1.33 blocks per set, putting her third in the PAC-12, and is tenth with 4.09 points per set.
Vander Weide worked her way into the Oregon record book last weekend when her 28 digs versus the Cougars helped put her over 1,000 digs for her career. Passing that mark put her over 1,000 for kills, digs, and points, making her only the fifth Duck to have more than 1,000 digs and kills in her career. The 6-foot-3 senior is eighth in the conference with 0.32 aces per set.
The Ducks’ setter this season is August Raskie. After sharing duties with senior Maggie Scott in a 6-2 offense the last three years, Raskie has emerged as a force for Oregon in 2018 playing a more traditional 5-1 offense. She is currently leading the conference in assists per set at 12.30, up from 5.06 last season.
How to watch
The match will air on both Pac-12 Network and Pac-12 Arizona at 8 p.m. MST on Friday, Sept. 28.