Paige Whipple was the No. 27 recruit in the country when she left Oregon to play for the Arizona Wildcats. Friday, she returned home to play a vital role in helping her team secure a road victory over the No. 12 team in the nation.
“It’s super cool to play back home, because I have a ton of supportive friends and family back home who drive an hour-plus to come watch me play,” Whipple said after 24th-ranked Arizona’s 3-2 (25-23, 16-25, 25-23, 22-25, 16-14).
That hour’s drive from Salem was well worth it, as those friends and family watched the Wildcats end the Ducks’ six-game home win streak.
The last three contests between Arizona and Oregon have gone the full five sets. Last year, the teams each won their home matches in five. It would not have been a surprise to see this match follow suit, with Arizona coming up short on the Ducks’ home court. After all, Oregon went 7-3 against a tough nonconference schedule—including a win over then-No. 1 Minnesota—and opened the Pac-12 season with two wins.
Arizona (13-2, 2-1) had other ideas.
Including their win over Washington State last weekend, Oregon (9-4, 1-2) had faced five ranked teams prior to playing Arizona. The Wildcats joined Texas, Nebraska, and Penn State as the ranked teams the Ducks couldn’t defeat.
The Wildcats were coming off two straight matches where they had 12 blocks, but the Ducks proved far more difficult to block than either Arizona State or Stanford. Arizona ended the match with only seven team blocks.
As Arizona coach Dave Rubio said earlier in the week, Oregon is fast. That speed kept it in many points that Arizona has been able to end in previous matches. Throughout the match, that speed aided Oregon on both offense and defense, keeping balls up on their side of the net and keeping the Wildcats off balance enough to find the floor on the other side.
The difficulty in getting the block resulted in a number of long rallies. The Ducks seemed to come out on top time and again. Despite that, Arizona won a tight first set.
The Ducks came out in the second prepared to impose their will. They ran out to a quick 8-2 lead and never let go. Even the 25-16 final score looked closer than the set actually was. Oregon was completely in control.
The lapse in the second set woke Arizona again.
The Wildcats rushed out to an early lead, but let Oregon catch back up. As was true throughout the match, long rallies seemed to end in points for Oregon.
Dahlke and Whipple led Arizona in the the set with 10 kills, a block and an ace between them. When the team wrapped the set up at 25-23, it appeared that Oregon was out of sorts and Arizona might be able to end things soon. The set ended with a lack of communication and bout of indecision by Oregon, as they stood and looked at each other as they let a ball harmlessly fall to the floor.
The confidence of being up 2-1 was evident in the early part of the fourth set. Arizona ran out to a 7-2 lead, forcing the timeout from Oregon. The teams would trade runs, but it seemed like Arizona’s set and match.
The Ducks had other ideas. After tying things up at 18-all, it became anyone’s set. Oregon made it theirs, forcing the fifth with a 25-22 win in the fourth.
The shortness of the fifth set makes it vital to come out strong from the beginning. Arizona needed to replicate what it did in the fourth, but hold on until the end. They did just that.
The Wildcats never trailed in the final set, although Oregon tied it up a few times. Arizona efficiently marched to 15 points, and put the finishing touches on their first win over a top 25 team this season.
Arizona played without Liz Shelton, who is out with a concussion. Katie Smoot did not play, either, but the reasons were not immediately apparent.
Arizona plays at Oregon State on Sunday. The Beavers (10-5, 0-3) have been receiving votes in the AVCA poll all season, but were swept by ASU on Friday.