The ARizona Wildcats are off to an undefeated start this season, pushing their record to 6-0 after sweeping their first two tournaments. If they’re able to repeat the feat for the third straight week, head coach Dave Rubio will return to Tucson one win shy of 500 Division I victories in his career. All 500 of those wins will have come at Arizona.
With only one conference coach—UCLA’s Andy Banachowsk—ever reaching that point, it’s an impressive accomplishment for the man who is in his 27th year of leading Arizona volleyball.
More important than the coach’s long-term achievement, the 2018 team has shown that they want to make their own mark by putting together a strong showing in the pre-conference season. The Wildcats have needed only 21 sets to post their six wins, including sweeping all three matches at last week’s Cactus Classic.
Despite their youth, they are also putting up numbers that rival anyone in the Pac-12. After finishing either 11th or 12th in kills, assists, and hitting percentage last season, Arizona has improved in all three categories. So far this season, they rank second in the conference in all three stats.
Senior Kendra Dahlke has been vital to the team’s success—ranking first in the conference and second in the country in both kills and points per set—but the rest of the team has proved that they’re not a one-woman show.
Julia Patterson’s 11.22 assists per set and Devyn Cross’s .514 hitting percentage last week put them both on the Cactus Classic all-tournament team. Cross is hitting .375 for the season, ranking ninth in the Pac-12. As with Dahlke’s back-to-back tournament MVPs, the recognition for Patterson and Cross was their second straight.
Arizona’s sophomore class has been especially important to the early success, following up on a strong freshman seasons. Paige Whipple has returned from surgery to record 2.20 kills per set, with a high of 12 kills against San Diego State last Thursday.
Katie Smoot missed most of last week with illness, but was key to the team’s success in Sacramento the week before. At the Hornet Invitational, Smoot had a total of 23 kills and served three aces over 10 sets. In her best match, she also hit .667, had three assisted blocks, and accounted for 11.5 points.
Redshirt sophomore Elizabeth Shelton has had the steadiest contributions of the second-year players. Her strongest matches were against Utah State and Sacramento State, but overall she’s averaging 2.24 kills per set with a .305 hitting percentage. She’s also frustrating opponents’ attacks, putting together 19 total blocks this season, including one solo.
While the team has more experience this season, they are still one of the younger NCAA teams. In addition to the sophomores, a couple of freshmen are also getting on the court.
Defensive specialist Malina Kalei Ua has seen the most action for the freshmen, getting 1.62 digs per set and throwing in four service aces on the year. She has appeared in every set and gotten one start so far.
Outside hitter Whittnee Nihipali also got her first appearances this past weekend despite Rubio suggesting before the season that she might redshirt this year.
As Dahlke predicted before the season started, the team has also been strong on the defensive side of the net. In the last four matches, none of their opponents have hit over .200. They are currently 5th in the Pac-12, allowing a .171 opponents’ hitting percentage on the season.
With a nice mix of high-achieving upperclassmen and strong, developing underclassmen, the Wildcats hope to return to Tucson 9-0. Their 6-0 start is the first of its kind since 2015, when they opened the season 8-0 before losing to Ohio State.
Arizona has not started a season 9-0 since 2009, when they opened the season with 12 straight wins before losing to UCLA in the first weekend of conference play. To equal that 9-0 mark, the Wildcats need to find a way to beat Montana, UTEP, and New Mexico State this weekend. Let’s get to know those teams.
Montana Grizzlies (1-5, Big Sky Conference)
The Grizzlies have already faced some tough competition, including Iowa State and PAC-12 foe Utah. Coming into those matches, Utah was ranked 22nd in the AVCA poll and Iowa State was comfortably in the “others receiving votes” category, having just fallen out of the preseason Top 25.
Montana opened their season on the road in the Fullerton/UC Riverside Classic, where they lost to both hosts and Akron. Last week, they returned home to face off against the Utes, the Cyclones, and the Gonzaga Bulldogs in the Montana Invitational. They finally notched their first win of the season last Saturday against Gonzaga.
The Grizzlies have some commonalities with Arizona. Like the Wildcats, Montana features all of its main contributors from last season returning. Just like their first opponents, the Grizzlies relied heavily on underclassmen last season. They had no seniors in 2017.
Their main offensive threat last season was Oro Valley product Mykaela Hammer, a fifth-year senior outside hitter who played her prep career at Ironwood Ridge High School on the Tucson metro’s northwest side.
Hammer returns this season, averaging 2.52 kills per set after leading the team in the stat last season. She has been very consistent, amassing at least 7 kills in every match so far. On the down side, she has only exceeded 10 kills in one match this year when she had a season-high 12 against Akron.
Complementing Hammer is junior OH Missy Huddleston. Huddleston started 47 matches over her freshman and sophomore seasons, and has appeared in all but one of the team’s 55 matches over the past two years. She has double-digit kills in all but two matches this season, including a career high 24 in the win over Gonzaga. She’s averaging 2.48 kills per set in 2018, but has had two matches with 1 or fewer kills.
The setter, Ashley Watkins, was sixth in Big Sky in assists last season. So far in 2018, she is averaging 10.04 assists per set with a high of 51 in the five-set win over Gonzaga.
UTEP Miners (2-4, Conference USA)
The Miners have started off both of their early season tournaments with a win. Perhaps it’s in Arizona’s best interests that this isn’t their opening opponent, since UTEP has gone on to lose the next two matches in each four-team event. The Wildcats hope history holds in more ways than one, since they lead the all-time series against the Miners 7-0.
UTEP is led by junior OH Macey Austin, who was named to the preseason C-USA all-conference team. Last season, she led the team with 359 kills and 3.45 kills per set.
So far this season she hasn’t missed a beat, leading in both categories with 90 kills and 3.91 kills per set. Austin also leads the team with service aces, averaging 0.22 per set.
El Paso native Briana Arellano is the second most effective on the attack. Austin’s fellow junior outside hitter has scored 40 kills in 21 sets played for 1.90 kills per set.
The struggle for both kills leaders has been hitting percentage, where neither is hitting over .189 for the season. This has been true of the entire team, which has only one player hitting .250—senior middle blocker Kylie Baumgartner. As a team, the Miners are hitting .162.
The UTEP offense moves through a freshman, with setter Kristen Fritsche assisting her teammates 215 times this season. She is averaging 9.35 assists per set.
As with the early match on Friday, Wildcat fans will not be able to watch the team try to move to 8-0 all time against the Miners.
New Mexico State Aggies (5-2, WAC)
The Aggies, who co-host the Borderland Invitational with UTEP, have started off nicely in 2018. On the opening weekend of the season, they traveled to Tempe for the Sun Devil Volleyball Classic and walked away with two wins. The following weekend, they went to Albuquerque and left with two more, including a victory over in-state rivals New Mexico.
What’s unique for the Aggies is that they will not be playing their first match this week when the invitational kicks off. On Tuesday, they beat Grambling State in straight sets to open their home slate.
NMSU will be only the third team with a winning record that Arizona has faced this season. The Wildcats easily handled Lipscomb and Pacific, the first such teams, in straight sets last weekend. However, the Aggies will have the added advantage of playing at home.
New Mexico State went 21-8 last season, ending up #116 in RPI. They got back to their winning ways immediately this season with a win over the University of the Pacific, a team Arizona has also faced. The Wildcats swept the Tigers last Saturday, while the Aggies beat them in four sets.
Against their common foe, Arizona had 13.33 kills per set compared to the 10.75 the Aggies put down. Neither team had a particularly great hitting percentage against Pacific, although the Wildcats once again put up the better stat with a .222 vs the .187 of NMSU.
The Wildcats’ dominance over the Tigers was seen both on the stat sheet and on the scoreboard; the Aggies lost all but one statistical category to their common opponent, but were able to win the points that mattered.
When Arizona faces New Mexico State on Saturday, they will face a team that has four players with at least 42 kills on the season. The Wildcats, in comparison, have only three such players—although Dahlke outpaces everyone on both teams by a considerable margin.
The Aggies are led in scoring by redshirt freshman Savannah Davison out of Ontario, Canada. The outside hitter has 79 kills in 2018 for 3.29 per set. She also has three service aces.
Not far behind in kills is OH Tatyana Battle, who fills up the stat sheets on both offense and defense. The senior from Albuquerque is averaging 3.00 kills per set, giving her 72 kills in 24 sets played.
Battle is also getting her team free points on the serve, gathering 8 service aces for an average of 0.33 per set. To top it off, the all-around player leads the team with 3.75 digs per set and throws in 0.25 blocks per set on the defensive side of the net.
Megan Hart and Ashley Anselmo round out the group of four who are making the Aggies an effective team on offense. Hart, another player from Canada, has 44 kills in 23 sets played. The redshirt sophomore Anselmo has 42 in 24 sets played. Of the quartet, Hart is pacing them in hitting percentage with a .287.
As for the “quarterback” of the team, the Aggies have two effective setters. Senior Briana Ainsworth and sophomore Natalie Mikels are both averaging over five assists per set, with Ainsworth getting 122 in 23 sets and Mikels getting the same number in 24 sets played.
The balanced Aggies will be a good test for Arizona on Saturday. The match will also prepare the Wildcats for next week when the Aggies visit McKale Center for the Wildcat Classic.
Fortunately for the fans, this match will be available on TV and via streaming. NMSU gives the TV options as Fox Sports Arizona Plus, Fox College Sports Pacific, and ESPN3. Arizona Athletics lists streaming options as the WAC Digital Network. The match starts at 11 AM MST on Saturday.