The Arizona Wildcats were finally able to get their first Pac-12 win against Colorado last week. The road to a second one is steep. The team heads to the Bay Area on Friday to face two of the best teams in the country, No. 2 Stanford and No. 16 California.
The worst part? There are no easy weekends. Arizona (11-5, 1-3 Pac-12) will follow up this challenge with road matches against No. 11 Washington and No. 24 Washington State next week. It’s a very real possibility that the Wildcats could be 1-7 in conference play after the next 10 days.
“I think the next two weekends are going to be daunting,” Arizona coach Dave Rubio said. “And Stanford should be the number one ranked team in the country.... I’ve gotten used to playing Stanford with the type of players that they recruit and they will recruit. It’s once every decade that we’re able to kind of go out and really beat those guys. The lottery for us was a couple years ago, when we beat them at their place. So right now, we’re still on like a seven year term before we can really get a chance to beat them. “
As for the Golden Bears, Rubio knows the Wildcats won’t be facing the same team they saw last year when they beat the Bears 3-2 in Tucson.
“Cal has really gotten a lot better,” he said. “The young players have gotten a year older, and they really have the right pieces. They have great players. They’ve got three players who really can play, and are emotionally, mentally, competitively at an elite level. So that’s it. I think that’s a Round-of-16, Round-of-8 level team, I mean, they’re really, really good.”
The task will be all the more difficult as Arizona faces these “really, really good” teams without a full complement of players. The Wildcats are still missing three key contributors. Liberos Kamaile Hiapo and Makenna Martin are out with groin injuries. Middle blocker Shardonee Hayes is in concussion protocol for at least another week. That leaves them with only two middle blockers and two defensive specialist/liberos.
Others are trying to step up and fill the shoes of those lost starters. Senior defensive specialist Emi Pua’a has been playing libero since Hiapo went down.
“I just wanted to do it for the team,” Pua’a said. “I’m here for Mai because I know it’s really been on her, she was wanting to come back... so I just wanted to play for her. We do these cards before the games of who we’re going to play for, and every time I played for her, just because I know how badly she wants to be up there. So, I kind of just use that as momentum out there just to do what I have to do and do what she does out there for the team.”
Rubio said that both Hiapo and Martin are still not moving well in practice, so they aren’t ready to return. He also had no timeline for the return of Hayes, who is having a more difficult time with her second concussion than she did with her first.
“For me, until we get really healthy, our goal has always been just to continue to get better and improve, and put ourselves in a position to win the matches,” Rubio said. “And I mean, every match is different. A Sunday match is really different than a Friday night match. And what we’ve seen in the conference so far is that it’s very unpredictable who’s going to win from one night to the next, regardless of who’s on the other side of the net.
“Right now, there’s really no favorites. Going in, you would think that Stanford would be the favorite against Washington. Washington beat them at Stanford, so there’s a lot of different scenarios that can take place. And the key for us is to control the controllables, and we’ll compete and we’ll fight hard and put ourselves in a position to win sets. And that’s all we can do, regardless of who we’re playing.”
Record: 9-3, 3-1 Pac-12
AVCA ranking: 2
The Cardinal had an unexpected home loss to Washington two weeks ago, but that just goes to show the depth of the Pac-12. The defending national champs have played nine ranked teams in 12 matches. The team has gone 6-3 in those matches, including a win over then-No. 1 Nebraska on the road.
That success starts with two-time and defending national player of the year, senior outside hitter Kathryn Plummer. Plummer is ranked fifth in Division I volleyball with 5.18 kills per set. Her 5.62 points per set rank sixth in the country.
Although Plummer is far and away the biggest offensive threat on this year’s Cardinal squad, there are three other players averaging at least two kills per set while playing on a regular basis. Audriana Fitzmorris (2.78 k/s), Kendall Kipp (2.41 k/s) and Madeleine Gates (2.13 k/s). Mackenzie Fidelak also had 2 kills per set in her only match this season. As a team, the Cardinal ranks seventh in kills per set.
As is to be expected with that kind of team scoring, Stanford also features the player with the second-highest number of assists per set. Senior setter Jenna Gray averages 11.67 a/s.
The cards are definitely stacked against Arizona as they head to the Bay Area. Thirty-four northern California counties have had at least some of their lights turned out this week by PG&E. The citizens and schools started to get the relief of power restoration on Thursday afternoon, but Stanford has the ability to turn the lights out early on Arizona even if the power is on everywhere else.
How to watch
First serve in Maples Pavilion is scheduled for 8 p.m. MST on Friday evening. The match will be aired on the Pac-12 Networks (national and Bay Area channels), and fans can also follow along via Arizona Live Stats.
Record: 13-1, 3-1 Pac-12
AVCA ranking: 16
What a difference a year makes. Last season, California ended up 15-16 overall and 7-13 in conference. They lost to Arizona in the teams’ only match-up, a 3-2 Wildcat victory in Tucson.
This season, the Golden Bears were the only Pac-12 team to go undefeated in nonconference play. Conference play has been almost as perfect with the lone loss coming against then-No. 1 Stanford.
Cal has four players who have contributed at least two kills per set in all 14 matches this season led by junior Mima Mirkovic at 3.35 k/s. She is followed by Maddie Haynes (2.39 k/s), Bailee Huizenga (2.08 k/s) and Preslie Anderson (2.04 k/s). Anderson is doing her damage with a .473 hitting percentage, good for third on the team.
The power issues have undoubtedly caused disruption for the Golden Bears as they prepare this week. Power on campus was set to be cut at 11 a.m. PDT on Thursday, and all classes at Cal have been cancelled since Wedneday. That will continue on Friday, as the Bay Area counties were not among those who were seeing power re-established in PG&E’s earliest rounds of restoration.
How to watch