The Arizona Wildcats (11-7, 1-5) started Pac-12 play three weeks ago with a great deal of confidence. They had won eight straight matches in non-conference play stretching back to a 1-3 loss to Nebraska in the second week of the season. In those eight matches, they’d only dropped two sets. At one point, they had won 18 straight sets over six matches.
Then came conference play, and the wheels came off. After Sunday’s 3-0 (25-23, 25-19, 25-20) loss to No. 16 California (15-1, 5-1), the Wildcats are now 1-5 in league play. They have only won five sets over the past three weeks, and they will face two more ranked opponents on the road next weekend.
There are lots of things you can point at to explain the losing streak. They’ve been injured. They have only played two matches at home in conference play and won’t be back in McKale until Friday, Oct. 25. Still, that doesn’t explain how utterly lost they have looked on so many occasions or why it looks like they’re their own worst enemies so often.
The Wildcats once again struggled with errors and inefficiencies against the Golden Bears. The team hit only .133. The only player who hit over .200 was sophomore middle blocker Zyonna Fellows, who had 6 kills on .364 hittiing. Devyn Cross, the senior middle blocker who was leading the NCAA in hitting percentage coming into the weekend, hit -.100.
It wasn’t just a problem of hitting errors, although Arizona certainly had plenty of those relative to their opponent (23 compared to 13 for Cal). The serve was a struggle all afternoon, as it has been too often this season. The Wildcats had 11 service errors.
That would be understandable if they were also getting the occasional ace, but they managed only two aces to offset those errors. Cal was able to get the sideout time and again as Arizona served long over and over. The inability to maintain serve made it difficult to put together runs or gain momentum.
On the positive side, senior setter Julia Patterson had a milestone with her 3,000th career assist. Her 26 assists moved her to 3,001 total assists. She added 5 kills, 8 digs and 1 block.
Patterson became only the seventh Wildcat setter to surpass the 3,000 mark. She needs 516 assists to move into sixth on Arizona’s all-time assist list, a position currently held by Meather McCormack.
The Wildcats also entirely eliminated reception errors, which were a problem against Stanford on Friday. That was at least partially due to the return of Kamaile Hiapo. The freshman didn’t play her usual libero position, but she was able to contribute as a defensive specialist in all three sets, giving coach Dave Rubio more than two littles to deploy.
On the negative side, Liz Shelton did not play for unknown reasons. Junior middle blocker Shardonee Hayes remained out with a concussion, while redshirt freshman defensive specialist Erin Williamson continued to deal with mononucleosis and libero Makenna Martin continued her season-long absence with a recurrent groin injury.
It looked like Arizona might be on track for the upset when the match got underway. The Wildcats looked in control as they led for most of the opening set, pushing their lead to as many as 4 points.
Then, Cal tied things up at 19 apiece. Things were knotted up once again at 22-22, but Arizona committed two of its 11 service errors during the final four points. The Golden Bears were able to sneak out the 25-23 victory.
The Wildcats once again took the early lead in set two, but the Bears took control much earlier in the frame. They tied things at 5 points each, then kept it close until late in the set.
As has been typical of recent matches, Arizona’s opponent played better at the end of the set. From 17-17 in the second set, Cal went on an 8-2 run to go up 2-0. Four of Cal’s final eight points came on Arizona attack errors.
Cal was in control for most of the final set, although Arizona did take a small lead on several occasions. The Wildcats simply weren’t able to maintain or build on their leads. Once again, the Bears took advantage of a slew of Wildcat attack and service errors to close out the match.
The Wildcats will travel to face the Washington schools next weekend. Washington (12-3, 3-2) and Washington State (15-3, 4-2) both entered this weekend ranked.