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‘Hope is not a strategy,’ but it may be all Arizona volleyball has vs. Washington schools

COLLEGE VOLLEYBALL: AUG 31 San Diego State at Arizona
Liz Shelton is once again out with an injury.
Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

On Wednesday morning, Arizona volleyball head coach Dave Rubio met with the media to talk about another weekend of losses behind them, another difficult weekend ahead of them, and yet more injuries. He also wanted to discuss how he is no longer talking about what he hopes to happen this season.

Rubio told a story about going to on an outreach trip to Sierra Vista with former athletic director Greg Byrne, former football coach Rich Rodriguez, and basketball coach Sean Miller. The audience consisted of 500 members of the military. When Byrne told the group that he hoped the football season would be better, a general stood up and gave him some advice: “Mr. Byrne, hope is not a strategy.”

For the past several weeks, Rubio has talked about what he hoped to see when his team got healthy. After yet another injury this week—a second concussion suffered by junior outside hitter Elizabeth Shelton—he said he’s done hoping this season.

“I’m not saying hope anymore,” Rubio said. “All I’m saying is ‘it is what it is.’ We got people hurt and I have no idea when they’re coming back.”

“What it is” comes down to this: Arizona has two healthy middle blockers, they finally got Kamaile Hiapo back on the court against California but she is not fully healthy, Makenna Martin is still trying to get healthy enough to play her first match this season, Simone Overbeck—their top offensive recruit this year—has been out all season recovering from surgery, and they are facing their second straight match without Shelton, whittling them down to two outside hitters in a sport that requires three.

When Shelton went down in practice on Saturday, it took away one of the most consistently effective offensive weapons the Wildcats have this year. More concerning is the fact that Shelton missed the entire Pac-12 season last year after her first concussion. What a second head injury means for her future hangs in the air.

Without Shelton, things are so disjointed on the offense that Hiapo may be temporarily changing positions as the Wildcats head to play No. 10 Washington and No. 21 Washington State on the road this week. The 5-foot-7 libero may be lining up at outside hitter because Arizona needs someone who can play all six rotations at the position. She would give up about five inches to most players at the position.

“We’ll see if (Hiapo) can handle that,” Rubio said. “We don’t want to injure her by any means in a situation where we’re missing all the bigs. So we’ll see how that goes. That’ll be a game time situation. But like today’s practice, we weren’t preparing for Washington State. We’re preparing to try to figure out what the rotation is going to be and what the serve receive is going to be with the system we’re going to run. So, it’s just a little bit different than it normally would have been. Lots of good news on my end.”

As has been the case in most of their losses this season, Arizona struggled with errors in the Bay Area last weekend. Serve errors, attack errors, receive errors, you name it. That will probably continue to be an issue for the foreseeable future.

“We at times are our own worst enemy,” Rubio said. “And until we can get some semblance of the same personnel on the floor, I think we’re going to suffer through the inconsistencies of unforced errors. But again, it is what it is.”

No. 21 Washington State (15-3, 4-2)

Last season, Rubio said that Washington State is one of the most challenging places to play because their fans are so close to the action. This year, he says that they have one of their best teams ever despite how young they are. Backing up both assertions is the fact that the Cougars are 6-0 at home.

The Cougars aren’t beating just anyone, either. They have defeated Stanford on the road and Washington at home. Both are top 10 teams.

They are an extremely balanced squad. No one has kill numbers that jump off the stat page, but they have five players averaging at least two kills per set, albeit some have played in a limited number of sets. That group is led by freshman Pia Timmer with 2.89 k/s over 61 sets.

Timmer is joined by fellow freshmen Magda Jehlarova (2.02 k/s in 63 sets) and Reagan Cooper (2.06 k/s in 18 sets). Only redshirt senior Jocelyn Urias (2.40 k/s in 62) and redshirt sophomore Charity Bradley (2.17 k/s in 30) have spent more than a few months in Pullman.

With Arizona already struggling with serve receive in so many of their losses, it could be an issue again in Pullman. Washington State has six players with double-digit aces, including Alexis Dirige (23) and Penny Tusa (22). The Wildcats have 72 reception errors and a 62.1 reception percentage on the season compared to just 51 errors and a 95.3 percentage for the Cougars.

If the Wildcats have any chance of pulling out the upset, they will have to make dramatic improvements in those numbers this week. They can’t be their own worst enemies.

How to watch

The match will air on both Pac-12 Arizona and Pac-12 Washington. First serve is slated for 7 p.m. MST at Bohler Gym on Friday evening.

No. 10 Washington (13-3, 4-2)

Unlike the Cougars and their balanced scoring, the Huskies have two dominant offensive players. Senior Kara Bajema (4.29 k/s) ranks fourth in the conference in kills per set, while sophomore Claire Hoffman (3.04 k/s) comes in at No. 15.

In comparison, the Wildcats’ best attacker is Paige Whipple, who sits at No. 11 with 3.25 k/s. Arizona’s next best weapon is No. 23 Shelton, whose 2.71 k/s will not be a factor due to her injury.

In Arizona’s favor, the Huskies have their own issues with errors. Both teams commit about 2.42 service errors per set, although Washington makes up for some of this by serving 1.42 aces per set compared to Arizona’s 1.20. The Wildcats have a slightly better hitting percentage at .255 to the Huskies’ .249, but they also commit more attack errors per set than the Huskies at 4.87 to 4.71.

When it comes to serve receive, the two teams are fairly close, as well. Arizona’s 72 reception errors are just slightly higher than the 69 committed by Washington. The Wildcats commit 1.2 per set compared to 1.1 for the Huskies.

Of the two teams they will face this weekend, Washington is ranked higher. When the teams are compared, though, it would appear that the Wildcats have a better chance of upsetting the Huskies than the Cougars. The pure numbers say that the teams are not that different. Unfortunately, those numbers were amassed by a more lethal Wildcat team.

As they are currently constituted, upsetting anyone is going to require absolutely everything to go right. Can the Wildcats get lucky?

How to watch

The match will be aired on the national Pac-12 Network and on Pac-12 Arizona beginning at 12 p.m. MST on Sunday.