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Arizona volleyball regains some hope heading into homestand vs. Oregon schools

The Wildcats host Oregon and Oregon State this weekend

arizona-volleyball-san-diego-state-classic-nebraska-west-virginia-preview-2019-rubio Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Last weekend may have ended with two more Pac-12 losses for Arizona volleyball, but that’s not to say that it didn’t have its positives.

As the Wildcats returned home to host Oregon and Oregon State, they brought the knowledge that they can fight and compete against the best—even in their weakened state.

“I liked the Washington match,” coach Dave Rubio said. “For me so far, since we started the conference, (it) is my favorite match. Not because whether we won or lost. Outcome really wasn’t—isn’t—going to determine whether I’m happy with the group. I liked how competitive we were. We really fought in that match. Really played great defense. And I thought that for the first time as a group and as a team, we really were competitive, had good fighting spirit and executed well. And so it was a good outcome for us. The weekend was not a wasted weekend.”

The most obvious statistical indication of that defensive effort was the 29 digs tallied by senior libero Emi Pua’a. After all, that mark was good enough to equal the 11th-best match in Arizona history.

Rubio was duly impressed by the effort of Pua’a, but he also pointed to others who made the defensive difference.

“Superlative,” he said of Pua’a. “Superlative. Her defense was amazing. And it wasn’t just her, it was everybody. I mean, if you look at Devyn (Cross), Devyn was dominant. She was amazing as a blocker in that match. And we didn’t set her enough. I mean, offensively, we should have gone to her more but she was just a really...the best match I’ve seen her play. That’s going to be part of her All-American tape. She was really, really good. So it was perfect performances by several different players. Emi stands out because on the stat sheet you had 29 digs, but if you looked at the film and people who really watch volleyball, understand volleyball, they would watch Devyn and and go, ‘That was an amazing performance as well.’”

The Wildcats will be continuing with the same lineup they used last weekend, which includes Kamaile Hiapo at outside hitter and only two middle blockers, for the foreseeable future.

Shardonee Hayes, Elizabeth Shelton, and Whittnee Nihipali all remain sidelined with concussions. Arizona is also still without Makenna Martin and Erin Williamson, leaving the team thin at defensive specialist and libero.

If the team is to put together wins in the Pac-12, they will need to continue with the same kind of committed defense they played last week. They may also need to rely on tactical changes, like the short serves they used against Washington and Washington State. Those low-risk serves saw the Wildcats drop their 9.25 service errors per match to just one against the Cougars and four against the Huskies.

They also have the fortune of facing two teams that are also struggling with injuries this season.

Oregon State (8-11, 2-6)

Like the Wildcats, the Beavers have had a disappointing conference season. After winning their first two Pac-12 matches, they have been on a six-match slide. However, they did show that they can be dangerous last weekend when they took USC to four sets and UCLA to five.

“I’m watching the Oregon State match against UCLA and holy smokes,” Rubio said. “I mean, they’re really really good, talented, long, athletic, explosive athletes. I think they have a setter that’s out as well...suffering from a concussion, but they have enough bigs. They have really good arms in every position, and so their health hasn’t affected them nearly as much as ours has.”

That injured setter is sophomore Maddie Sheehan. Sheehan has averaged 7.6 assists per set over 65 sets. She also shares the team lead with 0.23 service aces per set and is second with 15 total aces, but she sat out against both USC and UCLA.

In line with Rubio’s comments about the number of arms the Beavers have, they have five players with at least two kills per set and another one just a hair under that.

While Cecilee Brown-Max leads OSU with 2.92 k/s, she has only played in 24 sets. The team is regularly led by outside hitters Maddie Goings (2.90 k/s) and Haylie Bennett (2.72 k/s), followed by middle blocker Kory Cheshire (1.99 k/s).

As a team, the Beavers average 12.4 k/s compared to 13.0 k/s by the Wildcats. On serve receive, both teams average 1.3 serve reception errors per set.

On defense, Oregon State comes out ahead in both blocks per set and digs per set. In blocking, the Beavers have 2.5 per set compared to 2.0 for Arizona. In digs, they come out ahead 14.5 to 14.3.

It will be a battle. The Wildcats have the advantage of being at home. Oregon State is 1-5 in true road matches with their only road victory coming against Seattle University early in the season. On the other side, Oregon State currently has more healthy arms. If Arizona is going to win, the Wildcats need to play the kind of stout defense they played in Seattle.

How to watch

First serve is at 7 p.m. MST at McKale Center. The match will be aired on the Pac-12 Networks. Fans can also find stats on Arizona Live Stats.

Oregon (6-11, 2-6)

Like Arizona, Oregon started the season ranked. In the Ducks’ case, they were No. 11 in the preseason poll and entered the top 10 the first week of play. But by week five, they were hanging by a thread at No. 25, and they dropped out the next week.

They’re still trying to recover.

“Oregon is kind of banged up as well,” Rubio said. “They got their starting libero from last year playing on the left—a kid out of Arizona.... But again they’ve got more people. They’ve got a deeper bench than we do, or maybe they’re just not as hurt as much as we are.... They got a first team All-American Ronika Stone out there. Willow Johnson is the opposite, who’s terrific.”

The libero who has moved to the left side is Brooke Nuneviller, who was an AVCA All-American honorable mention last year as a freshman. The difference for Oregon and their libero-turned-attacker is that Nuneviller is 5-feet-11, a much more traditional height. As a result, she leads the Ducks with 3.23 k/s and isn’t a liability when she’s in the front row.

Stone is the Ducks’ senior middle blocker. She averages 0.8 blocks and 3.03 kills per set on .307 hitting. Her hitting percentage leads the team.

Stone has only put up single-digit points in three matches this season, although two of them were last weekend. She averages 4.5 points per set.

Johnson is just behind Stone in kills per set. The senior has 3.02 k/s and is second on the squad with a .286 hitting percentage.

Oregon will also put pressure on Arizona’s serve receive. The Ducks have seven players with double-digit aces led by Nuneviller’s 20. Johnson is tied for second on the team with 16, while Stone is fourth with 13.

Stats say that the Wildcats and the Ducks are very similar. Kills per set are 13.0 to 12.9 in Arizona’s favor. Assists per set are 12.0 to 11.9 in Oregon’s favor. The Ducks win the serve battle 1.5 aces/set to 1.2, and barely edge out the Wildcats on reception errors 1.2 to 1.3. Arizona’s 14.3 digs per set outdo Oregon’s 13.9, and they edge out their opponent on blocks with 2.0 per set compared to 1.9.

Can the Wildcats come out ahead on their home court? It will certainly be a test.

How to watch

The match starts at 12 p.m. MST on Sunday. It will be aired on the Pac-12 Networks and available on Arizona Live Stats.