It had been a long, frustrating start to the Pac-12 season for the Arizona Wildcats volleyball team. Injuries piled up as they headed out on the road week after week. Then, a bit of sunshine peeked through the clouds last week in Washington. They didn’t win, and they didn’t heal, but they competed hard.
That fight was with the Wildcats (11-10, 1-8) in the early going against the Oregon State Beavers (9-11, 3-6), but seemed to dissipate as the match stretched further and further into the evening. Arizona rushed out to a two-set lead, but couldn’t put Oregon State away.
“We just stayed aggressive and kept swinging,” said Beavers head coach Mark Barnard.
That aggression worked out as OSU dug themselves out of an 0-2 hole to win the match in five sets (13-25, 20-25, 26-24, 25-23, 15-13) after being absolutely manhandled in the early going.
Katie Smoot had a season-high 19 kills to lead the match. She did her damage while hitting .250. Smoot also had 2 total blocks and 3 digs, and scored a match-high 20.5 points.
Paige Whipple joined Smoot with double-digit kills with 16 on the night, but she hit only .100. Whipple added 8 digs, and also had an ace and a block to push her to 17.5 points.
Devyn Cross was the third Wildcat in double figures with 11 kills on .364 hitting. She added 7 total blocks (4 solo) for 16.5 points.
Julia Patterson was just shy of a triple double. She had her usual double-double with 49 assists and 15 digs, but she also added 8 kills on .615 hitting.
Despite the individual performances, the Wildcats couldn’t push themselves over the finish line.
“The thing for us is we just haven’t been in enough of these situations for them to know how to respond from a behavior standpoint,” Arizona head coach Dave Rubio said. “You know, someone’s got to be out there saying, ‘Let’s go! I’m winning this. I’m gonna put the team on my shoulders. I’m kind of the badass here.’ We don’t have really that right now. We’ve got a couple of little donkeys maybe out there, but not quite the badass that I’m looking for.”
Last season, Arizona had that badass, and Rubio thinks that they have one developing on this year’s team in Whipple. The problem is twofold. First, she’s still learning to be that person. Second, with the Wildcats’ injuries, she’s just running on fumes.
“Kendra (Dahlke) was the one that just carried us offensively (last season) for sure,” Rubio said. “And that’s the thing that Paige is building into. And again, the injuries are opportunities for other players as well. So the negative part is the kids are hurt. The positive part is that the weight now shifts, and now they’ve got to carry that weight. And they’re going to sink or swim with that weight. And sometimes it’s really, really good like, you know, three quarters of the match the outside hitters, Katie and Paige, were really good. The last quarter, the finish line, right? It’s like, all of sudden, they’re winded. They’re carrying the piano on their backs to try to finish the race, and they run out of gas. And that’s kind of how it was tonight.”
Arizona thoroughly dominated the first set. Oregon State was still in single digits as the Wildcats passed 20 points.
There wasn’t a single area of the game the Wildcats didn’t dominate in the 25-13 set victory. They outhit the Beavers .320 to -.061. They racked up 11 kills to Oregon State’s seven. On defense, Arizona had five more digs than the Beavers and out-blocked them 5.0 to 2.0. They even threw in an ace for a free point.
The Beavers found their way in set two. They had 14 kills to 15 by the Wildcats. On defense, they had 15 digs to Arizona’s 18 and matched the Wildcats in blocks (1.0). They also matched the Wildcats in service aces, with each team throwing in one.
Things got a bit close late in the second set when it looked like the Beavers had cut the lead to one point. Rubio successfully challenged two calls that kept the Wildcats out in front until they closed things out 25-20 to take a 2-0 lead.
In all, Rubio challenged three calls in set two and won two of those challenges. He was none too happy with the officiating after the match despite the fact that they won the set.
“I was really frustrated with the officiating,” he said. “I can tell you that the first challenge that I got—when the linesperson called the ball outside the antenna and the official called it in—I can tell you that from a volleyball standpoint, officiating, you don’t make that call as an official. You’re too close to the ball. You let your linesperson make that call.... We won that set anyway, so it didn’t really impact the match, but you certainly like them to get their calls right.”
Oregon State was able to take the early lead in set three. Arizona erased their opponent’s two-point advantage, and eventually built their own three-point lead. They just couldn’t hold it.
Rubio felt it turned on the decision to set Whipple instead of Cross at 23-23 in the set. Cross had a 90 percent chance to get the kill, while Whipple’s chance was far lower, he explained after the match. As it turned out, Whipple committed the attack error on the play.
Instead of Arizona having a match point, it gave Oregon State a set point. They would eventually take that set and extend the match.
Cross felt that the team didn’t stay as engaged as they should have.
“I think it’s probably our mindset,” she said when asked about the difference between the first and second halves of the match. “It was easy to win the first two, and we just kind of let go. The last half, we just kind of relaxed a little bit, just a little too much. We couldn’t get back into it.”
The Beavers’ 26-24 victory in the third set seemed to knock Arizona back on their heels.
“We had chances and then we couldn’t hang on, the momentum switched,” Rubio said. “Oregon State played poorly all the way through game three, and then we allowed them to get back in and gain the momentum. And then we just ran out of gas a little bit, you know, with the fact that we have so few players.”
In set four, Arizona kept a slight lead until the teams tied at 11 points each. From there, it was Oregon State who maintained the small lead, repeatedly letting Arizona get within a point, but not allowing the Wildcats to take the lead. Another close set ended in a 25-23 victory for the Beavers.
A fifth set is always risky. The 15-point format means early deficits often turn into certain defeat. That’s exactly what happened to Arizona.
The Wildcats allowed the Beavers to open up a 3-0 lead. At 5-2, Oregon State was already one-third of the way to victory. The Wildcats tied it at 8, then again at 9...10...11...13. But they never took the lead.
Oregon State reached match point at 14-13, and closed it out on Cecilee Max-Brown’s 16th kill.
The Wildcats now have to try to salvage a victory against an athletic team with an All-American middle blocker on Sunday. Oregon and Ronika Stone will be in town.
Rubio thinks the team needs to reach 18 victories to go to the NCAA tournament, and these two home matches were key to that. When his players give it all they possibly can, but still come up short, he knows that their chances are being whittled away.
“The other part is that I’m wallowing in my own self pity because we’re so banged up,” he said. “And tonight was a terrific effort because half our starting lineup is out and so, again, I really feel bad for them because they gave it everything they had.”