Volleyball season was supposed to go differently for both the Arizona Wildcats (12-10, 2-8) and the Oregon Ducks (6-13, 2-8). Both teams ended 2018 ranked and came into 2019 the same way. Oregon would even climb into the top 10 in the early going. Things went downhill from there.
Their mirrored seasons extended into this weekend. Both the Wildcats and the Ducks entered Sunday’s early-afternoon match off five-set losses where they let their opponents come back from two-set deficits.
Who was going to get out of McKale Center with some measure of redemption?
For both teams, redemption laid largely in the hands of their star middle blockers. Oregon’s second-team AVCA All-American Ronika Stone and Arizona’s All-American Honorable Mention Devyn Cross were both forces for their teams.
“Ronika is such a great player and Devyn, such a great player,” Arizona head coach Dave Rubio said. “Both teams are riddled with injuries and not having the year we certainly thought we were. You’ve got these two elite kids, and so you just hope that they both can finish off the year in a really positive way.”
On the day, Cross and her team were able to take the first step to that positive finish. It wasn’t an easy win, but the Wildcats pulled off the 3-1 victory (25-21, 25-20, 19-25, 26-24).
Stone led the match with 19 kills. After putting up zero blocks through the first two sets, she came back in the second two to contribute four for a total of 21 points.
Cross was just behind her with a team-high 20.5 points. Cross was second for the Wildcats with 16 kills on .355 hitting. She added 5 blocks—four of them solo—and 6 digs.
Katie Smoot also had an impressive day for Arizona. The junior was third on the team with 13 kills on .333 hitting. Through the first two sets, she had 9 kills on .643 hitting. She threw in 6 digs and 2 total blocks, giving the Wildcats 14 points.
“ I think I felt pretty confident going into this game,” Smoot said. “I was just looking for the seams within the block because I knew that their middle blockers tend to be later going out to the pins. And then switching it up with like real shots and tips helped me a lot taking their game off.”
But down the stretch, it was junior outside hitter Paige Whipple doing the heavy lifting. Whipple led the Wildcats with attacks early in the match, but she wasn’t having as much success finding the floor, especially in mid-match. When the team really needed her, though, she raised her game.
“Paige is going to carry the load,” Rubio said. “And I was talking to her before the match. I said, how you doing with carrying the load. She said, ‘Boy, it’s really hard.’ And I said a year from now it’s going to be so easy for you, but when you’re in the trenches right now, it’s really brutal. And I said 'But you know, as always, Paige, you’ve always been so good at keeping calm and composed despite the fact that maybe you’re struggling so much inside.' And it was fitting for her to kind of kill the last ball on that long rally. I’m really happy for her that she’s was able to kind of do that, kind of dig deep, because she started off well—it’s kind of like the Oregon State match—and then she kind of tapered off in the middle, and then she came back strong again for us. So that was a great, great building experience and learning experience for her.”
Whipple ended with a team-high 17 kills. She added 10 digs for the double-double. Two solo blocks and an ace gave her 20 points on the day.
Emi Pua’a and Kamaile Hiapo led the team in digs with 18 and 16, respectively.
There wasn’t much between the teams for the first 20 points of the match. Arizona struggled with first contact, giving points to Oregon. The Ducks struggled with service errors, accounting for three of the Wildcats’ first 10 points.
At the 10-all tie, Arizona finally got the momentum. Oregon’s third service error was followed by an ace by Pua’a that kicked off a three-point run by the Wildcats. When the Ducks tried to respond, the Wildcats pushed the lead back out to four. Oregon saved one set point at 24-20, but couldn’t save the second.
Set two was Arizona’s from early on. The Wildcats used a seven-point run to go up 8-3. They never let go. They would lead by as many as five in a routine 25-20 set.
What wasn’t routine was that Oregon’s Stone, who averages 0.81 blocks per set, had zero as her team headed into set three down 0-2. She finally got her first two to put the Ducks up 2-0 in the crucial third set.
The entire team turned that around in the third set. Stone was in on three assisted blocks in the set. The team had four.
The Wildcats tied the set in the early going, but the Ducks never appeared to be really bothered.
Things looked especially grim for Arizona when Pua’a slid headfirst into the stands trying to dig a ball and appeared to hit her head. The senior libero stayed on the floor, not appearing to move, for several seconds. McKale Center was silent.
Pua’a eventually got to her feet and re-entered the match, but with three players already out with concussions, it certainly scared those in attendance. After the match, Rubio said that they were relieved to find out that she didn’t actually strike her head.
The Wildcats weren’t able to turn things around after the scare. The visitors went on to extend the match with a 25-19 victory in the third set.
Was Arizona going to fold again?
The Wildcats opened the fourth set looking resolved, but they couldn’t hold it. Arizona fell behind at 10-11, and Oregon just kept pulling away. At 19-13, it felt just like the Oregon State match.
“Friday night we were so close, and it was agonizing to lose a match that was so close,” Rubio said. “And then today was kind of a repeat of that. I was sitting on the bench during game three. And I’m like, ‘This is deja vu from Friday.’”
He had to rally his players.
“I called the timeout somewhere along the line,” Rubio said. “The message on Friday night was you have to win the match. They’re not going to give you the match. You got to go and you got to take the match away from them. And that was kind of the same. So, here we are again, guys. I said either we’re going to compete or we going to stand around and hope that we’re going to win. I said you know how that goes. I said that didn’t work on Friday.”
The Wildcats didn’t let it happen again. They went on a 13-5 run to take the match.
“I’m really proud of how we handled it,” Rubio said. “And you know, it’s...I’m proud of the kids. I’m happy for them because they certainly work hard. And the hardships that go with what we’re dealing with, it’s nice to be able to get rewarded with the win certainly. So it feels pretty good.”
The players hope this is the turning point that helps them get back to the postseason.
“I think it was just like, it’s time for us to stop losing and start winning,” Smoot said. “I just think that we all knew that we needed to get this win in order to have a chance for the playoffs. And if we didn’t, it would have made it really, really hard in the second half of conference to be able to compete after conference season. So I think it was just like that we need to get this win in order to be more successful for this season.”
The Wildcats enter the second half of conference play at 2-8 in the league, jumping over Oregon for 10th in the standings.