Things didn’t go well for the Arizona Wildcats during the first week of Pac-12 play. An uninspired loss at ASU and a closer loss at USC left the team 0-2 in conference play. They get a chance to put some marks on the winning side of the ledger as they return to McKale Center for their first conference matches on their home court.
“Some of us upperclassmen came together and we just had (an) upperclassmen talk,” senior middle blocker Devyn Cross said. “We just talked. Like, we really need to sit down with each other, without the coaches and figure out what is going on. We really need to just be open, like rip the band-aid off with each other. So right before ‘SC, actually, we got back to the hotel, we just met in one of each other’s rooms. We were all there and we’re like, ‘Alright, guys, come on, what’s going on? Like, just let loose. Anybody got anything to say?’ It was really just one of those take a step back from volleyball. Let’s really talk about what’s going on in our lives and why we feel like we can’t compete and do what we’re supposed to do. And it was maybe like 30-45 minutes, but it was something that we really needed.”
The Wildcats showed more fight against USC than they did against ASU, but head coach Dave Rubio didn’t put that on his players. Both after the ASU match and again on Wednesday morning, he blamed himself for the team’s lack of preparation. He’s just not sure things will get more predictable in the Pac-12.
“There’s no question that we were, I think, better prepared for what we were going to face (against USC),” Rubio said. “Unlike Thursday night against ASU, I felt like we weren’t prepared. I didn’t do a very good enough job of preparing our team for what I thought we were going to face against ASU. But it was a frustrating match nonetheless against USC. We sort of had our moments and had our opportunities against them, and it was unfortunate that Kamaile (Hiapo) went down in game four. But it’s going to be a tough year for everybody in the conference because of how close it is. And if you looked at just conference matches for last week, who won and who lost, it was a very interesting weekend and I think that’s the way it’s going to be every week.”
Ultimately, it comes down to not making unforced mistakes at crucial times.
“The unforced errors for us has been a real issue,” Rubio said. “We’ve been playing with every single team. I don’t think that we lost to a team yet that that I felt like was significantly better than we were. I think that the reason why we’re losing is because we’re not playing at a consistent level enough to put ourselves in position to win the sets, and the mistakes that we’re making are untimely mistakes so late in the game. And so for Friday, we’re just going to have to play a lot steadier.”
Utah Utes (9-4, 1-1)
No. 20 Utah is bringing a strong offensive team into McKale on Friday night. Although they lost to Oregon last week, the five-setter against the ranked Ducks showed what the Utes are capable of.
Like Arizona, they have three players who rank in the top 30 in the conference for kills per set. The problem for the Wildcats is that the Utes have two in the top 15, while only Paige Whipple ranks that highly for Arizona.
While Rubio spoke highly of Utah and their individual players, he is especially concerned about Arizona putting everything together.
“Now, Utah’s a very good, very complete team,” he said. “I talked to the team after the ASU game about the pieces that you need to be successful, to be an elite level team in an elite level conference. There’s a laundry list of things that you have to have by player, by position, by just general intangible qualities that a team needs to have. And if you’re just missing a couple of those, you’re going to lose it again in a very tight set. And for us, we’ve been making way too many unforced errors. The game against ASU, we made 40 unforced errors, they made 18. You’re not going to win a lot of matches that way. Now, USC made 40, we made 40, and it came down to timely service for us. So we just didn’t take advantage of those situations that we were in. But the margin for error for every team is so small, and it will come down to the last couple points and critical moments, and the team that can execute in those moments is the team that’s going to end up winning.”
Dani Drews is leading the Utes on the offensive side. She has managed well over 4 kills per set which puts her in the top 5 of the Pac-12. Kenzie Koerber ranks in the top 20 with 3.6 k/s, while Berkeley Oblad is top 30 with 2.39 k/s.
Oblad also has the ability to make it difficult for Arizona to score. The redshirt senior middle blocker is good for 1.41 blocks per set. That puts her in the top 5 for blocks in the Pac-12.
“(Cross is) going to have her hands full, because she’s going up against...Berkeley Oblad,” Rubio said. “She redshirted last year, and she’s one of the top middles, I think, in our conference. And so I’m sure the matchup will be those two going one-on-one against each other. So, it should be an interesting battle and competition come Friday.”
Utah is also strong on the serve which could pose some difficulties for the Wildcats, who are missing their top two liberos. Drews is leading the Utes with 13 aces against just 8 service errors. Koerber has thrown in 11 aces, while both Oblad and setter Sage Ka’aha’aina-Torres have 8 aces each.
With both Makenna Martin and Hiapo dealing with injuries, serve receive and passing could be a struggle for Arizona. Redshirt freshman Erin Williamson, who has been part of the backrow rotation this season, is out with mono. Rubio pointed out that they are down from five defensive specialist/liberos to just two now.
To Arizona’s advantage, though, they have senior Emi Pua’a as one of those two. Pua’a played libero when Martin was out last season.
Cross is looking forward to being back in McKale, getting some form of redemption from last weekend and facing off against Utah. In addition to the battle against Oblad, she will get her first opportunity to face her cousin, Zoe Weatherington, across the net. The freshman is averaging 2.16 kills per set for the Utes, ranking fourth on the squad.
“I’m really excited,” Cross said. “I’m mostly excited because my cousin plays at Utah. She’s the outside hitter—number seven, I believe, that’s my cousin. We’ve been talking about this for like a year now, like ever since she got recruited. But I think, as a team, we’re just really excited to be at home, and just prove ourselves from last weekend is our big thing. I think at least that’s what I kind of get. But yeah, we’re just excited to play in front of a home crowd, first Pac 12 game at home. What could be better? I mean, really, really?”
How and when to watch
First serve is scheduled for 6 p.m. MST at McKale Center on Friday evening. The match will be aired on the Pac-12 Network. Arizona Live Stats will also be available.
Colorado (8-4, 0-2)
The Buffaloes will arrive in Tempe on Friday looking for their first win in conference play. Considering how well Arizona State has played, especially at home, that could still be the case on Sunday afternoon when Colorado and Arizona face off.
The Buffs have three players averaging at least 2 kills per set. That trio is led by Justine Spann out of Chandler, Arizona’s Basha High. The senior outside hitter is averaging 4.15 k/s. Sterling Parker (2.29 k/s) and Jill Schneggenburger (2.24 k/s) are backing that up.
Spann, Schneggenburger and Savannah Perry will be testing the serve receive of the injured Wildcats. Spann has 11 aces this year with Schneggenburger (9) and Perry (8) not too far behind.
The Buffs are very young, though. Parker, Schneggenburger and Perry are all freshmen. The team is led in blocks per set by a sophomore, Meegan Hart (1.22 b/s).
If they are not able to pull out the win over Utah, the Wildcats have a good chance of using their experience against Colorado. While they hope not to end the weekend at 1-3 in conference play, that should be the worst possible outcome. An 0-4 start would be more than a wake-up call.
How and when to watch