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Arizona volleyball bringing ‘us against the world’ mentality to Colorado and Utah

COLLEGE VOLLEYBALL: OCT 27 Oregon at Arizona Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The key to happiness? It’s low expectations, according to a friend of Arizona volleyball coach Dave Rubio.

“You know, at this particular time, I don’t have any real expectations about this weekend in terms of wins and losses,” Rubio said.

As the Wildcats head to the Rocky Mountains to face Colorado and Utah, they’re just trying to get better with the thinned rotation they have available. They’re also building an “us against the world” mentality.

“With those nine players that are healthy,” Rubio said, “they really...have bonded and really gotten stronger together. And when the role is the role—which is meaning that everyone gets to play—there’s no agenda. Everyone wants everyone to do well. So, from a team chemistry standpoint, it’s really been good for us.”

Rubio is also seeing some of those nine players lift their games, especially his two healthy outside hitters. That improvement is what he is focused on, but that’s not necessarily a new thing.

“It’s always a growth thing for me,” he said. “It’s always a big picture deal for me. The outcome is just part of how you measure success. Everyone kind of measure success by wins and losses, but I certainly don’t do that. And I try to convey that and communicate that with the team. And especially in a situation like we’re in right now, where the outcome is so unpredictable, that you really focus on the individual improvement by the players. And that’s what we do in practice. It’s really more about individual training and development than it is about the team and the systems.

“Although we’re working hard on trying to change, refine what we’re doing out there with the group that we have when Kamaile (Hiapo) is front row. But for me, it’s like the difference between last year—a team that goes to the playoff and a team that doesn’t make the playoffs—it’s so small that my approach is really not that much different. You just hope that you win a little bit more.”

For Paige Whipple and Katie Smoot, specifically, Rubio is pleased with their ability to hit standards set by the staff despite the demands on them.

“I believe that the progress of the players who have been healthy has been substantial,” he said. “It’s like they say if you lose one of your five senses, the other four senses become even that much more acute. Well, for the players that are playing that’s kind of what’s happened is that with the responsibilities increasing because of people being out and us having kind of a modified lineup, then players like Katie and Paige have really improved. That’s the positive of it.

“There’s always a second side to each story. And then the good side for us, the silver lining, is that those guys are really getting much substantially better. Their aptitude for the game is getting better. Their ability to...kind of stay within the standard—we were well within the standard on the outside hitters. With the error percentage, we were really, really low. I’m really proud of those guys, because it’s been hard on them. I mean, it’s from the beginning of the season. And so the fact that they’re able to kind of play at the level they’re playing and be more consistent, it’s been a really positive thing for us. And same with Devyn (Cross). Devyn’s really stepped up and everyone else has really played well. So you know, we’ll just ride it as long as we can and hope for the best.”

The team expects to be shorthanded again this week. The closest to returning is junior middle blocker Shardonee Hayes, Rubio said. Outside hitter Whittnee Nihipali and defensive specialists Makenna Martin and Erin Williamson are also taking part in limited practice activities.

But the team has had to limit practice for the entire group, because they can’t afford any more injuries. Rubio said that they’re even trying to get a manager cleared to become part of the team.

“If no one gets cleared here in the next couple weeks, we’re going to have to resort to like an open tryout out on the quad here to try to see if we can find some bodies to play,” Rubio half-joked.

Colorado Buffaloes (8-12, 0-10)

The Wildcats swept the Buffaloes to get their first Pac-12 win back on Oct. 6. Things haven’t gotten better for Colorado in terms of wins and losses since then, but they have had some impressive outings in recent losses.

The Buffs pushed No. 15 California to five sets on the road in Berkeley two weeks ago. They were able to take a set off No. 9 Washington last Sunday, although they didn’t reach 20 points in two of the other three sets.

As a team, Colorado averages 12.0 kills per set while giving up 13.3 to their opponents. Arizona is almost the exact opposite: the Wildcats average 13.0 k/s while giving up 12.1.

The Buffs are hitting .215 compared to .236 for the ‘Cats. Where Colorado does outdo Arizona is blocking where they average 2.4 b/s compared to 2.0 for the Wildcats.

Arizona has a good chance of taking this match. It’s a must-win if they hope to hold onto their dwindling tournament hopes.

No. 17 Utah Utes (14-7, 6-4)

The then-No. 20 Utes swept the Wildcats a month ago. It would take an amazing feat for that fate not to befall Arizona again on Sunday.

Utah has gone 4-3 since the two teams met in Tucson. Their only losses have come in five-set affairs to ranked teams, including a 2-3 loss to No. 24 Washington State in their last outing. Two days before losing to the Cougars, the Utes beat No. 9 Washington in four sets.

Utah will also have the advantage of playing their second straight week at home. The Wildcats have only had two weekends at home since Pac-12 play started.

Most importantly, the Utes feature Dani Drews, who is fourth in the conference with 4.39 k/s and leads the league in total kills with 360. Kenzie Koerber is second on the team and No. 13 in the Pac-12 with 3.08 k/s.

Arizona’s kills leaders are Whipple (3.36 k/s) at eighth and Smoot (2.82 k/s) at No. 21.

Utah also has two of the best middle blockers in the league with Phoebe Grace (1.25 b/s) at No. 6 and Berkeley Oblad (1.19 b/s) at No. 7 in blocks per set. Oblad also averages 2.82 kills per set.

The Wildcats should be happy if they can come back to Tucson with a split. They would be ecstatic if they could come back with the road sweep, but that would require a miraculous turn of events.

How to watch

Both matches will be televised on the Pac-12 Networks. The match in Boulder gets underway on Friday at 6 p.m. MST. In Salt Lake City, first serve between the Wildcats and the Utes is scheduled for Sunday at 12 p.m. MST.

Fans can also follow along at Arizona Live Stats.