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Arizona volleyball has ‘nothing to lose’ as Cal, Stanford come to town

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

The rewards may not be there, but Arizona head coach Dave Rubio couldn’t be more proud of the fight his team has shown this year even if the wins aren’t following.

“After we lose to Utah, right, we’re in the locker room,” Rubio said, “and they’re giving everything they got. ... You’re playing with one hand behind your back. And it’s just nothing other than to say, ‘Look, I’m really proud of you guys. You guys inspire me to be better just by the effort that you give and your attitude and your unwillingness to give into this.’ And I said that I have no complaints, I just enjoy being around you, and I enjoy going to the gym every day. And I said the fact you guys are listening to what I have to say, which is let’s just focus on these particular areas and not worry about the outcome. The fact that they’re willing to do that and have done that.”

That pride is founded in the players’ ability to compete despite the injuries that have mounted over the course of their Pac-12 season. The demands have been especially high on his two healthy outside hitters, Paige Whipple and Katie Smoot.

“The challenge is to do it every weekend,” Rubio said. “We got four more weeks of playing. We got eight more matches, and can we continue to kind of follow this path now? So far we’ve been great. This was the fourth weekend we’ve had this lineup. But I think the team really kind of has that us versus the world type of attitude. And my guess is that they’ll continue to kind of just march forward and do their thing.”

Whipple’s ability to stay composed under pressure has always been an aspect of her game that Rubio has praised. It’s a component of her personality that has served her well this season, when she first had to step into the offensive role occupied by Kendra Dahlke the past two years and then had to deal with the lack of healthy teammates.

“I’ve always been that type of person,” Whipple said. “Just very calm and not a lot of things get me rattled, which has really helped me as an athlete because volleyball, every point matters. And there’s such a small margin for error in this game because you make an error, the other team gets a point. So that’s really been a blessing for me honestly. That’s kind of built into who I am playing the game of volleyball because I am able to move on quickly from mistakes and forget about the past and just move on to the next thing.”

According to their coach, that hasn’t always been the strong suit of fellow hitter Smoot, but he’s seeing her adapt as the season unfolds.

“She’s been a lot better in terms of being resilient when she’s struggling,” Rubio said. “And, again, I think at some point...they just kind of relaxed and the pressure was off those guys. .... And I think once we lost everybody, and they knew that they were the only ones that were going to be able to carry it. I think they were like, ‘Okay, we got nothing to lose here.’ And even though you don’t really like that attitude as a coach, part of it is that it took the pressure off of them and they weren’t carrying that burden anymore and so their improvement from week to week has really been noticeable and certainly from the stat line it’s been noticeable.”

The entire team will need to continue showing that resilience as they return home to face two top-20 teams on short rest.

“It’s nice (to be home),” Rubio said. “And the thing is, it’s a short week for us. We get home late on Sunday, so Monday’s off, and then we’re back in the gym on Tuesday, and then we’re prepping for the match for Thursday (on Wednesday). And so they’re scrambling I mean, our practices have really been cut down. A lot of it’s just because the fact that you can’t throw the volume of things that we normally would at them.

“But they’re tired. I mean, they’re really tired. And so I kind of have to manage that, as well, as a coach. So, then, they appreciate that, too. If you can listen to what they’re saying, and give them what they want sometimes, and they’ll play harder for you. That’s kind of how I feel.”

After spending most of the first half of the Pac-12 season on the road, the Wildcats (12-12, 2-10) finally return to McKale Center to host the California Golden Bears and the defending national champion Stanford Cardinal. With their NCAA Tournament hopes likely over and several ranked teams still on the schedule, Rubio and Whipple agreed that they just have to go out and play.

“We have nothing to lose at this point,” Whipple said. “You don’t always want to go in with that mentality, but we really don’t have anything to lose. So playing hard every single night and just [do] what we’re going to do, and the outcome is going to be the outcome.”

No. 20 California Golden Bears (18-4, 8-4)

The resurgent Golden Bears are having a turnaround season under first-year head coach Sam Crosson. After seven years rebuilding the program at Cal Poly, he came back to Cal to do the same.

Prior to this season, the Bears hadn’t put together a winning campaign since 2013. That was also their last appearance in the NCAA Tournament. They have already matched the 18 wins they had that year, when they made it to the second round of the postseason.

When Arizona visited Berkeley last month, the Golden Bears got the sweep. Cal’s gone 3-3 since then, though. That streak included a home loss to Oregon, whom the Wildcats defeated in four sets during their last homestand.

“Cal is...they’ve been back and forth in their lineup and they had a significant injury for them,” Rubio said. “A girl that went down that really made a big difference for them. And I thought they were a second-round team (in the NCAA Tournament) early in the season. We’ll see if they can recover from that injury. And so they’re a lot like Utah and a lot like Colorado.”

No. 5 Stanford Cardinal (16-4, 10-2)

Things haven’t been as easy for the Cardinal this season as they were last year. In Stanford’s championship campaign, they went 34-1 overall with an unblemished 20-0 record in the Pac-12.

Like Arizona, the biggest stumbling block for Stanford has been injuries.

“Stanford is also injured. Kathryn Plummer, the two time AVCA Player of the Year, is out, and doesn’t look like she’s gonna come back. And then the other player, their freshmen who was a Freshman of the Year, Kendall Kipp, is out as well. So they’re banged up. They have enough firepower that it doesn’t matter against a team like us, but we’ll play hard. We’ll do our work tactically trying to do the things that work to make a difference and give us some points.

“You know, we’re really working just to manufacture points somehow. Just really working to see—and we need some help by the other team, they got to make some errors. They got to be able to move the scoreboard for us a little bit. The thing from just a statistical standpoint, the thing that’s really been hard for us is we’ve been aced far too often. Seventeen aces against us...over the weekend, and that’s something that we can control.”

Even without Plummer, the Cardinal swept the Wildcats in Palo Alto. Since then, they’re 6-1 with their only loss coming to now-No. 23 UCLA on the road.

How to watch

The match against California will be aired on the Pac-12 Networks. First serve is set for 7 p.m. MST on Thursday, Nov. 7 at McKale Center.

The Stanford match will be streamed on Arizona Live Stream beginning at 6 p.m. MST on Saturday, Nov. 9.

Up-to-date stats for both matches will be available on Arizona Live Stats.