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Arizona volleyball picked No. 6 in Pac-12 preseason poll

Paige Whipple, Julia Patterson, Katie Smoot and Shardonee Hayes are among the returnees for Arizona Volleyball
Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

Following a season that saw them return to the NCAA Tournament after a one-year absence, the Arizona Wildcats volleyball team was picked to finish sixth in the Pac-12 preseason coaches poll that was released Monday.

Arizona was picked to finish ninth last season, but wound up going 11-9 in conference play, good for a fifth-place finish.

No one from Arizona made the preseason all-conference team. The last time Arizona placed a player on the team was 2016, when both Penina Snuka and Kalei Mau were named. Arizona was also picked to finish sixth that season, the last time the Wildcats were picked in the top half of the conference prior to this year.

The Wildcats return seven players who made regular starts last season, including 2019 AVCA All-American Honorable Mention Devyn Cross. Other returners who made significant contributions last season include senior setter Julia Patterson, junior outside hitter Paige Whipple, senior libero Makenna Martin, junior outside hitter/opposite Katie Smoot, junior outside hitter/opposite Elizabeth Shelton, junior middle blocker Shardonee Hayes, and senior defensive specialist Emi Pua’a.

In addition to the upperclassmen, the Wildcats also return three sophomores who saw playing time last season, including a few starts. Outside hitter Whittnee Nihipali, middle blocker Zyonna Fellows and defensive specialist Malina Kalei Ua will all need to take steps forward this year.

The Wildcats lost a significant percentage of their offensive production from last season with the graduation of outside hitter Kendra Dahlke and the transfer of Candice Denny, who landed at USC.

While Whipple did a noteworthy job filling in when Dahlke was injured last season, the Wildcats will be looking for additional offensive firepower to help her replace that lost production this season. Dahlke provided not just formidable offense, but was a six-rotation player who could hold her own defensively in the back row.

Denny stepped in to provide much-needed offensive punch when Shelton was lost to a concussion just before the conference season kicked off last year. While she was listed as a middle blocker, Denny played opposite for much of the Pac-12 season.

Arizona started last season on a hot streak against a weaker-than-usual non-conference slate, going 11-1 to start the year. The Wildcats will face a tougher schedule prior to league play this time around, including a match against the 2017 national champions and 2018 national runners-up from Nebraska on Sept. 6.

Prior to that, Arizona will kick things off with their Red-Blue game on Aug. 24 at 2 p.m. The Wildcats get the regular season underway by hosting the Cactus Classic beginning on Aug. 30. Their first match will come against Appalachian State at 10 a.m. MST.