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Arizona volleyball opens the season with two wins

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The Wildcats faced Appalachian State and Loyola Marymount Friday

COLLEGE VOLLEYBALL: NOV 18 UCLA at Arizona Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Arizona volleyball may have taken the court a little earlier than usual on Friday morning, but they were more than ready for the task. The Wildcats got off to a fast start with wins over Appalachian State and Loyola Marymount.

The Wildcats ran an unexpected starting group onto the court with Paige Whipple, Elizabeth Shelton, Julia Patterson, Zyonna Fellows, Katie Smoot and Shardonee Hayes. Freshman Kamaile Hiapo stepped in at libero.

Seniors Devyn Cross and Makenna Martin sat out both matches. Coach Dave Rubio said that Cross was out for disciplinary reasons while Martin is nursing the same groin injury that kept her out of several matches last season.

While the absence of two senior starters is never a good thing, Rubio was very pleased with the way Fellows and Haipo stepped up.

“Zyonna—Big Z—coming out and doing her number was great. She’s just a wonderful person and really coachable and wants to be a great teammate, help the team any way she can. And she really did a nice job tonight from a blocking standpoint.”

As for Haipo, she had a few miscues, but Rubio was not surprised with how well she did overall.

“She got aced maybe twice in that third game,” he said. “She’s a special kid, really, mentally and emotionally and physically, she’s really got it. I haven’t been around a lot of those kind of kids. We typically don’t get those kind of kids, but when you get them you can tell why they are that good.

“And Kamaile’s really got the right frame of mind the right mindset and the right skill set and the right drive and competitiveness, all the things that I think that are requisite things that you need to be a great player at an early age.

“She’s the first time (since) the libero position was started, which is 2002, that I ever scholarshiped a foury-ear player. Everyone else has always been on short money. Kamaile is gonna be great, so it doesn’t surprise me now.”

On the offensive side of the game, Smoot stood out in both matches. She had 22 kills and six aces over two matches. She was the top scorer in the early match with 13.5 points and the second-leading scorer in the second with 15.

The offense is expected from Smoot, though. That made her defensive effort in the night match stand out even more. It’s something Rubio says she needs to do in order to be effective at Arizona, and she showed that on Friday.

“The skill set that’s required in that position, it’s you gotta defend, you’ve got to pass sometimes,” Rubio said. “She’s a terrific server, and then she gives us a threat out of the back row offensively. So we got to have six rotations of pipe and that’s it. If you’re going to define Arizona volleyball, it’s going to be they set the pipe like crazy, and that’s the back row. And so but you gotta have a big who’s good enough to be back there, defensively not going to be a liability, and Katie’s really been working hard at developing those skills. That’s not as far along as her offensive skills, the back row skills aren’t as good. So she’s catching up. And the key for her is that she just needs to want to do it, which is what’s happened since the springtime. She’s really been working hard to get better.”

There is still plenty of room to improve. Smoot is especially focused on learning to read the block better and staying low on defense.

Appalachian State Mountaineers vs Arizona Wildcats

In the early match, the Wildcats were in control from the start. They came out strong and beat the Mountaineers in straight sets (25-12, 25-19, 25-14).

Smoot paced Arizona on offense. The junior had 12 kills on 28 attacks, going for a .393 hitting percentage. She led the match with 13.5 points.

Applachian State players led in kills, assists and digs for the match. Emma Longley led all attackers with 13 kills. Teammate Sam Bickley had 25 assists, and fellow Mountaineer Emma Reilly had 20 digs.

Julia Patterson led Arizona with 20 assists, just missing a double-double by adding nine digs. Emi Pua’a led the Wildcats with 12 digs.

In the first set, Arizona led from start to finish. They had a double-digit lead for almost half the set before pushing it out to the final margin.

The Wildcats took an early lead in the second set, as well. The Mountaineers didn’t go away so easily. They came back to tie it up at 6-6, then built a two-point lead. The Wildcats didn’t allow that to stand for long.

Arizona regained the lead at 11-10 and never relinquished it again. They closed the set at 25-19.

The deciding set once again opened to an Arizona lead, but had Appalachian State come back to tie things at 7-7. The Wildcats took the lead back at 12-11 and never looked back. They would only allow the Mountaineers to score three more points in the match.

Loyola Marymount Lions vs Arizona Wildcats

As expected, the Lions gave the Wildcats a much tougher test in the nightcap. Arizona was still able to close things out in straight sets (25-18, 26-24, 25-21) despite a strong effort from Loyola Marymount.

The Lions’ Rose Booth led the match with 14 kills, but Arizona had three players nipping at her heels. Smoot and Whipple both found the floor 10 times. Shelton added 9 kills on a strong .538 hitting percentage for the Wildcats.

Smoot accomplished her feat with a .350 hitting percentage and added 10 digs for a double-double. The digs tied Smoot for the match high and set a new career best. She ended the match with 15 points, trailing only LMU’s Booth who had 17.

Patterson had 30 assists for the Wildcats, but the Lions’ Tess Reid led the game with 33. Fellows had 3.5 blocks for a match high.

LMU won the opening point of the match, but wasn’t able to turn that into momentum. Neither team led by more than two points in the first set until Arizona went ahead 18-15. The home team went on a 7-3 run to close things out and grab the one-set advantage.

The second set was even tougher. The Wildcats led by as many as three, but that was as much room as they could put between themselves and the Lions.

Arizona scratched to a 24-22 set point only to have LMU fight back and tie things up again at 24-24. Kills by Whipple and Smoot finally gave Arizona the set and the 2-0 lead.

The Wildcats never trailed in the third and final set, but it wasn’t a comfortable set. Their lead was never greater than three until they got to 19-15. An ace by Whipple pushed the score to 20-15 only to have LMU take the next three points.

That was as close as the Lions would get. The Wildcats won five of the final eight points to close out the match, ending things on a kill from Hayes.

Arizona faces Samford at noon MST on Saturday to wrap up the Cactus Classic.