The Arizona Wildcats have already faced some challenges this season. Players lost to injury and disciplinary action. A letdown against Samford. A tough Nebraska team. This week, the task was to be effective in their second straight week on the road.
The team left Tucson on Wednesday because their plane was due to fly out of Phoenix at 8 a.m. the following morning. Head coach Dave Rubio said that he didn’t want the players to have to get up at 4 a.m. to make the trip, so they would stay the night in the Valley. That meant one more night sleeping in hotel rooms, forcing Arizona to compete on a “short week” of practice.
️ || Coach Rubio previews the Kansas Invitational and talks about what he likes from his team two weeks into the season! pic.twitter.com/6n1hDhcV2A— Arizona Volleyball (@ArizonaVBall) September 11, 2019
The short week didn’t seem to affect the Wildcats. After beating Kansas on Friday evening, they returned Saturday to take on Morehead State and Syracuse. For the first time this season, Arizona was able to sweep all three matches of a weekend tournament.
The team heads back to Tucson with a 7-2 record. Let’s see how they got there...
Morehead State is committed to their volleyball program. Current building projects at the Kentucky school include a new 30,000 square foot volleyball facility with a 1,400-seat arena, multiple practice courts, weight and training facilities, and club seating.
They’re aiming high, but the Eagles are not yet in a position to compete with Arizona if Saturday morning was any indication. The Wildcats were dominant in a straight-set victory (25-18, 25-7, 25-16) that dropped MSU to 6-3 on the season.
Elizabeth Shelton put on a superb performace for Arizona with 12 kills on .647 hitting. She added 3 digs, and her 3 blocks pushed her to 13.5 points. Shelton had only one error in the match.
Paige Whipple was not as efficient as Shelton, but she added 8 kills on a .167 hitting percentage. She had 11.0 points when her 5 blocks (1 solo and 4 assisted) were added. Whipple also had 7 digs and an assist.
Katie Smoot continued her solid junior season with 5 kills, 8 digs and 1 block. The dig total tied her for second-most in the game.
Smoot has shown vast improvement in her defense this year which allows Rubio to keep her in for six rotations. While she didn’t have as many kills this match as she did against Kansas, she didn’t let that affect the other parts of her game.
Last year, Smoot averaged just 0.69 digs/set. So far this season, she is averaging 2.29. She has already collected 15 more digs in 28 sets than she did for the entire 2018 season. She played a total of 71 sets last year.
The two middle blockers—Devyn Cross and Shardonee Hayes—added 4 and 6 blocks, respectively. Hayes led the game in the stat. Cross led the game with a .750 hitting percentage. She had 6 kills.
Julia Patterson had a game-high 27 assists to go with 2 kills, 4 digs and a block. The dig leader was Kamaile Hiapo with 11.
The Eagles kept it close for about a third of the opening set. Until 11-7 in the set, they were never down by more than 3 points. From that point, the Wildcats slowly started pulling away.
Arizona kept an advantage of four-to-six points until the conclusion of set, ending the frame with a set-high 7-point lead.
The second set ended in a 25-7 win for Arizona. The Wildcats were even more dominant than the score suggests.
Morehead State finally got to 3 points at 9-3 in the second set. They didn’t score again until 18-3. Arizona went 7-4 down the stretch to take a 2-0 lead, but the set was long-decided by that point. The most noteworthy event was back-up setter Hina Pua’a coming into the set to serve for four of the final five points.
The final set was a bit of a letdown for Arizona. The Wildcats started out much like they did in the second set, dominating to the tune of a 16-5 lead.
Then, Arizona just seemed to lose focus. MSU went on a 10-0 run to close to within one. At 16-15 in the third, the Wildcats finally shook the fog off and re-asserted themselves, but it didn’t look pretty. They closed the match on a 9-1 run, but the Eagles certainly put a scare into them in the final set.
Prior to the Kansas Invitational, it was difficult to judge the Orange. They arrived in Lawrence at 0-2, but both of those matches were against ranked teams—No. 11 Marquette and No. 17 Baylor. Was it just a fluke or a matter of a tough schedule?
Their opening match indicated that the losses were certainly not flukes.
Syracuse lost their first match at the invitational in five sets. The winner? The same Morehead State team that Arizona absolutely dominated on Saturday morning.
But Syracuse came out like they had something to prove. The Orange played three tough sets against the Wildcats, but were outlasted each time. Arizona won in straight sets (25-20, 25-23, 25-22), but Syracuse put up a fight.
Katie Smoot and Paige Whipple led the offensive attack as they have for most of the season. They produced 12 kills each. Smoot added 2 blocks (a solo and an assisted) for a team-high 13.5 points. Whipple had 2 assists, 7 digs, and 2 assisted blocks, winding up with 13.0 points.
Devyn Cross had 10 kills for her first match with double-figure kills since Nov. 18, 2018 against UCLA. Julia Patterson led the match with 39 assists, and Kamaile Hiapo paced the Wildcats with 14 digs.
Syracuse came out sharper than Arizona and took the lead in the opening set. The Orange held onto their advantage until 18-all in the first. From there, the Wildcats methodically pulled away. A 7-2 run gave Arizona the 1-0 lead.
The Orange retained control of the second set for a little longer than they had in the first. After taking the early lead, they let Arizona tie things up at 8 apiece, but were able to fight back and regain the advantage several times.
It took until 17-17 for Arizona to gain the upper hand. The Wildcats built a four-point lead, but the Orange kept fighting back. At 23-all, it looked like Syracuse might level the match, but Arizona was able to grab the final two points to take a two-set lead.
The final set was neck-and-neck throughout. Arizona’s four-point lead was the largest either team could muster, but even that didn’t last long. The Wildcats were able to assert themselves just enough beginning at 17-17 in the third.
Arizona didn’t let the lead slip away again down the stretch. The 8-5 run towards the finish was enough to close things out with a 25-22 victory.
The Wildcats return to McKale Center for the Wildcat Classic next week. They will host Alabama State, New Mexico State and Sacramento State before kicking off the Pac-12 season.