The Wildcats have one more weekend to get the new offense ready before facing the Pac-12. They got started in style on Friday morning with an easy win over Alabama State before winning a closer contest in the evening match against New Mexico State.
Arizona has not lost a match since facing Nebraska in the second week of the season. They have not lost a set since losing the first set to West Virginia in a 3-1 victory the day after losing to Nebraska.
That works out to seven straight matches and 21 straight sets won by the Wildcats. They will go for eight matches and 24 straight sets on Saturday.
Arizona vs. Alabama State
Alabama State has won the SWAC the last three years and were picked to win it again this season. That may still happen, but their non-conference results haven’t inspired confidence. The straight-set (25-13, 25-17, 25-10) loss to Arizona didn’t change that.
“The first match was...I was pleased with how we played,” Arizona coach Dave Rubio said. “Alabama State has struggled a little bit, and so it was a good match for us to kind of get in rhythm and get some players extra playing time.”
Sophomore Whittnee Nihipali was one of those players who got the opportunity to get some playing time, while Elizabeth Shelton continued her strong junior season. Shelton and Nihipali tied with a match-high 10 kills apiece. Shelton added 3 blocks and a .714 hitting percentage, and Nihipali threw in 3 aces. Both her kills and aces were career highs for Nihipali, who started the second set for Paige Whipple and the third in place of Katie Smoot.
Senior setter Julia Patterson moved to No. 8 on the school’s all-time assist records. Her 25 assists pushed her career total to 2,691.
As a team, the Wildcats hit .438 while holding the Hornets to .118. Shelton did her damage without committing a single error.
Alabama State was initially able to keep the first set close, staying within two points for most of the set. At 10-8, the Wildcats imposed themselves, allowing only five points from the Hornets the rest of the set.
The second set was won on the merit of two runs by Arizona. An early four-point run put the Wildcats up 5-1 to set the tone. A five-point run at 14-13 put an end to any idea Alabama State had of gaining the lead. The Hornets were never able to string more than two points together.
The final frame featured a strong Arizona run on the Nihipali serve. The sophomore hitter got the sideout with a kill to push the score to 11-7 in the Wildcats’ favor. She then went behind the line to serve seven straight points, ending in an 17-8 Arizona lead. From there, the Wildcats closed it out on a 8-2 run.
Arizona vs. New Mexico State
After making an impression in the opening game of the Wildcat Classic, Nihipali and Shelton once again made their presence known in the nightcap. The Wildcats once again swept the opponent, although in a much closer 25-19, 25-19, 25-22 match.
Rubio felt that the tighter score was partly due to the Wildcats not having their “A game.”
“I thought New Mexico State really played well,” he said. “They lost a tough match this morning, and they came back and they certainly created some opportunities for themselves. We didn’t play particularly sharp, but a lot of that I think had to do with them. And we were not very sharp tonight, unfortunately, but enough to pull out the win.”
While Rubio might not have felt the team was as sharp as they could have been, Shelton was almost flawless once again. She followed up an error-free morning match with only two attack errors in the late tilt.
Shelton ended the night with 13 kills on .550 hitting and threw in 4 blocks for good measure. In all, she accounted for 16.5 points. Her kills, hitting percentage, blocks and points were all game highs.
“Liz has really been an offensive juggernaut so far,” Rubio said. “She’s an elite, world-class athlete. And it’s always been that she has been so far behind as a volleyball player, and her athleticism has been so far superior. So now you’re starting to see some of the skills and the aptitude connect, and now things are starting to even out. She still has a ways to go before they’re kind of even out—the athleticism and the aptitude—but tonight she was really the one person that was scoring pretty regularly for us.”
Nihipali followed up her 10-kill morning with 8 more kills against New Mexico State. She added 8 digs against the Aggies, barely missing out on her first career double-double.
On serve, Nihipali was also on-point once again. Her 14 serve attempts tied with Kamaile Hiapo for second on the team behind Patterson (19). Both Nihipali and Hiapo had just one service error each giving them a .929 serve percentage on the night.
“Whittnee has grown a lot in confidence,” Whipple said. “This year, she’s playing a lot bigger role for us—and she needs to play a lot bigger role for us. So, I’ve just seen her kind of take that head on.”
Like her coach, Whipple was pleased with the Wildcats’ ability to pull things together when they needed to, especially in the third set. That’s something that Arizona has been able to do throughout the winning streak.
“I think just showing a lot of persistence,” she replied when asked about the most impressive part of the streak. “ I think that some of the last seven matches, even though we’ve won and we’ve swept a few of them, they haven’t all been pretty. And we’ve made our mistakes, we’ve been down in some of them. And we’ve really had moments where we’ve had to say, ‘Look, we need to get it together, and we could beat this team.’ It’s just been really cool to show that we have that persistence.”
The Wildcats will need that persistence when Pac-12 play rolls around next week.
The Wildcats wrap up their non-conference season against Sacramento State at 12 p.m. MST on Saturday. The match is available for streaming on Arizona Live Stream.
Watch Nihipali, Whipple and Rubio talk about the matches
Here’s outside hitters Whittnee Nihipali and Paige Whipple after Arizona Volleyball’s wins over Alabama State and New Mexico StatePosted by AZ Desert Swarm on Friday, September 20, 2019
Here’s Dave Rubio after Arizona Volleyball’s wins over Alabama State and New Mexico StatePosted by AZ Desert Swarm on Friday, September 20, 2019