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What we learned about Arizona volleyball in the Cactus Classic

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COLLEGE VOLLEYBALL: SEP 23 Washington State at Arizona
Elizabeth Shelton
Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Arizona volleyball opened the weekend with two comfortable straight-set victories over Appalachian State and Loyola Marymount.

Their third opponent didn’t go down quite so easily. The Wildcats had a huge letdown against Samford. They let the Bulldogs get out to an early lead and never took control of the match, eventually losing in five sets. A weekend that needed to end with a 3-0 record instead sits at 2-1.

So, what did we learn about Arizona over the weekend?

Getting Elizabeth Shelton back is a huge deal

Every time he’s asked about her, Arizona head coach Dave Rubio stresses how important Elizabeth Shelton is to the Wildcats’ success. When she went down to a concussion last season, Arizona had to find ways to make due. Her return to the court in the Cactus Classic showed just how much was missing from last season’s team, as she tallied 26 kills across the three matches.

The athleticism, speed and strength of Shelton’s game is difficult for anyone to deal with. While it wasn’t enough on Saturday, having her back certainly puts the Wildcats in a position to compete against the stronger Pac-12 teams this year.

Shelton said it felt good to be back out in a competitive match, but she wasn’t as concerned about her own stats, especially after the loss against Samford. Instead, she spoke about the need for the team to work together and the importance of their defense and passing.

A consistent third offensive threat

On Friday, Katie Smoot looked like a world-beater on the offensive side of the game. In the late match against Loyola Marymount, she also appeared to have improved her defense and passing. Her double-double was the first of her career; she had never before put 10 digs on the board.

On Sunday, she struggled. While Smoot still had nine kills on the day, she also had 8 errors. Most of those errors came from overhitting the ball, sending it sailing beyond the end line. After putting together four aces against Loyola Marymount and one in the opening match, she had none against Samford but had two service errors.

In an effort to fill the gap, Rubio put sophomore Whittnee Nihipali into the line-up in the second set. At first, it seemed to work. The team played well together, going from a 5-6 deficit to win the set 25-18.

Then, Nihipali began to struggle, too. After two straight errors on the attack gave Samford a 19-16 lead in the third set, Smoot was subbed back in for her.

“So those are the two people,” Rubio said. “Liz is pretty solid over on the opposite, but Katie and Whittnee have been dueling it out throughout the fall. The problem with Whittnee is that she doesn’t have enough confidence, and she’s still in development. She’s only a sophomore, Katie’s a junior. Katie’s been in the program two more years. And so the problem with Whittnee is that she just hasn’t had enough real game time, and she doesn’t have enough confidence. The problem with Katie is that she’s also a first-year (starter). And she kind of rides that emotional roller coasters to where she’s a great front runner. She’s not great in terms of when things get hard for her, of kind of bearing down and saying ‘I’m going to fight through this,’ and showing some grit. That’s something that she will need to improve on.

“So those are the things for both of them. And to me, that’s the Achilles heel for us, and I knew that going in this season. Katie, up until this match, had two really terrific offensive matches. But anytime things start to get hard for anybody, you know, it’s not like you’re going to go through the season and be that spectacular offensively. I mean, there are going to be matches like today where it’s a struggle to be out there. And then the question is, how mentally tough and how gritty are you going to be?”

Terminal

On media day, Rubio said that the biggest weakness of the team was being terminal on the attack. The hitters just don’t hit the ball hard enough to find the floor. He said that was something they would have to work on for a while.

Samford was able to expose this weakness. Rallies seemed to drag on. The Bulldogs were able to get crucial digs because the Wildcats simply couldn’t impose themselves. Last season, Kendra Dahlke was able to impose her will, especially on teams that Arizona “should” beat. Against Samford, no one could do that.

It took Paige Whipple 53 attacks to get 14 kills, although she only had five hitting errors. Samford was simply able to dig the ball effectively and extend the points when Arizona’s attackers needed to be able to end them.

The mental game

Did Arizona overlook Samford after the win over Loyola Marymount? Rubio seemed to think so.

“I knew that today would be the hardest match to play for us in the tournament,” he said. “Last night was pretty easy for us, because I know that mentally and emotionally we were engaged in what was going to happen, we knew that we had to play well against Loyola.

“I knew that today was going to be against a really good team that had really two difficult matches back to back yesterday. And I knew that they had enough talent that if we didn’t show up and play well that we would come out very disappointed, as we have.

“But those things happen. That’s just kind of part of sports. We’ll regroup and continue to get better and put it behind us.”

The Wildcats have a much more difficult non-conference schedule this season than they did last. Last year, they also lost unexpectedly when they visited New Mexico State. They were able to recover and finish the pre-conference slate 11-1.

It will be difficult to do that this season with teams like Nebraska coming up, but Arizona can’t have another letdown against an opponent they should beat.

The consequences

What if Arizona does have another letdown? Well, Rubio certainly believed that the first one was going to have an impact.

“It’s a bad match for us to lose from the RPI standpoint,” he said. “From the the top 25 standpoint, we will fall out of the poll. From the...when the committee looks at, it’s going ‘what’s Arizona doing losing to Samford?’ All those things are bad for Arizona.”