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Arizona volleyball steps up in competition

The Wildcats face a tough slate at the SDSU/USD Classic this weekend

Devyn Cross will return this weekend as the Wildcats travel to San Diego
Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After a disappointing 2-1 start during the opening weekend of the season, the Arizona Wildcats didn’t have much time to lick their wounds. The schedule dictated that they get their games and their minds in shape to face their toughest nonconference test since 2016.

That year, the opening weekend had No. 4 Wisconsin and No. 6 Hawai’i on the schedule. This time around, the second week of the season features No. 2 Nebraska, a team that’s been to the last two national title games, among its foes at the SDSU/USD Invitational.

Although he recognizes the success of Nebraska, Arizona head coach Dave Rubio doesn’t believe the match is any bigger than those the Wildcats regularly face in the Pac-12.

“Certainly Nebraska has a history of elite success,” he said. “Been one of the top programs within the last five years and winning ... two national championships. What they’ve created at Nebraska as a volleyball brand and the level at which they play—everyone’s trying to achieve something like that.

“This year, there’s really no drop off. They have some exceptional players that are starting and exceptional players on the bench and an exceptional coach. There’s a reason why they’ve been consistently good for so long.”

Beyond the challenge of the field, Arizona has a few additional hurdles to overcome. The biggest is probably getting more consistent with its new offense, which was shaky at times last weekend.

“I thought it worked really good on Friday, and, then Saturday, I don’t think it looked as good,” Rubio said with a smile. “I think that it’s going to take some time. “

The Wildcats have some advantages this weekend that they didn’t have in the Cactus Classic. The return of senior midlde blocker Devyn Cross will certainly give Arizona a boost as far as experience, although her replacement last weekend more than held her own.

Sophomore Zyonna Fellows had only made one start prior to this season. She came up big starting all three matches last weekend, ending the tournament with 15 total blocks and nine kills in 11 sets, and she’s ready to do it again.

“I always have to be prepared to start no matter what,” Fellows said. “Even if I feel like I’m not going to, I still need to be ready because you never know when you’re going to get put in the game. I knew I was going to start, so I knew I had to take over Devyn’s spot and I had to play a role on the court.

“It’s amazing. I love it. Hearing your name get called after you block. Hearing the crowd cheer. Just amazing. After getting to start last year in Washington, I was ready to start this year without a doubt.”

While Cross will be back, Rubio believes that Fellows still may be someone who can step in.

“She stepped up to the plate last weekend because Devyn was out,” Rubio said. “And so all that experience for her has really accelerated her learning curve. The thing that Zyonna provides for us is length. She has elite length. And so if you just look at the blocking numbers alone on this, because of her length, she’s getting a lot of touches and a lot of blocks. And so against a big team like Nebraska that may be something that we have to look at, because now she can slow some people down because of that length.

“But I’ve been really proud of her. All players battle the internal voice, young players especially. They’re way harder on themselves than than I ever would be. And Zyonna kind of mentioned that, they all can they get down on themselves too quickly. They need to become more resilient. But as they age, they tend to become better at that their voice becomes softer and more positive.”

The Wildcats will still be without senior libero Makenna Martin. Highly-touted freshman Kamaile Hiapo got the nod in her place during the opening weekend, and will likely do so again in San Diego.

“I think we’re prepared physically. Mentally, we need to be tough,” Hiapo said. “I think we’re ready to handle it mentally and physically. The main part of the game is your mental side of it, and that’s really what we have to deal with. I think we’ll handle it well.”

Here’s a look at the teams Arizona will face this weekend in San Diego:

Nebraska Cornhuskers (2-0, 0-0 Big Ten)

Current AVCA rank: 2

2018-19 record: 29-7, 15-5 Big Ten

2018-19 RPI: No. 11

2018-19 postseason: Lost to Stanford in the national title game

The Cornhuskers have two titles in the last three years. The last time they didn’t make it to the national semifinals was 2014—and they made the regional finals that year. They don’t look to be letting up this season, either.

Nebraska opened the season at home in the Husker Invitational. They beat No. 18 Creighton 3-1 (25-19, 24-26, 25-17, 25-21) and dominated UCLA in straight sets (25-12, 25-16, 25-19).

Through the first two matches, the Huskers’ offense has been led by junior Lexi Sun. Sun was second on the team in kills last season, and appears to be ready to step in for Michaela Foecke as the offensive leader. She opened the season with 13 kills against Creighton and 12 against UCLA.

Lauren Stivrins (2.36) and Jazz Sweet (2.24) had the third- and fourth-best kills per set for the team last season. They lost no time in getting back to that level. Stivrins had nine kills against Creighton and five kills against UCLA while Sweet had seven in each match.

Sophomore setter Nicklin Hames was also sharp. Hames opened the season with 35 assists against Creighton. She followed it up with 32 against UCLA.

According to Rubio, serve-receive will be Arizona’s biggest challenge in this match.

“I think that for us, it’s going to be can we handle the first contact?” Rubio said. “It’s really going to be about that. They’re a really good serving team. They can pinpoint the ball with pace. And we’re just not that good of a passing team right now.

“It’s going to be a challenging match for us. No question about it. But in the conference, we play teams like Nebraska just about every single night, as well. So from an intimidation standpoint, it won’t be much different than what we face when we’re in conference.”

The Wildcats will be hard pressed to overcome the Cornhuskers, but they have nothing to lose. They’re expected to come out on the losing end of this one. Pulling out a victory would do a lot to rehabilitate their image after the Samford loss.

When and how to watch

First serve between Arizona and Nebraska will be at 4 p.m. MST on Friday, Sept. 6. The match will stream on FloVolleyball, but viewers must have a subscription to the service. Arizona fans can also follow along via Arizona Live Stats.

West Virginia Mountaineers (3-0, 0-0 Big XII)

Current AVCA rank: unranked

2018-19 record: 11-19, 2-14 Big XII

2018-19 RPI: 152

2018-19 postseason: none

Coming off a tough year, West Virginia needed to get off to a good start. The Mountaineers opened their weekend on the road at the Delaware Classic where they went 3-0 on the weekend.

WVU started out by beating the host Delaware Blue Hens 3-1 (25-23, 23-25, 25-23, 25-15). They followed up that victory with straight-set wins over Coppin State (25-14, 25-19, 25-16) and Binghamton (25-17, 25-20, 25-21).

One thing in WVU’s favor is that they actually have seniors this season. The Mountaineers played a tough schedule last year, including non-conference matches against Stanford and BYU, without a single senior on the roster. For a program that has never made the NCAA Tournament, that lack of experience just adds to the challenges.

Outside hitter Katelyn Evans led the WVU in kills per set last season with 3.17. In the early going of 2019, her numbers (2.33 k/s) are down, but other members of the team have picked up the slack. In fact, six members of the team are averaging at least two kills per set; last season ended with just three exceeding that mark.

Sophomores Kristin Lux and Kristina Jordan are top two on the team with 3.50 and 3.33 k/s, respectively. Junior middle blocker Briana Lynch is averaging 2.90.

In three matches, setter Lacey Zerwas is taking advantage of her team’s offensive prowess by averaging 10.80 assists per set. The sophomore out of Anthem, Arizona’s Boulder Creek High averaged 9.18 a/s and took over the starting job in mid-year last season.

The Mountaineers are certainly better this year than last, but they have yet to face a team of Arizona’s ability in the young season. They will need an off night by the Wildcats to secure the victory, but Samford needed that, too.

When and how to watch

First serve between Arizona and Nebraska will be at 11 a.m. MST on Saturday, Sept. 7. The match will stream on FloVolleyball, but viewers must have a subscription to the service. Arizona fans can also follow along via Arizona Live Stats.

San Diego State Aztecs (2-1, 0-0 MWC)

Current AVCA rank: unranked

2018-19 record: 10-21, 8-10

2018-19 RPI: 213

2018-19 postseason: none

The tournament is jointly hosted by the University of San Diego and San Diego State with visiting teams facing one or the other. The Wildcats will face the Aztecs as their final opponent.

Arizona beat SDSU last season in three fairly comfortable sets. The Wildcats emerged from the match with a score of 25-22, 25-19, 25-17. The Aztecs left last year’s Cactus Classic without winning a match in Tucson and fell to 1-5 on the season.

The team has started out stronger this year. SDSU opened play last weekend at the Florida Gulf Coast Classic. They started with straight-set wins over Akron and Bryant before falling to the host team in five.

The level of experience for the Aztecs is only slightly improved this season. The team had just one senior last season, Deja Harris. Despite have six juniors in 2018, they have only two seniors this year. Gone are Emily Burns, Ashlynn Dunbar, Delaney Taylor and Alexis Harris.

Returning senior Hannah Turnlund was the second on the team in kills per set in 2018 traiing only departed senior Deja Harris. Along with Harris and Dunbar, she was one of only three Aztecs to account for more than two per set. Unfortunately for SDSU, she’s the only one who returned this season.

Turnlund is leading the team in kills so far in 2019. Over her first three matches, she is averaging 3.73 k/s this season. Just behind her is sophomore Victoria O’Sullivan with 3.45 k/s.

Senior middle blocker Tamia Reeves had 1.17 kills and 0.75 blocks per set in 2018. She had a solid first weekend of 2019 with 2.55 k/s and 1.27 b/s. Reeves’ kill numbers are good for third on the team.

One bright spot is the return of Camryn Machado. The Utah transfer played in eight matches before redshirting last season. One of the setters from 2018 is no longer on the roster, and the other one dealt with injuries that limited her last season. That has given Machado the opportunity to show what she can do.

She was averaging just 3.87 assists per set when her season ended in 2018, but has exploded with 11.55 in her first three matches this season. She assisted 55 times in the five-set loss to FGCU last weekend.

Arizona has a good chance of winning this match if they play like they did against Appalachian State and Loyola Marymount. SDSU will be a tougher match-up this season, though, especially with the match taking place in Peterson Gym.

When and how to watch

The matches featuring San Diego State will be streamed via the Mountain West Network. As with all Arizona matches, fans can follow along with Live Stats. First serve between the Wildcats and the Aztecs will be at 7 p.m. MST on Saturday.