The Arizona Wildcats faced Utah, the team expected to win the Pac-12, in the opening week and things don’t get much easier in week two, as they return to McKale Center to host the eleventh-ranked Washington Huskies on Friday and Saturday.
Arizona will be looking for its first wins after being swept by the Utes.
“Washington traditionally has...been one of the top three of teams in our conference for many, many years,” Arizona head coach Dave Rubio said. “And the reason is, they have terrific well-skilled players. They have a good system. Steady. They’ve always been very mindful about how they go about their business. They’re a tough team to beat because they don’t make a lot of unforced errors. They’re not moving the scoreboard for the opposing team by making those unforced errors. So you got to really play steady, and you’re gonna have to score on them in order to put yourself in a position to win sets and matches.”
On the positive side of things, the Wildcats can look to last week’s results for a glimpse of encouragement. The Huskies struggled in the opening weekend of conference play as Arizona State swept them to open the season, then took a set off them in a 3-1 Washington victory on the second day.
If they hope to replicate any of the Sun Devils’ success against the Huskies, the Wildcats will need to come together as a team. Getting freshman outside hitter Sofia Maldonado Diaz back from quarantine sooner than expected certainly helped, but there’s still a ways to go for the group.
“I think that, in general, with such a large group of new players and several of those players never being in a Pac-12 match, you weren’t quite sure what to expect,” Rubio said. “Sofia certainly played well, and I thought there were players on the team that played well, certainly individually. As a group, we didn’t play particularly well, but I was pleased with Sofia’s performance, as I was with Jaelyn (Hodge) and a couple other players that I thought performed well. But the new players, specifically, I thought had good matches.”
As for the experienced players, Arizona needs more out of senior outside hitter Paige Whipple. The preseason All-Pac-12 selection had 3.94 kills and 2.2 digs per set last season. This year, she opened with a tough go of things in both matches in Salt Lake City.
Whipple had just nine kills in the two matches while hitting -.040. On serve receive and defense, she had seven total digs and three reception errors in six sets. Part of the problem was that Utah targeted her so often, Rubio said. But he also believes there are things she needs to do to counter that.
“A player of Paige’s quality, it would be unexpected for her to struggle as much as she did this weekend,” Rubio said. “And I think that the practice habits that she has demonstrated since we started didn’t allow her to put herself in a position to be kind of the normal Paige we’re accustomed to. And let me expound on that. Because Paige is clearly the best player in our gym, she didn’t really have to work that hard to be the best player in our gym. And in my explanation to her and our discussion yesterday was more along the lines of your comparison isn’t (against) the players in the gym, our gym. Your comparison is the best players in the conference. And I said, ‘You need to demonstrate that every single day in practice.’ And I said, so, my suggestion is what’s going to really help us—because she has demonstrated great leadership skills in the gym and then off the court as well—but now what we need her leadership to be is just playing at an intensity level and an eliteness that is going to help us compete better. And so she needs to start doing that in practice. And so every great player, when they hear that honesty, they take that and they digest it and they say, ‘Okay, you’re right. I need to step it up.’ And she needs to dial it up in practice.”
The team did get something out of the weekend in Utah, even if they weren’t competitive against the Utes. Rubio believes it will help the young players prepare for the difficulty that lies in front of them.
“In practice this week, I wrote down kind of the preseason rankings,” he said. “And then I wrote down each week where we’re gonna play. So the first three weeks, as you know, Utah, Washington and Stanford—one, two, and three. And there’s not much forgiveness in the conference, in general, but when you open up with a young squad like we have with the three top teams in the conference, reality hits you pretty quickly, especially with a young group who hasn’t competed at this level yet. So regardless of the outcome, the weekend was good for us. And we got better because of what we had to deal with and what we face this weekend because we didn’t have any knowledge. And the players didn’t have any knowledge about really what to expect.”
Now that they know, they can try to make the adjustments. They just must do it against some of the best teams in the country.
Arizona will host the defending national champions after all
- Due to the COVID-19 restrictions in Santa Clara County that required anyone who traveled further than 150 miles out of the county to quarantine for 10 days, Stanford’s season was up in the air. Hosting matches was obviously out of the question, but even going on road was impossible unless the team replicated the lifestyle of the basketball teams by finding another place to play, train and live for the duration of the season. Rubio did not expect the Cardinal to come to Tucson on Feb. 5. Now that Santa Clara County has lifted the quarantine requirement for athletic teams, Stanford will start its season against the Wildcats next week.
How to follow along
- Date/Time: Friday, Jan. 29 at 5 p.m. MST and Saturday, Jan. 30 at 6:30 p.m. MST
- Location: McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz.
- TV: Friday’s match will be televised on Pac-12 Washington
- Stream: Saturday’s match will be streamed on Arizona Live Stream
- Stats: In-match stats will be available via Arizona Live Stats
- Twitter: Follow us at @AZDesertSwarm. You can also follow our editor at @RKelapire and our reporter at @KimDoss71 for coverage during the game and throughout the season.