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Arizona volleyball has the talent but needs consistency against Cal, Stanford

Photo by Madison Farwell/Arizona Athletics

Both the coaches and players of Arizona volleyball are confident in the talent of their team. The question for the Wildcats (10-3, 2-0 Pac-12) is whether they can exploit that talent consistently enough to reach their lofty goals.

“I shared with the team yesterday that...regardless of who we play, we’re going to put ourselves in a position to win that match,” head coach Dave Rubio said. “We’re not going to be overmatched by anybody. And whether it was Texas, whether it’s Sanford this coming Sunday, doesn’t matter who it is, we have enough talent and enough experience, enough skills to be able to put ourselves in a position to win. Now whether or not we win will be anyone’s (guess), but it’s been very few years I’ve had a team that can step on the floor and say that.”

Having that kind of talent allows the players to keep stretching their goals. Going into the season, Rubio said that the major goals were finishing in the top half of the conference and getting back to the NCAA Tournament after a two-year absence. The players want more.

“I feel like every week our goals are getting—how can I say—for example, like one month ago our goal was to be top six in the Pac-12, and then three weeks ago to finish top four in the Pac-12, and now...we need to win the Pac-12,” said junior outside hitter Dilara Gedikoglu. “We need to go to the playoffs. Our first scenario needs to be Sweet 16, and now we are talking about Final Four. Why can we not go there? We are dreaming about those things and we are working every day on the court... We are reminding each other about these things.”

It helps that the players have models of teams that have accomplished similar things. Whether it’s the women’s basketball team making last year’s Final Four or the softball team reaching the Women’s College World Series, they have seen their fellow Wildcats reach goals that might have seemed out of reach during the season.

“We have friends on those teams, too,” Gedikoglu said. “Especially last year when women’s basketball went to the Final Four. Honestly, they also didn’t expect to go so high but they did it. They beat UConn, and if they can do that, why can we not? We also played with Texas. They’re ranked first and we could actually beat them, too. We fought on the court with them and we didn’t lose 3-0 or something.”

If they want to do that, especially against teams like Stanford, it’s important that they push each other to a higher level. It’s even more important that they stay at that level.

“My experience has been when I’ve had a team like this is that individual players will drive the team to the next level,” Rubio said. “And so the individual could be Emery (Herman), it could be Jaelyn Hodge, it could be Sofia (Maldonado Diaz), it could be Zyonna (Fellows), Merle (Weidt),... There’s a group of them that need to take the team to the next level because they’re just so confident. They get to this level, and then they maintain the level. So their base now becomes a whole lot higher. We’re not quite there yet.”

Rubio especially needs his front-row players to take on this attitude. That is the group that includes most of the team’s youth. Right now, it’s their libero who is leading the way.

“Kamaile (Hiapo is) the one that right now everyone’s chasing,” Rubio said. “She’s the one that plays consistently at a super high level. Everyone right now kind of gets there and then kind of falls off, and then gets there and kind of falls off. We need to have some of the bigs to get up there and be just like, ‘Okay, I’m not gonna vacillate back and forth.’”

California Golden Bears

Time and date: Friday, Oct. 1 at 7 p.m. MST

Location: Haas Pavilion in Berkely, Calif.

Viewing information: The match will air on Pac-12 Arizona. Stats will be available at Cal Live Stats.

Record: Cal is 7-6 overall and 0-2 in conference play.

Rankings and RPI: Cal is not ranked in the coaches' poll. The Golden Bears are No. 234 in the unofficial RPI.*

Last year: The Wildcats won both matches against the Golden Bears last season. They didn’t drop a set. The year before, Cal did the same to Arizona.

What to expect: Arizona will be facing former Wildcat Katie Smoot for the first time since she transferred. Last spring she opted to play beach volleyball, missing the indoor season. Rubio doesn’t think that will matter one way or the other because so few current Wildcats were part of the team in 2019 when she last played for Arizona.

Smoot has made a difference for the Golden Bears, starting all 13 of the team’s matches. She leads Cal with 3.42 kills per set. She’s also fourth on the team with 19.0 total blocks.

She is one of three regular players who is averaging at least two kills per set. Joining her are Mima Mirkovic (2.45 k/s) and Bella Bergmark (2.04 k/s).

Rubio says: “They got four pin players that can really swing their arm and score. For them, it’s a little bit serve receive—which it has been for everybody—the serve receive has been spotty. And then the question is, can the pin players then carry you and be efficient enough to score points for your team and not score points for the other team? We got to be right in that error rate around 50 percent error rate on the outsides. It’s a scary match for us. They’re good, and we’re gonna have to play well in order to put ourselves in position to win.”

Stanford Cardinal

Time and date: Sunday, Oct. 3 at 1 p.m. MST

Location: Maples Pavilion in Palo Alto, Calif.

Viewing information: The match will air on Pac-12 Bay Area. Stats will be available at Stanford Live Stats.

Record: The Cardinal are 6-4 overall and 1-1 in Pac-12 play. They lost to No. 19 UCLA on their home court last week.

Rankings and RPI: The Cardinal are No. 17 in the AVCA poll and No. 23 in the unofficial RPI.

Last year: The Wildcats swept an extremely short-handed Cardinal team at McKale Center last season. It was the first time Arizona had won both matches against Stanford since 2005, but it came under very unusual circumstances. The Cardinal had just eight players available. Due to the Santa Clara County pandemic restrictions, they came in with very little practice. While Rubio was happy for his players, he said at the time that it wasn’t the same as beating a traditional Stanford squad.

What to expect: Stanford is young. Twelve of their 17 players are underclassmen, which means that inconsistencies aren’t unexpected.

Their youth is extremely talented, though. They have three players who average at least three kills per set: redshirt sophomore Caitie Baird (4.15 k/s), junior Kipp Kendall (3.53 k/s), and freshman Sami Francis (3.11 k/s).

The Cardinal have played seven matches against ranked teams, four of them either on the road or at neutral sites. They are 3-4 in those matches.

They played nine sets over two matches last weekend and went 1-1. Is it a sign that they are vulnerable or will it serve as motivation for them to come out strong against the Wildcats and Sun Devils this weekend?

Rubio says: “Stanford is big, athletic, and physical. And they’re young, so they’re up and down... But sometimes talent overcomes a lot of problems... We’re not big and talented like that. We’re talented, but we don’t have the size. We have the same skills, and so it’ll be a very competitive match.”

*All RPI ratings are from Figstats. They were accurate as of 2 p.m. MST on Sept. 30.