The trip to the Mountain schools is never an easy one. Whether it is the altitude, the interstate travel, or the talent, there are obstacles everywhere when a team plays Colorado and No. 18 Utah. Arizona volleyball will have to find a way to climb those obstacles if there’s any hope of snapping a five-game losing streak.
When it comes to the altitude, many people think the challenge is confined to the athletes’ ability to breathe. The thin air has an effect on more than just the human body, though.
“At elevation, everything kind of turns into the Twilight Zone up there,” Arizona head coach Dave Rubio said. “As an athlete, the air’s a little bit thinner, the ball moves a little bit...so there’s a lot of variables that you have to deal with that you normally don’t deal with when you’re playing at other schools.”
They may be on their way to the Twilight Zone, but there is some good news for the Wildcats. After playing last week’s matches without Zyonna Fellows, Arizona has its senior middle blocker back. She was released from concussion protocol and returned to practice on Wednesday.
They need all hands on deck since they will be facing one team that is ranked in the AVCA poll and another that was ranked until Oct. 11.
Colorado started the season on fire. With the help of super senior Leah Clayton, the Buffaloes opened with an 11-1 record. Since then, they are 2-4. Part of that is that they have faced Stanford, Oregon and UCLA over that stretch. Another part is that Clayton is no longer with the team.
Clayton was indefinitely suspended for a violation of team rules after the team defeated Utah on Sept. 24. She has since been dropped from the CU roster. Also missing time since then is libero and outside hitter Zoe Neverdowski, who has been injured.
The Buffs still have some weapons. The difference is that many of those weapons are considerably younger than Clayton, who was playing her sixth year of college volleyball. They still have one super senior in middle blocker Meegan Hart, but their two outside hitters are underclassmen.
Clayton played just two matches in conference play, so the conference slate is a fairly accurate representation of the team without her. Over those eight matches, sophomore Maya Tabron has averaged 3.12 kills per set while freshman Jahara Campbell averages 2.29 k/s, leading the players who still remain with the program.
The Wildcats will get no such reprieve from facing a dominant super senior when they move on to face Utah. The Utes lost several players to the transfer portal after the spring season, but the most important one stayed. Two-time AVCA First Team All-American Dani Drews is still racking up the kills for Utah.
Last season, Drews led the country with 5.21 k/s. She’s not quite that dominant this season, but 4.79 k/s is still dominant enough to lead the Pac-12. Drews and Madelyn Robinson combine to give Utah two of the top 20 Pac-12 players in kills per set.
Rubio doesn’t know how the Wildcats will respond this week. He said that they had two good practices on Tuesday and Wednesday. They were scheduled to practice again on Thursday before they boarded their flight to Colorado. Every practice and every match gives them more time on the clock, which the coach believes will eventually get them to their destination.
“It’s just really a matter of time before we can play steady enough,” Rubio said. “And if you’re playing in an inferior league then it’s different. But you’re not, you’re playing against really good players and really good coaches. And so just the margin for error is really, really, really much, much smaller. So those are the things that we know. I know that with time we’ll be fine. It’s unpredictable when that time will be.”
Colorado Buffaloes (12-5, 3-5 Pac-12)
Date and time: The match was originally scheduled for Friday, Oct. 22 at 5 p.m. MST but has been pushed back one hour until 6 p.m. on Friday.
Location: CU Events Center in Boulder, Colo.
Viewing and stats information: The match will air on Pac-12 Mountain. Stats will be available on Arizona Live Stats.
AVCA Ranking and RPI: The Buffs are receiving votes in the coaches poll. They are No. 32 in the RPI.
Rubio says: “They have a good mixture of age and experience and youth. And so I think that’s one reason why they’ve been as competitive as they have been.”
Utah Utes (12-5, 5-3 Pac-12)
Date and time: Sunday, Oct. 24 at 12 p.m. MST
Location: Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, Utah
AVCA Ranking and RPI: The Utes are No. 18 in the coaches poll. In RPI, they are No. 12.
Rubio says: “When you have somebody who’s in the conversation for Player of the Year like Dani Drews, I think you’re gonna be in most of the matches. They have a number of complementary players. [Madelyn Robinson], who is the other outside hitter, is a transfer from BYU, and she’s a terrific player.”