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Breaking down Arizona volleyball’s tough 2021 schedule

The Wildcats will face several of last year’s best teams

Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

In a regular year, college volleyball teams spend the spring playing in practice tournaments. The year that just wrapped up was not regular in any sense of the word as the pandemic forced changes to everything from the time of year to the length of the postseason for women’s volleyball. The Arizona Wildcats are looking forward to a more typical season beginning in August, and now they know who they will be playing.

The schedule released on July 2 is one that will challenge a talented and experienced team that returns the 2020-21 Pac-12 and AVCA Pacific South Freshman of the Year, Sofia Maldonado Diaz. Fellow heralded sophomores Jaelyn Hodge and Emery Herman will join talented juniors Kamaile Hiapo and Dilara Gedikoglu to add a combination of youth and match-tested experience. The Wildcats also feature a strong senior class that includes Zyonna Fellows, Malina Kalei Ua, and Merle Weidt.

In addition to Hiapo and Ua, the group includes two more experienced littles. The team also adds a class of seven freshmen and a senior transfer.

Arizona lost two regular contributors. Four-year starter Paige Whipple opted not to take advantage of the extra year offered by the NCAA. Middle blocker China Rai Crouch started early in the season last year but was injured and only appeared in 10 matches. She does not appear on the Wildcats’ 2021 roster, although she still appears in Arizona’s online directory as a student. Grad transfer and backup setter Akia Warrior has also moved on.

This group of Wildcats could be dangerous in 2021, and head coach Dave Rubio has scheduled as if he believes they will be able to battle against the best. Before they even get to Pac-12 play, they will face last year’s national runners-up. In all, Arizona will face seven teams that played in the abbreviated 48-team NCAA Tournament last April including half of the Final Four.

The return of a regular schedule means the return of early-season tournaments. The Wildcats will start things off with home-and-home tournaments against New Mexico State.

The Aggies will join Marist and UC San Diego in Tucson on Aug. 27-28. In the past, this tournament has been called the Cactus Classic. The Wildcats will face off against Marist and NMSU on Friday, then take on the UCSD Tritons on Saturday.

It will be challenging from the very beginning. Last year, the Aggies defeated the Wildcats on the way to a 16-2 record and the WAC championship. As Arizona’s only scrimmage, it didn’t count in the standings. It did, however, make clear that the young Arizona team would be spending the year growing as the talented freshmen got their feet wet.

The Aggies’ victory wasn’t a new thing. In 2018, the two teams split their matches. NMSU won in five sets when they met in Las Cruces, then the Wildcats swept the Aggies a week later in Tucson.

The Big West canceled the women’s volleyball season last year, so the Tritons will be returning to play for the first time since Dec. 5, 2019. They feature an experienced team with six upperclassmen on their 14-player roster, but the group has been deprived of the opportunity to go against an opponent for over 18 months.

In 2019, the Tritons went 18-9 and appeared in the NCAA Tournament. They have had only one losing season in over 15 years. History says that they should be up to the task ahead despite the long layoff.

The second weekend of the season is Arizona’s return trip to NMSU in a tournament usually called the Borderland Invitational. This tournament features the Aggies and UTEP and usually includes some matches in El Paso and some in Las Cruces. The times and locations of this year’s matches have not been announced, but Northwestern will join NMSU, UTEP, and Arizona on Sept 3-4.

The Northwestern Wildcats played just 10 matches last season and lost six of them. In fact, they haven’t had a winning record since 2014 and that year ended at 16-15.

UTEP held their own at 10-8 in the pandemic-shortened season, but that was their only winning season since they went 16-15 in 2012. The Miners won single-digit matches every season between those two years.

With the talent the Wildcats have, NMSU should be the only team that gives them trouble at the Borderland Invitational. The next week, they will take a huge step up in competition level.

Arizona will head to Austin, Tex. for the third week of the season to face last year’s national runners-up on Sept. 10. The Longhorns return a stacked roster that helped them get to the title game. They may be even better this season. While she does not yet appear on their roster, former Utah setter Saige Ka’aha’aina-Torres announced on Twitter that she had transferred to Texas.

The tough road trip doesn’t end with the match against the Longhorns. The Wildcats will face Notre Dame on Sept. 11. The Irish also made it into the 48-team NCAA Tournament earlier this year. Their season ended with a 15-4 record as they bowed out to Oregon in the second round of the tourney.

Before heading into the formidable Pac-12 season, Arizona will host the tournament that is usually called the Wildcat Classic. This season, the Wildcats welcome UC Riverside, San Diego State, and Texas Southern on Sept. 17-18. Compared to most of the season, it should be a relatively easy weekend when Arizona can work on things they need to improve before they face conference play.

Like UCSD, UC Riverside lost their entire season when the Big West canceled women’s volleyball along with all other fall sports despite the fact that the season was held in the spring. The conference noted the pandemic as the reason for the cancelation but allowed men’s volleyball to compete during the same time period when the women would have played.

The Highlanders last finished a season with double-digit wins in 2005.

Like UC Riverside, Texas Southern will be returning to play for the first time since 2019. They will be coming off two straight 11-win seasons,

SDSU should provide the most competition for Arizona in their final tune-up tournament. The Aztecs also had a losing record last season, going 6-9 all in Mountain West play. However, they have finished over .500 in seven of the last 10 seasons.

The willingness to test themselves in tough environments during the non-conference season should prepare the Wildcats for the task they will face when the Pac-12 season starts.

Arizona was able to finish in the top half of the conference standings last season despite having an extremely young team and dealing with injuries to both Whipple and Crouch. They also showed a great deal of discipline by being able to get through the season without having to cancel any matches due to COVID-19 issues within their own program. There’s no reason to expect them to take steps backward this year unless injuries rear their ugly heads again.

Last year, the conference contributed five of the 48 teams who made the NCAA Tournament. If the postseason had consisted of its typical 64-team field, there is good reason to believe that the Wildcats would have been the sixth entry from the league. This year, they will get the chance to prove that.

Things will get started with a bang with the first half of the Arizona-Arizona State rivalry on Friday, Sept. 23 in Tempe. The teams split their meetings last season with each team taking their home match. The Wildcats looked to be the better team overall, but couldn’t close the Sun Devils out in Tempe.

Because of the unbalanced nature of the 20-game conference schedule, each team misses one home match and one away match. This season, they will face Oregon State in Tucson and Oregon in Eugene, but the return matches will be skipped. That means the Beavers arrive in McKale Center on Sept. 26. The Wildcats have gone 5-5 against OSU in their past 10 matches.

The second weekend of the conference season brings us to not one, but two grudge matches. The first one is in Berkeley.

For three seasons, outside hitter Katie Smoot wore a Wildcat uniform. After her junior season, it was time for a change. In the words of associate head coach Rita Stubbs, Arizona “was not the place” for Smoot, so the Bay Area native transferred to Cal after the 2019 season.

Last year, Smoot wasn’t on the floor for the indoor team, though. Reports indicated that she would play beach volleyball during spring, then return to play indoor during the fall, but Cal’s fall roster has not been released yet.

If Smoot does follow through with her intention to play in the fall, the Wildcats will face one of the players who had a major hand in keeping their heads above water during the injury-plagued 2019 season.

Smoot will not be the only senior returning for Cal, either. Outside hitter Mima Mirkovic sat out last season, but she also plans to return for the Golden Bears. After going 1-21 last season, including dropping six straight sets to the Wildcats, they will need that help.

Stanford will have its own reasons for revenge when Arizona comes to town. The Cardinal, who entered the year as the two-time defending champions, dealt with debilitating practice limitations imposed by Santa Clara County, COVID-19 quarantines, and injuries last season. They tried to fight through it, but it wasn’t to be.

The Wildcats swept the Cardinal last season, beating them 3-0 and 3-1 in Tucson. It was Stanford’s first competition of the season and they had just nine players suited up.

It was Arizona’s first season sweep of Stanford since 2005. The Cardinal are going to want to avenge that. Have the Wildcats improved enough to prevent that redemption?

Things don’t get any easier, because that’s how Pac-12 volleyball goes. The next week, Arizona will come back home to face last season’s Final Four participant Washington.

The Huskies will likely be the second of four straight ranked opponents as the Wildcats move on to host Washington State and UCLA in the following two matches. A dangerous USC team won’t be far behind.

Colorado and Utah will close out the first half of Pac-12 play. Colorado had some big wins against UCLA and Utah last season as well as a five-set loss to Washington. Against the Wildcats, though, they came up short. Arizona took both matches by a 3-1 margin.

The Utes were predicted to win the conference in the preseason poll last year, but didn’t quite live up to expectations. They did, however, sweep both matches against Arizona to open the season.

This year, they will be trying to put things together without setter Ka’aha’aina-Torres or outside hitter Kenzie Koerber, both of whom transferred in the offseason. Utah will get back two-time AVCA Pacific South Region Player of the Year Dani Drews, though.

The Utes will have time to gel before the Wildcats face them, too. The two teams don’t meet until the final weekend of the opening half of the season.

In the last half of the season, the Wildcats will replace Oregon State with Oregon on the slate. The Ducks finished second in the Pac-12 last year and advanced to the Sweet 16 in the tournament. They will have a young team, but outside hitter Taylor Borup is set to play her third senior season and Brooke Nuneviller is bringing her versatility back.

There’s no letting up in the Pac-12. That’s true for most women’s sports. But the Wildcats have the talent to stay in the top half of the league and make their way back to the NCAA Tournament in 2021. That would end a two-year drought. After suffering through a slew of injuries in 2018 and 2019, then having to deal with the pandemic season in 2020-21, just having a regular year would be something of a win.