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Cactus Classic is Arizona volleyball’s first opportunity to prepare for tough road ahead

Middle blocker Merle Weidt goes for the score during the Spring 2021 season.
Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

Arizona head coach Dave Rubio is having second thoughts about the task his team has ahead of them. It’s a task that he assigned with a schedule that includes a total of 11 matches against six teams that played in last year’s NCAA Tournament.

“I’m not quite sure that was the smartest move for me,” he said. “We’re significantly more talented (this season), but we’re young and that worries me.”

It’s not that the Wildcats are unaccustomed to facing top teams. The Pac-12 has been one of the premier leagues in the country for women’s volleyball for decades. That means that the non-conference portion of the schedule needs to be a balancing act of teams good enough to prepare the Wildcats for conference play and matches that Arizona can use to figure out rotations and gain confidence.

“The non-conference will give us an opportunity to kind of see what the lineups are going to be like,” Rubio said. “We don’t have to play someone right out of the gate that’s going to be a conference-play level team.”

Before they have to face teams like Texas and Notre Dame, the Wildcats will use the Cactus Classic and next week’s Springhill Suites Invitational to prepare. While Arizona is very talented and was able to get top freshmen like Jaelyn Hodge and Sofia Maldonado Diaz a considerable amount of experience last season, the team is still very young.

Thirteen of the team’s 20 players have never even played an NCAA volleyball game in front of a crowd. The matches in Tucson and Las Cruces will help that group prepare for what is sure to be a difficult environment in Austin.

Unfortunately, not all of those young players will be ready to go this weekend. Arizona will be missing some players and integrating others who missed a great deal of fall training.

Last weekend, freshmen Ava Francis, Jennifer Wroblicky, and Alayna Johnson were all out due to COVID-19 protocols. All players are required to quarantine after arriving on campus. Those requirements also kept freshman Puk Stubbe from participating in some of fall practice.

While Francis has rejoined the team, Wroblicky and Johnson were either still in quarantine or just emerging. That makes it unlikely that they’ll be available this weekend.

The pandemic isn’t the only thing keeping players away, either. After joining the team late, Stubbe missed additional practice time this week with migraines. She wasn’t the only one who missed time this week.

“We had a little bit of a scare (Tuesday) with Merle (Weidt), kind of ricocheted a ball off of her,” Rubio said. “And we’re going, ‘Oh, God, now we’re down to two middles.’ Started the season with five.”

The immediate fear was that Weidt had suffered a concussion. That injury has haunted Arizona more than any other in recent years. Fortunately, that concern proved to be unfounded.

The shifting availability of players still has its effects.

“I had Sofia playing opposite (on Wednesday) because Puk wasn’t there,” Rubio said. “And Merle didn’t play... because I was afraid of a concussion. So, I had Nicole (Briggs). You’re not as set on a set lineup when you get those kind of kids out.”

There’s no more time to worry about who is healthy or who is prepared now. The lights will go on for the 2021 season whether they’re ready or not.

Marist Red Foxes

Viewing and attendance information: Arizona will play Marist to open the tournament at 10 a.m. MST on Friday, Aug. 27 in McKale Center. The match will be streamed on Arizona Live Stream and stats will be available at Arizona Live Stats.

Last year: Marist played just four matches in the 2020-21 season. All four matches were against fellow members of the MAAC. The Red Foxes lost three of them.

In the previous three seasons, Marist finished the season hovering around the .500 mark but generally did well in their own conference. Their best stretch in the last decade came from 2013 through 2015 when they won 21 or more games for three straight seasons. The Red Foxes missed the NCAA Tournament each time by losing in their conference tournament.

What to expect: With only four matches under their belt in the spring, a cross-country trip, and a Pac-12 foe with a great deal of talent, this will be a difficult match for Marist.

Rubio says: “I don’t know much about Marist. I know their coach Sean Byron’s a terrific coach. And then they return I think their entire starting lineup, so I think that they’re pretty old. And a team that’s pretty young, that’s not always a great combination.”

New Mexico State Aggies

Viewing and attendance information: Arizona and the Aggies will play in the featured match at 6:30 p.m. MST on Friday, Aug. 27 in McKale Center. The match will be streamed on Arizona Live Stream and stats will be available at Arizona Live Stats.

Record last year: NMSU had a great season, going 16-2 overall and 13-1 to win the WAC’s regular season. It ended in heartbreak with a loss to No. 3 seed Utah Valley in the WAC Tournament, which was played on Utah Valley’s home court. The loss kept the Aggies from making a trip to the NCAA Tournament.

What to expect: The Aggies and the Wildcats know each other well. The teams play at least once a year and regularly have a home-and-home arrangement. Rubio has referred to the two coaching staffs as being like family.

At one time that was literally true, as his brother Keith Rubio was the associate head coach of NMSU before retiring in April. The connections continued when the Aggies hired Gregg Whitis as their new assistant coach. Whitis was on the Arizona staff for seven years before stepping away in 2020.

On the court, the Aggies defeated the Wildcats in a scrimmage last season. The teams split their 2018 meetings with each squad taking the match on its home court. That Arizona team, which was led by Kendra Dahlke, ended the season 22-11 and made the NCAA Tournament.

This season, NMSU has already faced another team, although in an unofficial capacity. The Aggies played an exhibition match against Texas Tech. That match consisted of five sets, each of which was played to 25 points. Texas Tech won three of those sets.

Rubio says: “I know that New Mexico State is going to give us everything we can handle. They’re a very good team who have had a lot of success. They return a good portion of their lineup. That’s going to be a big match for us.”

UC San Diego Tritons

Viewing and attendance information: Arizona and the Tritons will play in the final match of the tournament at 1:30 p.m. MST on Saturday, Aug. 28 in McKale Center. The match will be streamed on Arizona Live Stream and stats will be available at Arizona Live Stats.

Record last year: The Tritons did not play last year. They have not played an official match since Dec. 5, 2019, when they were dismissed in the West Regional of the DII NCAA Tournament. They went 18-9 that year.

What to expect: Not only will this be the Tritons’ first match in over 18 months, it will also be its first Division I match in school history. UC San Diego was supposed to begin competing in the Big West last season. However, the conference canceled the women’s volleyball season. Fall sports were canceled by the league, and the officials decided not to allow the teams to compete in the spring season.

UC San Diego was very successful at the DII level, compiling a winning record in 14 of the last 15 years. Some expect them to keep on that trajectory now that they have taken the step up to DI. Like Arizona, the Tritons received votes in the preseason AVCA poll. In fact, the two teams received an identical eight points in that initial survey.

Rubio says: “UCSD, I believe is the first year they’re actually in the Big West. And so for them, it’s going to be a good transition. Ricci Luyties is the head coach, and one of the all-time great Bruin men’s players that I played against many years ago, and one of the all-time great beach players. And so he certainly knows his way around the game.”