Arizona volleyball knows what’s ahead. The Wildcats left early Wednesday morning for the trip to Madison to face No. 1 Wisconsin. There’s not much to lose by taking that step up in competition level.
“We know what’s ahead of us,” said Arizona head coach Rita Stubbs. “And the best thing is—and I’ve said it since the very beginning—it doesn’t matter if we win or lose, it’s about putting on a good show and seeing what it’s like in that environment so that we can aim for stuff like that. So, not afraid.”
Regardless of how the match turns out, playing in Madison might come back to help the team later in the season.
“You have to actually see what it’s like versus just watching it on television or watching it on film,” Stubbs said. “We’ll see something similar in Stanford. So, it’s not like we won’t see it again.”
Arizona has only two weeks before heading into the final season of Pac-12 play against teams like No. 5 Stanford and No. 6 Oregon. Scheduling the tournament at Wisconsin, which also includes a Miami (FL) team that was receiving votes in the AVCA Top 25 at the beginning of the season, is meant to help prepare for that.
“I knew for a fact we wanted to play at home to open up to test the waters and then didn’t want to go very far just because you always think about your budget and things like that,” Stubbs said. “And then it was like, well, we have to have some competition because last year when we talked [former head coach] Dave [Rubio] felt that our fourth weekend wasn’t competitive enough for preparation going into the conference.”
It’s not unheard of for Arizona to play a team like Wisconsin in non-conference competition. It’s also not unheard of for the Wildcats to acquit themselves well in these circumstances.
Two years ago, the team traveled to No. 1 Texas and played one of its strongest matches of the season in a 3-1 loss. Two years before that, it was a match against No. 2 Nebraska on a neutral court in San Diego. That, too, was a 3-1 loss in a well-played game. In 2016, it was this same Wisconsin program in a neutral site loss in Hawai’i. That was the only sweep in recent years against high-quality pre-conference competition, but all three sets were extremely close. Wisconsin won 26-24, 26-24, 25-22.
In addition to the competition, the match is an opportunity for defensive specialist Ava Tortorello to go somewhere she’s familiar with.
“Ava is super excited because her mom played there, so she’s really looking forward to going, and so the other players are feeding off of that,” Stubbs said. “They watched Wisconsin play last week. They know they’re number one in the nation. They’ve heard rumors about what it’s like in their gym. And the year that they won the national championship, I was able to be in the midst of that because my goddaughter went to school there. And so, I was there and watching the chant and walking up and all of that. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is pretty amazing!’...So, I’ve shared those stories with them and they’re familiar. I mean, true volleyball players know good volleyball, and they want to try it. They want to see what it’s like, so they’re excited.”
The crowd will be against them. The team on the other side will be exceptional. They had to get up before dawn and take two planes to get to Madison. None of it matters to Stubbs.
“Literally, we have nothing to lose,” she said. “And seeing that a couple other teams have taken some sets off of them and pushed them to the wire a little bit should give us comfort versus saying, ‘Okay, we can’t do it.’ Because sometimes when you tell people you can do it, and I’ve never seen it done, whatever. But now we have footage of it having been done. And granted, they have every right to be good and they’re going to be good. They’re gonna be on their home court. All of that. Who cares? You know, it is what it is. But we have to walk in and carve out a space for ourselves.”
Note on travel and the Big 12:
The trip to Madison will be a little taste of what’s in store for Arizona when it moves to the Big 12 next year. Stubbs said that Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, and Utah coaches had a conference call on Monday to begin brainstorming about the travel piece of next season. She said she foresees more charters for volleyball, especially to get to places like West Virginia and Kansas State.
The group is waiting to see how the conference decides to group teams. There will be 15 volleyball teams. A conference season is usually about 20 matches long, and she wants to play everyone at least once. The size of the league may mean having a conference tournament, though, and most of their future is up in the air until the football piece is figured out.
Arizona Wildcats (3-3) @ No. 1 Wisconsin Badgers (5-0)
When: Thursday, Sept. 7, 2023 at 5 p.m. MST
Where: UW Field House in Madison, Wisc.
Stats: Arizona Live Stats
Wisconsin season to date: The Badgers have played four matches against ranked teams so far this season. Only one came at home yet they are undefeated. Baylor, Arkansas, and Tennessee were all able to take at least one set with the Razorbacks and Vols pushing UW to five in two of their matches.
Arizona Wildcats (3-3) vs Miami Hurricanes (4-1)
When: Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023 at 5 p.m. MST
Where: UW Field House
Stats: Arizona Live Stats
Miami season to date: This will be the first time the Hurricanes leave Coral Gables this season. It could also be a fairly sparse crowd since Wisconsin finishes up the weekend on Friday. Stubbs said that UW tried to get a fourth team for the tournament, but it didn’t work out. Miami has played a slate of matches fairly similar to the one Arizona has faced. It has wins over Maryland, Florida International, Florida Atlantic, and Lamar. Its sole loss comes in a five-setter against South Carolina.