I think it’s safe to say the University of Arizona women’s volleyball team is really on its game right now.
The Wildcats swept No. 22 USC and No. 18 UCLA, and then defeated No. 12 Stanford, the first time they’ve beaten the Cardinal in the last 20 times the two Pac-12 opponents have met. You have to go back to 2005 to find the Cats’ last win over Stanford.
And, to increase the degree of difficulty, all three wins were on the road.
This is the first time since the 2001 NCAA Tournament that Arizona has defeated three consecutive ranked opponents on the road.
Picked in the preseason to finish sixth in the conference after a 19-14 finish last year, the Cats (13-7, 5-3) are now in a logjam with five other teams tied for third place.
A win against their last opponent would have put them in a tie for first place in the Pac-12, but after three high-flying wins over ranked opponents the past couple of weeks, the Cats had a letdown Sunday against California.
“Cal played really well, but we were really poor,” said UA head coach Dave Rubio in assessing his team’s performance against the Bears. “We were poor, both physically and mentally. We were not ready to play.”
The offense appeared up the task, as three Wildcat players recorded double-digit kills: Kendra Dahlke (19), Kalei Mau (18), and Katarina Pilepic (17). But even that effort was overshadowed by the Stanford win, in which the Wildcats posted a team total of 73 kills, the third-most in the NCAA this year in a four-set match.
Penina Snuka had 59 assists against Cal, one shy of her career high, and 12 digs to post her 12th double-double of the year. The senior setter was named the Flo Volleyball National Player of the Week for leading Arizona in the wins over USC and UCLA.
But it was poor play at the service line that enabled California to hold on for a five-set victory (22-25, 25-23, 25-20, 23-25, 11-15). The Cats tied a season high with 14 service errors.
The loss was just the second this season to an un-ranked opponent.
Now they have to get back on track, mentally and physically, to take on the top two teams in the Pac-12 this weekend. And the two home games will mark the fifth and sixth meetings with ranked teams over the course of the last seven matches.
Arizona will start with No. 18 Washington State tonight and then prepare for a Sunday match-up with the No. 7 Washington Huskies.
Washington State (16-5, 6-3) is sitting at No. 2 in the conference, but were on a three-game skid before beating cellar-dweller Arizona State Wednesday. The Cougars started conference play 5-0 and knocked off three top-10 teams, but dropped games to Oregon, Colorado, and Utah before playing the Sun Devils.
However, WSU comes into tonight’s match as the conference leader in opponent hitting percentage and total blocks.
The Huskies (16-2, 6-2) have won five straight matches, losing just two sets during that span. An all-round solid team, Washington is among the top five teams in the Pac-12 in every statistical category. Junior setter Bailey Tanner leads the conference in assists and junior outside hitter Crissy Jones is tops in aces per set.
After these two games, Rubio should have a good idea about his team’s resilience and ability to bounce back, and whether they can maintain some consistency at a high level as the Pac-12 schedule moves into the second half of play next week.
This is Rubio’s 25th season directing the Wildcat program, and it looks like this team has the potential to be one of his best since winning the Pac-10 championship in 2000 and advancing to the Final Four the next year.
We’ll know just how accurate that statement is after the Washington schools leave town.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)