For the Arizona volleyball team’s return to the NCAA tournament, the connections with its first opponent run deep.
The UA’s first-round matchup in the win-or-go-home tournament of 64 teams will be against New Mexico State on Friday at 6 p.m. in San Diego.
For coach Dave Rubio, it will be a family affair — his brother, Keith Rubio, is in his third season as an Aggies assistant coach.
“We were texting back and forth,” Dave Rubio told the Star on Sunday, after the announcement. “We’re close. The two programs are close. I’ve known their coach, Mike Jordan, for 20 years and we play every spring against each other. They have a terrific team, but we all understand what’s at stake, regardless of friendships or relatives.”
There are other Tucson connections.
Two of the Aggies leaders are native Tucsonans — middle blocker Desiree Scott, a Catalina Foothills product; and Stephanie Ziegler, a Canyon del Oro graduate. They are both seniors.
Most importantly, though, Rubio is just happy to be back in the field of 64.
“Well, it’s been a long year waiting for us to get back to the tournament,” he said, “so we’re honored to be back in the tournament. We feel we’re excited about being back and if we couldn’t host the first or second round I think the next best place we could go to would be San Diego.”
The Wildcats finished the regular season 20-12 — 10-10 in the Pac-12 — with their 3-1 win on Friday against ASU. It marks Arizona’s return to the postseason tournament after narrowly missing out in 2012.
The last time Arizona was in the NCAA tournament in 2011, the Wildcats were eliminated in the first round against Michigan State in Austin, Texas.
From that 2011 team, six players remain — senior libero Candace Nicholson; junior outside hitters Madi Kingdon, Taylor Arizobal and Shaquillah Torres; junior middle blocker Rachel Rhoades; and junior libero Ronni Lewis. Kingdon leads the Pac-12 in points, and the UA in kills and service aces.
Arizona lost in the first round in 2010 and 2009, as well.
“I think all those matches in the tournament are invaluable in regards to experience when you go back,” Rubio said, “Hopefully, this time we’ll be able to handle that pressure and the stress that goes with being in the tournament. Hopefully, we’ll do a little bit better.”
The Aggies (22-10) won the WAC regular season with a 14-2 record and then captured the WAC tournament.
Since Rubio was named the Wildcats coach in 1992, Arizona has faced New Mexico State five times, most recently in 2010, and the Wildcats are 5-0.
If the Wildcats defeat the Aggies, they will face the winner of the UC Santa Barbara-San Diego match at Jenny Craig Pavilion on Saturday at 8 p.m. The Wildcats beat UCSB 3-2 on Sept. 21.
A win Saturday would put the Wildcats in a regional in Lincoln, Neb. The Final Four will take place in Seattle on Dec. 19 and 21.
“I think if you want to be relevant you have to go to the tournament,” Rubio said. “Now, you don’t want to look too far ahead, but your goal for everybody in the tournament is to try to make as deep a run as you can.”