Junior outside hitter Paige Whipple tries to block Alabama State during the teams’ match earlier this season in McKale Center.

Entering her junior season, Paige Whipple knew it was her time. She was grabbing the torch from Kendra Dahlke, one of the best outside hitters in UA volleyball history.

Whipple has stepped up her performance during a season that has tested the Wildcats’ health — and patience. On Sunday, Whipple played at what UA coach Dave Rubio said was an “All-American level,” helping the Wildcats take No. 17 Utah to five sets before losing 3-2. In 53 swings, Whipple posted 17 kills and made just five errors.

“Paige had one of the greatest statistical matches that I’ve been a part of Sunday,” Rubio said.

Arizona has another challenging weekend ahead of it. The Wildcats will host No. 20 Cal (18-4, 8-4 Pac-12) Thursday night and No. 3 Stanford (16-4, 10-2 Pac-12) on Saturday.

Whipple is averaging 3.42 kills per set, numbers that rank seventh in the Pac-12. She has at least 13 kills in the last seven matches. Against Colorado last Friday, she posted 22 kills on 57 swings; she had just eight errors.

It’s certainly helps that Rubio is boosting her confidence.

“What’s the worst that can happen? Like, we don’t play a good game? Oh well, with the circumstances it’s easy to just stay relaxed and give it our all and whatever happens, happens,” Whipple said. “Having people out and not being in the most ideal situation in terms of lineup and not having the win-loss record, those are all really disappointing things, but it’s been motivation for us to really become closer and realize that this is the group we have to get it done and win or lose. We want to walk off the court knowing that we gave it our all. …So, playing hard every single night is just what we’re going to do and the outcome is going to be the outcome.”

Whipple’s approach to the game has helped her navigate a season that isn’t what anyone expected. The Wildcats have been snakebit by injuries all season; three of Whipple’s teammates — Liz Shelton, Shardonee Hayes, and Whittnee Nihipali — are all out with concussions.

“I’m just very calm and not a lot things get me rattled, which has really helped me as an athlete, because in volleyball every point matters,” Whipple said. “And there’s such a small margin for error in this game, because you make an error, the other team gets a point. So, that’s really been a blessing for me, honestly that that’s built into who I am playing the game of volleyball. Because I am able to move on quickly from mistakes and forget about the past and just move on to the next thing.”

Whipple isn’t the only Wildcat who shined against Utah. Katie Smoot had a season-tying 19 kills and Devyn Cross had seven blocks, 12 kills on while hitting .400.

And then there was senior setter Julia Patterson, who had a match for the ages. She posted 43 assists, 13 digs and a career-high 10 kills, becoming the first Power 5 conference player to post a triple-double this season.

Rubio said he has been encouraging Patterson to be more aggressive on offense.

“She’s really a distributor more than anything,” Rubio said. “It’s like the point guard that refuses to shoot and they just need him to shoot but he wants to just keep passing the ball. Well, that’s like Julia and I’m like ‘Julia you’ve got to be more offensive.’ And finally, she put the numbers up. …It’s still a remarkable match by her.”

Extra points

  • Patterson is the only Pac-12 setter averaging nine assists, 1 kill and 2 digs per set. She currently sits in seventh place in UA history with 3,249 assists. She is one kill shy of hitting 100 digs this season, which will put her 10th in UA history.
  • Kamaile Haipo is second among freshmen in digs, averaging 3.19 per set.
  • Cross carries a .431 hitting percentage into this week’s matches, a mark that’s sixth in the country. Cross leads the Pac-12 in hitting.
  • The Wildcats play six of their last eight matches at home after being on the road for much of the season. However, this week is a short one — the Wildcats typically play on Fridays instead of Thursdays. Rubio said his team is “scrambling and our practices have really been cut down.” “A lot of that is because you can’t throw the volume of things we normally would add, but they are tired. I mean they are really tired. I have to manage that as a coach. They appreciate that, too. If you can listen to what they are saying and give them what they want sometimes, and they’ll play harder for you.”