The UA women’s sports teams are making noise in the playoffs, starting with a NCAA Tournament run from the Wildcats’ soccer program. Now, the UA volleyball team is making its own postseason appearance.
The 23rd-ranked Wildcats will take on Missouri in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday in Lincoln, Nebraska. The match is scheduled to start at 3:30 p.m. Tucson time.
Should they win, the Wildcats would play the winner of the match between No. 7 Nebraska and Hofstra on Saturday. Nebraska is the defending national champion.
Kendra Dahlke knows what it takes to succeed in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats are making their fifth postseason appearance in the last six years. Additionally, they’ve been tested by the always tough Pac-12 schedule. Arizona finished fifth in the league, but — in part because of the competition — has the nation’s No. 39 ranked RPI.
“Obviously we’re well-prepared going into the NCAA Tournament because we are in the Pac-12 and it’s always competitive,” said Dahlke, a senior outside hitter. “But you know … the emotions run high when you know that it’s win or lose and if you lose you go home, so it is a little bit of a different feel.”
For someone like sophomore Paige Whipple, who is making her NCAA Tournament debut, it’s about differentiating between the regular season and playoffs.
“At this point all the rankings are gone, all the numbers don’t matter and it’s just who’s going to play their best,” Whipple said. “So I think that’s something that’s exciting to look forward to … that it doesn’t necessarily matter who’s ranked the highest or the lowest anymore; everything’s fair game and everyone’s at the same place right now.”
Missouri is coming off of a 23-7 regular season and 13-5 SEC record. This will be their its consecutive appearance in the tournament. The last time the Tigers and Wildcats met was in 1995, when UA took the match 3-0 in Tucson.
This year’s match will be played at a neutral site, and as the undercard for the highly anticipated Nebraska match. Because of that, the Wildcats may play in front of their largest crowd of the year. Nebraska is averaging 8,188 fans per home match this season.
The whole thing is a bit awkward for UA coach Dave Rubio.
“I don’t like leaving (Wednesday), I like practicing in our own facility and then having a chance to practice there,” Rubio said. “It was really hard for us last-minute trying to get into Lincoln and trying to figure out the best way to do it, try to keep everyone together — logistically it was just a difficult thing. I don’t like the fact that we’re not practicing here, but I don’t think it’s going to matter.”
Aside from his angst for traveling and practicing in a new environment, Rubio was buoyant about the team making the tournament after missing out last season — even though he said his team played well enough to make it in 2017.
This year’s team battled a number of injuries that caused some worry about the possibility of a playoff run. A three-game winning streak to cap the regular season — and a sweep of rival Arizona State last Saturday — pushed the Wildcats into the postseason.
“I felt pretty confident that we’d make the tournament this year,” Rubio said. “But it feels good — the measuring stick is always going to the tournament. I mean, that’s kind of the baseline for determining if you had a successful season. So now it’s how far — how deep — can you make the run?”