TUCSON, Ariz. – The question for the Arizona volleyball team entering the 2015 season was who was going to replace the scoring of Madi Kingdon (5.33 kills/set), Taylor Arizobal (2.53/set) and Ashley Harris (2.14/set). That question may be easier to solve after Arizona’s season-opening victory at Southern Methodist to open the SMU Invite (25-22, 23-25, 27-25, 25-20).
“Always nice to start the season off with a ‘W’,” said head coach Dave Rubio. “Especially on the road against a really good team.”
Three Wildcats, two of whom were making their Arizona debut, posted double-digit kills in Arizona’s four-set victory over the Mustangs. Freshman Tyler Spriggs led the Wildcats with 16 kills on .262 hitting while senior transfer Nikki Attea notched 15 kills on just 39 swings (.282 hitting percentage). Despite hitting just .030, junior Kalei Mau put up a career-high 14 kills.
“It’s hard to imagine a freshman doing what Tyler did tonight,” said Rubio. “I’m really proud of her and it really speaks to the kind of talent that she is.”
Picking up where it left off a season ago, Arizona’s defense was terrific, posting 112 digs, the third highest total in Arizona history in a four-set match. Mau, who entered the season with 28 career digs, led Arizona with 31 digs on the night. Mau becomes the sixth player in school history to post more than 30 digs in a match. Meanwhile Penina Snuka, who had 50 assists in the match, dug 29 balls, two off her career high. Laura Larson, in her first match as the UA libero, notched 18 digs, a career high, while transfer Mackenzie Kleespies posted 17 digs in her first match at Arizona.
UA limited the Mustangs to an .077 hitting percentage.
Arizona outblocked SMU 11.0-4.0, none bigger than back-to-back blocks to end the third set, completing a dramatic comeback that allowed Arizona to take a 2-1 lead in the match rather than face a 2-1 deficit. McKenzie Jacobson was in on both of the blocks, two of her team-high five blocks on the night. Jacobson added seven kills on .333 hitting.
“The third set was pivotal,” said Rubio. “We were down 23-18 and then we served really well. It wasn’t a really clean match for either team, but we hung in there and kept fighting and found a way to win in set 3. We kept fighting and I like that type of character.”
The Wildcats won their fifth consecutive season opener.
Arizona started quickly, securing the first three points of the match and opening an early 9-4 lead over the Mustangs. The Cats were efficient and dominant in the early going, going errorless over their first 33 swings before recording four attack errors over their final 16 hits. SMU closed to 19-17, but Arizona responded out of a timeout, grabbing five of the next eight points to get to set point at 24-20. The Mustangs scored three straight before Arizona closed out the first set, 25-23.
In the second, Arizona fell into an early 5-2 hole before tying the Mustangs with a 3-0 run, only to fall behind 19-14 later in the set. The Cats ripped off five straight to tie the game once again, but SMU proved to be too much for the Cats to handle in the second, finally breaking away to win the second set 25-22.
After giving away an early lead in the third, Arizona faced an 18-20 deficit, only to have the Mustangs score three consecutive points to go up 23-18, two points away from grabbing the third set. The Wildcats cut the deficit to 23-21 before SMU earned set point. Arizona scored the next four points to keep the set alive before SMU took the early advantage in deuce. Spriggs notched a kill to get it back to deuce before two consecutive Jacobson blocks, one with Snuka, one with Spriggs, completed the improbable comeback and gave the Cats a 27-25 victory in the third
The Cats scored the first three points of the fourth set and never looked back, leading the game wire-to-wire and winning the decisive set 25-20.