The first points of the 2014 Territorial Cup will be at stake when No. 18 Arizona volleyball hosts No. 19 ASU Wednesday evening at 7:30 p.m. in McKale Center to kick off the conference season.
The matchup represents the first time since 2002 that the Wildcats face off against the Sun Devils with both teams possessing top-25 rankings.
Arizona (11-1) enters Pac-12 Conference play looking to extend its five-game winning streak, and most recently dispatched Coppin State, Tulane and UMBC in consecutive straight set victories to sweep the Wildcat Classic.
ASU (10-2) travels to Tucson after hosting the Residence Inn Invitational. The Sun Devils dropped the first match of the tournament to No. 8 Colorado State in five sets before cruising to sweeps of NCCU and Pepperdine.
“Nothing that we do in practice is going to duplicate what we’re going to face on Wednesday,” UA head coach Dave Rubio said. “You just hope that your players are up for the match and are really dialed in on what we’re going to need to do tactically against those guys.”
Juniors Mercedes Binns and Bianca Arellano lead the Sun Devils defensively. Binns, who’s averaging 0.86 blocks per set, was named to the All-Tournament team this past weekend.
“They’re good. They’re balanced; they have a really terrific setter and one of the elite soft-hitters in Macey Gardner,” Rubio said. “They have a lot of experience, but I still think it’s going to come down to who will play the best when the score is 20-20. That’s going to dictate who comes out on top.”
Rubio described Gardner, a junior outside hitter from Gilbert, Ariz., as athletic on the court and capable of covering good range.
He also said she’s a skilled passer and that while the two are very different players, Gardner brings the same energy to her team as Madi Kingdon brings to the Wildcats.
In last year’s heated rivalry, the Wildcats split the series with the Sun Devils. Arizona suffered its first straight-set sweep of the season on the road (22-25, 21-25, 24-26) in its Pac-12 opener, and got revenge at home (25-22, 16-25, 25-23, 25-21) to close the regular season.
While the pattern of starting and ending conference play against ASU remains the same, this year, the Wildcats won’t have the same defensive cog that was instrumental in the four-set triumph.
Former Arizona libero Candace Nicholson, who graduated last year, was instrumental for the Wildcats in the final matchup with the Sun Devils. She amassed 36 digs — one shy of the school record (37) set by Katie Jackels in 2007 — and was a defensive ace for the UA.
However, senior outside hitter Taylor Arizobal said that even though the team lost Nicholson, she is confident that the team will be able to replace the void she left defensively.
“[Nicholson] was a huge part of our team, but this year we have Ronni Lewis, Kennedy Wesley, [Elizabeth] Inch and Laura Larson — who really propel our team forward defensively and with passing,” Arizobal said. “I think they’re huge factors, and each play an integral part in our defense.”
Lewis, who has earned the starting libero position as a senior and is one of four players to have played in every set this season, has been vital in Arizona’s defensive success.
The senior is averaging 3.89 digs per set and has dished out 49 assists. She said the team wants to be known for its relentlessness both on offense and defense.
“We’re going to show no mercy this weekend,” Lewis said.
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