By Kristen Davis
Wildcat seniors get last chance at knocking off ASU
Tonight is the beginning of a string of finales for five members of the No. 15 Arizona volleyball team.
Arizona's largest senior group in school history - Michaela Ebben, Michelle Fanger, Sara Johnson, Carrie Penfield and Stephanie Venne - will face each conference team for the last time in their careers starting tonight when they play Arizona State in Tempe at 7 p.m.
"This is the last time we'll be playing against certain opponents and the last time to do everything we want to do," Johnson said. "Everyone wants to go to the Final Four. The seniors won't accept anything else."
There is no better opponent for the seniors to begin their last month of season competition than the Sun Devils (12-8 overall, 3-6 in the Pacific 10 Conference).
"I don't think they will approach (matches) any different than the first half of the season," UA coach Dave Rubio said. "I'm sure they're proud of what they've accomplished and will play with a lot of confidence"
Arizona State holds a 5-2 advantage in regular season matches since the seniors' 1994 freshman season.
"There's still a payback because we've only beat them twice since I've been here so there's still a serious rivalry there," Penfield said.
Arizona (14-3, 6-3) beat the Sun Devils in five games last season in Tucson. Their second win under UA's senior class was in a dramatic match last month at McKale Center.
Arizona dropped the first two games before the 10-minute break.
"Dave got really mad at us in the locker room and said the game is for all the seniors," Johnson said. "He told us it was the last time we'd get to play them at home and told us we have to put it all out on the court."
The Wildcats responded by winning the next three games to take the match. The win did not come easy though. The Wildcats overcame a 14-8 deficit in the fourth game.
"It is just so tremendously heart-breaking to lose any game when you're up two and have match point opportunities - especially against Arizona," ASU head coach Patti Snyder-Park said. "After that I really challenged them for some leadership and to want the ball to put the game away."
Rubio added, "It's devastating any time a team has a lead like that (then loses the match). You walk off the floor just crushed and it's tough to recover."
He should know.
Last season the Wildcats were up two games against the Sun Devils in Tempe but went on to lose the match after dropping the next three.
It was Arizona's only five-set loss in the last two seasons. They are 4-0 in such matches this year.
"Pulling out all of our five-game matches has come from the experience and determination from our seniors," Penfield said. "We lead more by example and most have a natural work ethic. We're not the type to cruise through practice.
"Dave always says to take care of business. We want to (beat ASU) in three but whatever gets us the W works. Our obvious goal is to beat the team in three."
Rubio also realizes the value of his senior quintet.
"This season so far has been a pleasure for me to go in and be with my team. This senior team is very low maintenance. They know what they need to do, they're coachable, competitive and know what to expect during a match," he said. "A lot of these things my seniors are teaching to the freshman."
Both teams will have one player absent from their rosters tonight.
UA redshirt freshman Tatisha Ely, a reserve outside hitter, was suspended from the team indefinitely Wednesday.
"She broke team policy and that's all I can really say at this point," Rubio said.
As a result, Rubio has to rely on sophomore Raelene Morton, who is in the midst of her first season in the starting lineup, to play consistently. Ely and true freshman Allison Napier routinely go in for Morton when she struggles.
"I just have to go out and play like I know how to play and if I struggle, Allison will be there to go in for me so I'm not really feeling any added pressure," Morton said.
As for the Sun Devils, starting setter Jolynn Faatulu suffered an avulsion fracture to her right ankle in Saturday's loss to Oregon State and is out indefinitely. Freshman Carmen Fusco will take over ASU's setting duties.
The Wildcats are looking to accomplish their first sweep of Arizona State since 1989.
"It will definitely be a huge fight," Johnson said. "We expect them to play really great but all of us want to make it clear to them that we're a lot better."