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Emery Herman

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The Arizona Wildcats are 15-12 overall and 7-9 in conference play with four matches left in their regular season.

To make the NCAA volleyball tournament for the first time since 2018, the UA likely needs to win out. It won’t be easy: Arizona will travel face USC on Friday night before squaring off against No. 13 UCLA on Sunday. Matches against Oregon (in Eugene) and Arizona State (at McKale Center) loom next week.

“(Playoffs) is certainly something we’re working towards,” sophomore setter Emery Herman said. “It’s something that hasn’t left our minds.”

The Wildcats are firmly on the bubble in part because of their performance in nonconference play. The UA went 8-3 during the nonconference season, with two of the losses coming to then-No. 1 Texas and Notre Dame. Arizona led UTEP 2-0 before losing in five sets.

“Had we taken care of business against Notre Dame and El Paso, now we’re sitting at 17-10 and not 15-12,” longtime UA coach Dave Rubio said. “I’ve always said that the nonconference season plays a bigger part in who goes to the tournament.”

Of course, the Wildcats’ showing in Pac-12 play could also be blamed. The club began 3-0 only to lose next five matches. The Wildcats then won three of four only to return to its erratic trend. Arizona has won just one of its last four matches.

Arizona needs to turn things around, starting Friday night against USC.

“I think just starting strong,” Herman said. “Communicating early, effort early. I think all the (losses) that we’ve had started slow. We aren’t as vocal at the beginning so I think just coming out loud and excited and energetic.”

A win over UCLA on Sunday would be the statement win Arizona is looking for. The Wildcats had a chance to upset the Bruins when they squared off Oct. 15 in McKale Center.

The Bruins came to Tucson without two of their normal starters; however, Arizona was also banged up. Senior middle blocker Zyonna Fellows suffered a concussion one day before the match against the Bruins. Standout freshman and opposite hitter Puk Stubbe was also sidelined after coming down with the flu earlier in the week.

UCLA won in straight sets.

“It’s unfortunate that we didn’t have our full (team) and that we weren’t healthy,” Rubio said.

This time around, the Wildcats say they need to play with more energy.

“I hope we can, like the coaches have been saying, get the energy in the beginning so they’re not able to come back again,” Stubbe said. “If we can keep that up, it’ll make a big difference.”

UCLA enters Friday having won seven of its last eight matches. The Bruins should expect graduate senior Mac May to carry the load again. She is averaging 4.76 kills per set, and tallied 18 kills against the Wildcats earlier this season.

Rubio compared May to NBA superstar LeBron James.

“They have a really good supporting cast around (May),” Rubio said. “They’ve got some age and talent so that’s why I think they’re the best team in the conference if they’re healthy.”

USC should also pose a similar threat on Sunday. The Trojans are significantly older than the Wildcats and have a ton of experience from top to bottom. Rubio has not shied away from the uphill battle that is ahead this weekend.

“The second half of the season, that’s when really good teams tend to really play well,” Rubio said. “When they’re playing at home, they really tend to play well so we’re going to have to really bring our A-game and show that we’ve improved. We certainly have improved quite a bit. But against these guys, we’re going to have to demonstrate that starting on Friday.”

This article originally ran on tucson.com.

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