The eighth-ranked Stanford women's volleyball team heads to Tucson Wednesday in unfamiliar territory. The Cardinal and host Arizona are two of six teams tied for fourth place in the Pac-12 Conference.
Stanford (1-1, 7-3) is also one of four Pac-12 teams ranked among the nation's top eight. Three of those teams are ranked higher than the Cardinal. Stanford rarely finds itself in such an underdog position.
The Wildcats (1-1, 11-3) are also ranked among the best, at No. 14. The Pac-12 features seven nationally ranked teams. Arizona State, Stanford's opponent on Friday, is ranked sixth.
The Cardinal would like nothing better than to erase the feeling of its five-set loss at home to No. 2 USC on Sunday. It was Stanford's first home loss in two years.
The loss of middle blocker Inky Ajanaku, out for the season for with an injury, has affected the Cardinal more than it would like to acknowledge. Stanford can still field an All-American type lineup, and there's certainly time to develop into a Final Four squad. It's just going to take a little patience.
Coaches talk about team chemistry. Ajanaku grew up with the likes of setter Madi Bugg and outside hitters Brittany Howard and Jordan Burgess and they are as close as teammates can be without being sisters.
Freshmen Hayley Hodson and Halland McKenna and sophomore Ivana Vanjak are talented players and they will become fluent in Cardinal volleyball, but they are replacing three important players in Ajanaku, Morgan Boukather and Kyle Gilbert.
Burgess has been nursing minor ailments and Merete Lutz missed the start of the year with a finger injury.
Stanford may be eighth in the country this week. The Cardinal won't be there come the postseason. The team has a habit of showing up in prime time.
Arizona, 6-1 at home with that loss a five-setter to No. 3 Texas, presents enough problems for the Cardinal. The Wildcats lead the conference in kills at 14.67 per set, assists (13.59) and digs (16.67).
Wildcats junior setter Penina Snuka controls the offense with a conference-best 11.41 assists per set. Junior outside hitter Kalei Mau is third in kills (4.53) and fourth in points (4.76), while senior middle blocker Halli Amaro is ninth in hitting percentage (.360) on the season.
Bugg, the reigning Pac-12 Setter of the Year, led the nation with 12.10 assists per set last season. She' s averaging 9.75 this year.
Hodson (3.44 kills per set), Howard (3.08) and Lutz (2.87) provide a triple threat for the Cardinal, with Burgess (1.94) also very capable of double-digit kills.
Stanford ranks second in the conference with 3.03 blocks per set, thanks in large part to Vanjak, who ranks third in the Pac-12, averaging 1.47 a set. Lutz is ninth at 1.23.
Stanford holds a 63-6 all-time lead in the series against Arizona. The Cardinal, which has won 17 straight against the Wildcats, won in four sets in Tucson last season. Stanford has not lost to Arizona in nearly 10 years.