When senior middle blocker Merle Weidt transferred to Arizona halfway through her sophomore year at Rutgers, head volleyball coach Dave Rubio wasn’t really looking for a starter. That became more clear when Weidt began her junior season as a reserve behind freshman China Rai Crouch. When Crouch was injured, Weidt stepped in and made herself indispensable.
“Merle kind of defies all normal logic that a head coach has to apply when they’re filling out the lineup card,” Rubio said. “She’s not that big and she is not a great jumper, but...she’s really skilled, she’s got a great motor, just so motivated and works so hard, and she’s very reliable. And as easy as that may sound for people to be like that, there just aren’t a lot of people who are like that.”
She might not always have loved that assessment, but the 6-foot-1 Weidt takes no issue with it these days.
“I definitely agree with that,” she said. “And I think it took me very long to be proud of that, too. But I think what kind of characterizes me as a middle is that I’m a very versatile player and just really rely on my experience to understand the game and just my quickness too.”
That versatility has led Weidt to the top of the Pac-12 charts in hitting percentage this season. She’s currently hitting .451. The percentage is tied with Oregon MB Karson Bacon, but Weidt has done it in six more sets.
Last weekend, Weidt led the Wildcats in both kills (16) and hitting percentage (.700) in a four-set win over California. She has hit at least .500 in seven matches this season. In five of those she hit .700 or better.
“I think one of the reasons why I am leading in hitting percentage is not because I’m really hitting the hardest or hitting the highest,” Weidt said. “It’s more about being able to work with sets that are not perfect, and just always being up on time and being able to have the right attacking choice with the blocks that I have in front of me.”
But Weidt doesn’t just want to talk about her own numbers. She spoke with pride about Kamaile Hiapo having the third-most digs (212) in the conference, of Jaeyln Hodge being 10th with 3.56 kills per set, of Sofia Maldonado Diaz being second with 0.39 service aces per set.
“Seeing all of these stats coming...with my teammates being up there, too,” she said. “It’s really, really great.”
Hitting percentage isn’t the only positive stat for Weidt. She is fourth on the team with 1.73 k/s. While she also leads Arizona with 0.88 blocks per set—good for top 20 in the conference—she admits that she has come to enjoy attacking more than blocking over the past few years.
“I was put in the middle because I was a good blocker,” she said. “And I think now just with the game getting faster, the way you block changes so it’s more about really trying to hustle out and get up somewhat of a block over actually having the perfect block every time. And so I think for me personally I like attacking more probably because it’s more in my own control. Whereas when I block, even if I’m perfectly on time and I have the perfect block position, it’s still up to the attacker if they’re going to hit into my block or not.”
She and fellow senior MB Zyonna Fellows are holding down the position this year, but they are also helping the two healthy freshmen learn the ropes. Arizona brought in three freshmen middle blockers this year, but Jennifer Wroblicky has been out with injury all season. Alayna Johnson and Nicole Briggs have been able to get time on the court, including last week at Stanford once victory looked out of reach for the Wildcats.
“I think Alayna and Nicole, obviously with the two middles leaving, they’re the ones right now that are going to step in for the next year,” Rubio said. “I’m excited about both of them. They both have the right mindset and physically they have the right type of talent. And they just got to develop this experience and some skills.”
Weidt is doing what she can to help that development.
“I’m definitely trying to help out my ‘little middles,’” she said with a laugh. “That’s what I call them. They’re all taller than I am. But, yeah, the freshmen middles that we had coming in this year, I’m really trying to be there for them every time they have a question because practice can be very confusing.”
The ability to help others is both part of her personality and the result of personal development, Weidt says. She credits it in part to leaving home for boarding school at the age of 15.
She showed her comfort with striking out on her own during the COVID-19 shutdown in the spring of 2020. She bought a car and took a road trip across the Western U.S. She slept in the car so she wouldn’t have to come into contact with others too often, but reached out when she needed help.
Rubio said that she called when her car broke down near Fresno, Calif. He gave her some contacts to help her find a mechanic, then gave her the number of former Arizona MB McKenzie Jacobson. Jacobson came for Weidt and put her up while her car was repaired.
“They never met before, but that was Arizona kids taking care of Arizona kids,” Rubio said.
He sees that adventurous spirit and ability to find her way taking Weidt far in life.
“In my wildest dreams, I really never thought that she would be as good and certainly as productive as she’s been for us,” Rubio said. “That’s just as a player. Off the floor, she’s a (Student-Athlete Advisory Committee) president, she’s a team leader, she does so many things for the team. Very mature. I mean, you’re like talking to a 30-year-old woman versus someone that’s 21. And very worldly. Has a great head on her shoulders. You could see her in 20 years being the CEO of some company. There’s certain kids that you coach that you go, ‘Okay, that kid’s gonna make it no matter what she’s gonna do,’ and Merle is certainly one of those people.”