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Arizona volleyball prepares to take on the Pac-12’s best middle blockers at WSU, UW

Photo by Isaiah Willhoite / Arizona Athletics

Finding your way around the block. That’s the task at hand for any team that faces Washington State and Washington. This weekend, Arizona volleyball (14-9, 6-6 Pac-12) must take on that task as they travel to the Apple State to battle the Cougars and the Huskies.

The top two blockers in the conference hail from the two schools furthest north. What’s worse for opponents is that the tenth-ranked blocker is also there.

First, the Wildcats will face Magda Jehlarova in Pullman. The junior from the Czech Republic ranks second in the conference with 1.38 blocks per set.

“(She) is so physical,” Arizona head coach Dave Rubio said. “She’s 6’2”, is an explosive jumper, moves great laterally, has great range, and great vision. Really, kind of an upper international-level middle. And so she’s just really tough to stop.”

Just two days later, it will be the Huskies’ Lauren Sanders (No. 1 with 1.42 b/s) and Marin Grote (No. 10 w/ 1.06).

“They’re different types of middles that are long, older—both older,” Rubio said. “Age is making a big difference to them... Both those middles are...6’4”.”

They’re not bad on offense, either. Both Jehlarova and Grote are in the top 40 in kills be set. Jehlarova is at No. 28 with 2.41 k/s. That’s just ahead of her fellow Cougar middle, Kalyah Willaims, who averages 2.36. For the Huskies, Grote is at No. 38 with 2.11 k/s.

Arizona counters in the middle with seniors Zyonna Fellows and Merle Weidt. Fellows is listed at 6-foot-4 and Weidt at 6-foot-1. The pair differ in their approaches to the game. While Weidt says she prefers to attack, Fellows prefers to block. That shows in their stats, where Weidt is No. 50 in the Pac-12 with 1.70 k/s while Fellows in outside the top 50. Fellows is No. 16 in blocks with 0.93 per set and Weidt is No. 24 with 0.76.

“I think me and Merle are opposite,” Fellows said. “Usually during the games, I’m like, ‘Okay, Merle, it’s one or the other. If you got the attacks, I got the blocks, and if I got the attacks and you got the blocks, great.’”

The opposing middles won’t be the only problem on the trip. Serve receive is also very important, especially in Seattle.

“Washington serves the ball better than anybody in the conference,” said Arizona assistant coach Matt Dyck. “And they can really pinpoint you and put a lot of pressure in certain areas of the court, and they can limit what you can do on your third contact after the serve. And they can also put pressure on people, just with the serve itself. So historically, that’s kind of always been what’s been hardest for people when they play against Washington is just overcoming the serving pressure.”

The Huskies have two players in the top five of the Pac-12 in aces per set. Setter Ella May Powell has 0.36 aces per set in 81 sets. That ties her with UCLA’s Elan McCall, but McCall is ranked first in the conference’s stats. The Huskies’ OH Claire Hoffman is fourth with 0.33 aces per set. Four additional UW players are in the top 50.

The Cougars aren’t doing badly in that area, either. Pia Timmer comes in fifth and Penny Tusa is tied for 10th. They have a total of five of the top 50 in the stat.

The Wildcats have not had success against the Huskies over the past decade. UW is currently on a 20-match winning streak against Arizona that stretches back to September 2011. That’s the Wildcats’ longest losing streak against any team in the Pac-12. They were able to take a set off them in Tucson earlier this season, though.

On that same weekend, Washington State handled Arizona fairly easily in three sets. However, over the past several years, the Wildcats have been able to adjust in their second match against the Cougars. The two teams have split the matches every year going back to 2018. On each occasion, Arizona lost the first match and won the second. In two of those years, they won in Pullman.

“Dave always has something up his sleeve,” Dyck said.

Washington State Cougars (14-8, 8-4 Pac-12)

Date and time: Friday, Nov. 5 at 6 p.m. MST

Location: Bohler Gym in Pullman, Wash.

Viewing and stats information: The match will be streamed on WSU Live Stream. Stats will be available on WSU Live Stats.

AVCA ranking, RPI & Pac-12 standings: The Cougars No. 36 in RPI and are ranked No. 21 in the AVCA poll. They are tied for third in the Pac-12.

Rubio says: “The gym is smaller, ceilings lower. That becomes an issue. The fans are right there. It’s an older facility, certainly. I think it really enhances the home-court advantage for Washington State. And with their success, the crowd has certainly gotten a lot bigger.”

Washington Huskies (16-4, 9-3 Pac-12)

Date and time: Sunday, Nov. 7 at 1 p.m. MST

Location: Hec Edmundson Pavilion in Seattle, Wash.

Viewing and stats information: The match will air on Pac-12 Washington. Stats will be available on Washington Live Stats.

AVCA ranking, RPI & Pac-12 standings: The Huskies are ranked No. 12 in the AVCA poll. They stand at No. 18 in RPI and second in the Pac-12.

Rubio says: “My experience has been...the teams that are in the upper half start to play significantly better the second half. So it’s the first half, everyone’s still kind of figuring things out. Even though they’re older, I still think that they were still figuring some things out, making the transition from Madi Endsley to number four (Emoni Bush), and a few things like that they switched liberos. So they were trying to figure some things out at Washington. And I think the second half, they’re certainly starting. I think at their place, they’re gonna play significantly better.”

How to follow along: For regular news about the team, follow us on Twitter @AZDesertSwarm. For live tweets of matches and other updates, you can follow our deputy editor @KimDoss71.