The recipe is fairly simple if you want to hear your name called on the NCAA Tournament selection show in November: win the matches you should win and steal a few that you shouldn’t. Arizona volleyball took care of the first part of that equation over the weekend, beating Arizona State in five sets on Thursday and following up with a straight-set victory over Oregon State on Sunday.
The Pac-12 hasn’t been as strong this season as it usually is. While finishing around .500 in conference play is usually enough to get a team to the tournament, Arizona head coach Dave Rubio doesn’t think it will suffice this year.
“Getting to, I think, 12 (conference) wins gets you in,” he said. “And if you take a look at our record, when’s the last time we had 12 wins? It’s been a little while.”
A look at that record reveals that the Wildcats haven’t had 12 conference wins since 2014. The closest they got in the interim was 11-9 in 2018. So, moving to 2-0 in Pac-12 play the opening weekend was a crucial step towards reaching their tournament goal this season.
Make no mistake. A loss to Oregon State would have been an upset. The Beavers have an 18-52 all-time record against the Wildcats. This season, they are dealing with injuries at the outside hitter and middle blocker positions. At one point in the match, OSU had four players 5-foot-7 or smaller on the floor.
Big offensive efforts from Sofia Maldonado Diaz and Zyonna Fellows paced the Wildcats. Maldonado Diaz had 11 kills on .250 hitting. She added two aces and two solo blocks to end the day with a team-high 15 points. She also had seven digs and an assist.
Fellows had seven kills without committing an error in 10 attempts. Her three block assists gave her 8.5 points for the match. Part of that could be attributed to the setting, but part of it was just about Fellows looking for her offense.
“Z has been struggling offensively for us,” Rubio said. “She’s much better on a set that’s right behind the setter versus a set that’s further away... And so she’s much more comfortable hitting that particular set, but she was more assertive today.”
Jaelyn Hodge led the Wildcats in kills with 13, but it took her 35 swings and seven errors to reach that number. Her 14 points were just behind Maldonado Diaz for second on the team.
Her coach was not concerned with the .171 hitting percentage. As he did after the ASU match, Rubio called for increased aggressiveness.
“I was on Jaelyn at the ASU game because she tends to play too safe,” Rubio said. “Today, she had a couple of safe swings and they end up going out of bounds and I’m like, ‘Get your feet to the ball and take a really good aggressive swing. We’ll live with the outcome.’ And for us, she’s just kind of right on that edge of trying to not make errors when the ball is...set less than perfect. But the key for us is that...she’s such a good athlete, she can get her feet to a lot of sets that are less than perfect. And so she’s just got to learn how to do that. And got to be way more aggressive with the ball, more assertive that way.”
The Beavers didn’t go away easily. Despite entering the match at 2-9, Oregon State kept it close in every set.
In the opening set, Arizona built an early five-point lead at 11-6, but the Beavers didn’t collapse. The visiting team came back to tie the set at 20-20 before the hometown Wildcats closed it out on a 5-2 run.
With a set under their belts, Arizona seemed to relax a bit to start the second set. OSU opened the set on a 4-1 run.
It didn’t last long, as the Wildcats scored three straight to tie things up, but the two teams stayed close for most of the set. Arizona built its biggest lead at 20-16. The Wildcats outscored the Beavers five to three from that point to take the two-set lead.
The final set proceeded much as the second set had. Arizona couldn’t shake Oregon State until the Wildcats reached the 20-point mark. From 20-17, the home team closed things out on a 5-3 run to win the match.
Arizona improved to 10-3 overall. They will head to the Bay Area to play Stanford and California next weekend.