Arizona volleyball had gotten so close. The Wildcats were competitive in three-set matches against some of the best in the Pac-12. They pushed others to five sets. They just couldn’t get the win against the better teams in the league. In fact, they had yet to beat anyone in the top nine of the league standings and their only win against a team in the top 100 of the RPI came against No. 94 Wake Forest.
That run ended on Friday afternoon in an early match against the Washington Huskies. The Wildcats took down No. 20 Washington for the first time since Nov. 20, 2010. The five-set (20-25, 25-18, 12-25, 25-19, 15-10) victory brought an end to UW’s 22-match winning streak against UA that started on Sept. 23, 2011.
“We’ve been knocking on the door for so long, and I’m really, really proud of the team just kind of hanging in there with me, with the coaching staff, and just not ever letting go of the rope,” Arizona head coach Dave Rubio said. “And believing in the process even when it’s really tough to believe in the process and not get rewarded...with wins. We’ve had enough success in terms of just being so close, whether it was [against] USC or Oregon, so we know that we’re right there. And so today was just really a nice reward for all the efforts and all the sacrifices that everyone’s gone through.”
Those sacrifices continued in this match. As he has in the past several matches, Rubio used substitutions and lineups that he hadn’t used earlier in the season.
Freshman Lauren Rumel was the starting opposite, while usual starter Sofia Maldonado Diaz came off the bench for Rumel when the younger player rotated to the back row. Dilara Gedikoglu and Jaelyn Hodge got the start on the left side, while sophomore Puk Stubbe did not play at all. Even the middle blockers got in on the act with Nicole Briggs stepping into the starting lineup for fellow sophomore Alayna Johnson.
The lineups are the result of a system of analytics used in practice called the competitive cauldron. The cauldron essentially ranks players against each other in various skills. Those who stand out in the cauldron get a place in the starting lineup and the rotation.
Maldonado Diaz is one of the players who has been most negatively affected by the change as far as playing time. The former Pac-12 Freshman of the Year has only started twice in the past five matches. In her place has been Rumel, although the freshman has generally given way to her junior counterpart fairly early in the match.
This match was different for both players. For much of the match, Rumel and Maldonado Diaz rotated. When Maldonado Diaz began carrying the team offensively on the right side, Rumel began to rotate on the left side with Gedikoglu.
“Lauren started on the right,” Rubio said. “She played well in the first game, and I just felt like it would be good for Lauren to get an opportunity to be on the left.”
Unlike in previous matches, Rumel was there in the final set in high-leverage situations.
“I thought the energy was so amazing,” Rumel said. “I know my teammates have my back the entire time. It was just such a great feeling to be out there.”
The Tucson native is excited about the support she gets playing for her hometown team.
“It was just so rewarding,” Rumel said. “I’ve been working really hard in practice, and I feel like that’s paying off. And just going out there knowing that I have support in the stands but also on the floor with my teammates, it’s just such a special experience and something I’m grateful to have.”
As for the junior, Maldonado Diaz has taken the changes well. When she first lost her starting spot, she said it made her mad “but in a good way.” After the win on Friday afternoon, she said that the only way she could win her starting position back was to practice harder.
“Exactly right,” Rubio said. “It’s interesting, and I think for all of them in the cauldron, it’s been hard to deal with a protocol that no one’s ever really done. It’s the first time I’ve ever done it. I’m not communicating well enough in terms of the criteria and so there’s some drama that goes with it...I am kind of working through it, too. It’s a work in progress. But at the end of the day, it’s gonna force everyone to step up and just play harder...We’ve just been so good in practice. Practices are competitive. They’ve been getting after it. It’s not just medium effort, lack of competitiveness, then the same people get to start. So someone like Lauren, the best player in the gym as an attacker, then she wins out and serves notice to everybody else. So it’s either you’re gonna rise up or you’re not gonna see the floor. So the ends justify the means in something like this. And something like today certainly bears the fruit of that.”
The Wildcats needed every bit of competitiveness they could muster. They dropped the first set by five points. Perhaps not coincidentally, that was the exact number of points they gave away on service errors in the opening frame.
Rubio has been targeting an average of two service errors per set as a standard. Arizona has been committing well over that target for much of the Pac-12 season.
The Wildcats regrouped in the second set. They improved their hitting percentage from .029 to .289. They also hit their target on service errors, committing just two.
Washington came back with a vengeance in set three, though. The Huskies dominated, hitting a whopping .917. They had 11 kills on 12 swings with no hitting errors in the set.
Arizona could have gone away, but volleyball has the advantage of each set being brand new. Getting obliterated in a set simply means the score resets and you need to win three of the other four sets.
“I think we knew that they were never gonna let us win,” Maldonado Diaz said. “They showed what they got...We changed the lineup [during the match], too. I think the coaches did a really good job with that. I feel that everyone was going for it.”
Washington didn’t play nearly as well in the other four sets. The Huskies’ best hitting percentage outside the third set was .188 in the first. They hit .103 in the second, .121 in the fourth, and .000 in the fifth. Overall, they hit .182 for the match compared to Arizona’s .216.
The Wildcats were led by Maldonado Diaz with 18 kills on .310 hitting despite playing only part-time. She also had an assist, an ace, six digs, and three block assists. She led the match with 20.5 points and was the only Wildcat with double-digit kills despite the match going five sets.
The increase in her offense since she lost her regular starting spot has been consistent. Maldonado Diaz has had 17, 22, 13, 22, and 18 kills in those five matches. She has hit over .300 in three of the five matches and she has only hit below .265 once.
Setter Emery Herman also had a strong match. The junior had five kills on 10 swings with no errors, giving her a .500 hitting percentage. She also had 45 assists, an ace, eight digs, and six total blocks including one solo. Her six blocks led the Wildcats while her 9.5 points were third on the team.
It was a relief for a team and coaching staff that has felt some discouragement and frustration with getting close so many times. For the first time in conference play, they didn’t have to look for things to be pleased with. The ‘W’ was all they needed.
“Hopefully there are more,” Rubio said.