The Arizona Wildcats went into their home opener against No. 11 Washington hoping to right the ship after a poor showing against Utah in their season opener.
It would be easy to blame it all on UA’s youth, but the newcomers provided the biggest spark for the team. Instead, it was veteran Paige Whipple who struggled against the Utes, causing head coach Dave Rubio to challenge her to elevate her performance in practice.
Whipple rose to the occasion Friday with 11 kills against the Huskies, two more than she had in both losses to Utah combined, but it was not enough as they beat Arizona in three competitive sets (25-21, 25-20, 29-27).
“Paige is an amazing captain,” sophomore libero Kamaile Hiapo said. “She’s an amazing teammate and role leader. It honestly doesn’t feel like she’s struggling on the court at all because right when she makes mistakes, she comes back and says, ‘I got it, I got it.’ And we all have confidence in her playing ability and her leading skills.”
Whipple earned her ninth kill of the night when she put the Wildcats up 7-6 in set three. Arizona later led 23-21 but could not close it out, the theme of the night.
“The game was the game,” Rubio said. “I guess there’s some good things that happened. We certainly put ourselves in a position to win each particular set. I think the unforced errors were the thing that ultimately got us and put ourselves in a position to lose each particular set.”
While Whipple ended the night with 11 kills on 33 attacks, her 11 attack errors gave her a hitting percentage of .000, the major hole in her stat line. She added two digs and two assisted blocks, and ended the night with 12 points.
Sofia Maldonado Diaz, the freshman from Mexico, dazzled again for Arizona. After making a surprising appearance at Utah, she showed her impressive all-around game against Washington with a match-high 14 kills on .233 hitting and three digs. Well into the third set, she was still hitting over .400. She also had an ace and one block for a team-high 15.5 points.
“She’s so smart,” Hiapo said. “I think she lights everyone up on the court...and now she’s a baller out on the court, and it just gives us so much confidence.”
Her play has even surprised her coach.
“So far, she’s shown that she’s got the moxie and the skill set, and the aptitude to be able to be a full time player and to be able to score,” Rubio said. “I think she hit the best percentage tonight. And we didn’t really know what she could bring to the table as we don’t know with some of the other players. But Sofia being kind of an unknown quantity because we didn’t get a chance to see her play much, being from Mexico and Guadalajara. ... We only got a chance to see her play a couple times, and that was from one year to the next. So she’s certainly a bright spot as we move forward.”
So are the middle blockers. Freshman China Rai Crouch was impressive in the early going with four kills on .571 hitting. Her two blocks helped her reach 5.5 points on the night.
Junior Zyonna Fellows matched her teammate with four kills on .444 hitting. Her three blocks gave her six points for the match.
Freshman setter Emery Herman had 35 assists to go along with two kills and seven digs. Hiapo led the team in digs with 12 and added two assists.
“I think we are a young team,” Maldonado said. “And, as [Kamaile] said, we need more experiences. And I think also we improved a lot of skills from the last week.”
Unlike last week, the Wildcats showed that they could keep up with their highly-ranked opponent.
The first set was close from start to finish. The final tie was at 16-16. From there, the Huskies outscored the Wildcats 9-5 with four of UW’s points coming on attack errors from Arizona.
The second set was much like the first. A close affair that the Wildcats just couldn’t seize control of. Arizona tied things up at 20-all, but Washington scored the final five points to go up 2-0.
In the third, it looked like the Wildcats had improved enough from last week that they might take their first set of the year. Arizona earned a set point at 24-22.
That’s when the youth struck. An ace by Washington’s Ella May Powell was followed by an out-of-rotation call against the Wildcats. The Huskies had match point.
UW’s Claire Hoffman couldn’t get the serve in play, though, and Arizona was able to extend the set.
Freshman Jaelyn Hodge gave her Arizona teammates another chance at winning the set with a solo block, but the Wildcats were not able to convert any of their four set points.
The Huskies finally converted their second match point. That might have been more frustrating for Rubio than losing by a lopsided score.
“Is it raining outside?” he quipped after the game. “The weather forecast told me it was gonna rain today and I just wanted to know if I need to put my raincoat on when I’m walking out to the garage to my car to go to a sleepless night tonight.”
There might be a lot of those for Rubio this season, but he believes it will all be worth it come next fall.
“We’ve got a wonderful group of young players that have a chance to be elite as time goes on. We’re just gonna have to deal with some of the growing pains that go with it,” he said. “And unfortunately losing sucks, and everybody knows that. It’s misery for everybody, but if you keep the right perspective, especially a year like this year. This is an odd year anyway. And so the fact that we get a chance to play is really a blessing, and the players get a chance to develop. I look towards 2021 fall as when we think we will really start to hit our stride. But right now, we just have to kind of grind through it and learn on the job as we go through the conference.”
Arizona and Washington will meet again on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. MST in McKale Center.
Kamaile picks up her team-best 10th dig as the Cats take a 6-5 lead in the third! pic.twitter.com/wq1sR3Rmkk— Arizona Volleyball (@ArizonaVBall) January 30, 2021