The Arizona Wildcats not only want to go to the NCAA Tournament, they want to go far once they get there. Improving to 3-0 in Pac-12 play with a 3-1 (25-20, 18-25, 25-23, 25-23) victory over California is just one more step in that direction.
“That was my goal,” Arizona head coach Dave Rubio said. “When I saw the schedule, I was like, ‘We gotta walk out of here after the first three matches 3-0.’”
On Friday, it was senior middle blocker Merle Weidt leading the Wildcats on that journey. Weidt led the match with a career-high 16 kills on .700 hitting. She had just two errors on 20 swings. She threw in five total blocks, including one solo, for a match-high 19.0 points.
It was the second straight season that Weidt set her top mark at Arizona in a match against Cal. Last year, she had 11 kills against the Golden Bears. Her 16 kills this season improved on her previous collegiate-best of 15 kills when she played for Rutgers.
Weidt wasn’t the only Wildcat middle blocker with an impressive evening. Arizona had five players with at least nine kills, including fellow senior Zyonna Fellows. Fellows was third on the team with 11.0 points from her nine kills and three total blocks. She hit .692 on the night with no hitting errors.
“The middles really set the tone for us,” Rubio said. “It was really nice to have those guys be that offensive. Merle makes a big difference. Having those seniors anchor the middle makes a big difference.”
As expected, Jaelyn Hodge wasn’t as efficient as the two middle blockers, but Rubio has said that he wants her to be aggressive. The errors are not his top concern right now. As a result, Hodge had 12 kills and a block assist that resulted in 12.5 points. She added five digs to her effort.
Sofia Maldonado Diaz and Puk Stubbe each added nine kills to the team’s effort. Stubbe did it on 21 swings with only one error for a .381 hitting percentage. She also had two assists, an ace, two digs, and a block.
Rubio wanted to see even more from Stubbe.
“Puk was the other one that had a great night,” he said. “We needed to set Puk more. She needs to be finishing with 30 total attempts, not 20.”
The Wildcats did not get through the match without a scare. In the second set, Weidt and libero Kamaile Hiapo appeared to collide while going for the ball. Hiapo, who is a team leader and the player Rubio considers the most consistent, stayed down on the court for several minutes. Arizona dropped the second set as she sat on the bench, but she was able to return in the final two frames.
The sudden loss of Hiapo threw the substitution patterns off, but the Wildcats are just pleased that she appears to be fine. Rubio said that he thinks she will be available on Sunday against Stanford.
Sophomore setter Emery Herman had a double-double with 47 assists and 11 digs. She added four kills without committing an error for a .444 hitting percentage. Two aces and four total blocks gave her 8.0 points in the match.
The match was close through most of three sets. The only set that seemed to get out of hand for either team was the second set, which the Wildcats trailed in even before Hiapo went out.
“It was a rollercoaster,” Rubio said.
The ability to come back after the second and win the match is something the Wildcats have been prepared for by their close matches in the early part of the season.
“There’s an intangible that this team has had that they have been able to kind of weather the storm, find a way to win and the will to win,” Rubio said. “It’s something you’re always looking for in a team. So far this team has shown that in all those close matches, even in the ones that we lost.”
That sets them up well heading into what Rubio referred to as the “gauntlet” of upcoming matches. Arizona will play 11 matches against ranked teams over the final eight weeks of the season. The Wildcats play two more against a team currently receiving votes in the AVCA poll. That gauntlet starts with Stanford on Sunday.
“I think the team is pretty confident in general,” Rubio said. “It’s a matter of continuing to play a little smarter, a little bit more consistent, especially at the end of sets.”
Arizona improved to 11-3 overall and 3-0 in conference play. Cal fell to 7-7 and 0-3 in league competition.