Solving the puzzle of the upper echelon of the Pac-12 has been difficult for the Arizona Wildcats. On Friday, they fell to No. 11 Washington despite looking ready to take a 2-0 lead in the match. On Sunday, it was more of the same as the Wildcats fell to the Washington State Cougars 3-0 (25-18, 25-20, 25-20). For Arizona head coach Dave Rubio, it’s the expected result when one team has several very talented super seniors and the other has very talented underclassmen.
“We have terrific talent, but when you’re playing the sport of volleyball, if you have that level of talent, experience is really what counts more than anything,” Rubio said.
The fact of the matter is that teams like Washington, Washington State, and UCLA have both exceptional talent and five-year players. Having players who were able to return from the shortened pandemic season has expanded the gap between Arizona and the top teams in the conference according to Rubio.
“They kind of steady things out against a team like us,” Rubio said. “We’re just too error-prone and can’t sustain a level of consistency to put ourselves in position to win a match. We can win a set here or there...but today really wasn’t close.”
One Wildcat who does have a great deal of experience is a freshman, strangely enough. Opposite Puk Stubbe was one of the few players on the Arizona side who was both effective and consistent on Sunday afternoon.
“Puk is 21 years old and has played a lot of volleyball,” Rubio said. “Even though she’s a freshman, she’s not really a freshman...She has the mind of a senior. When you have the mind of a senior, you have Washington (or) Washington State.”
Rubio said earlier in the season that the biggest hurdle for Stubbe was getting used to going to school again and learning to blend it with volleyball. He said that she would improve dramatically as soon as she did. That improvement seems to have happened.
Against Washington State, Stubbe led the Wildcats with a career-high 16 kills while hitting .467. Although she started the season slowly, hitting above .182 only once in her first eight matches, she is no longer struggling with her efficiency. Stubbe has hit below .333 only three times in the last nine matches. Sunday was her third match hitting over .400 during that time.
Sofia Maldonado Diaz is also beginning to come around, especially in the back row. Rubio had been subbing Maldonado Diaz out because of her struggles with serve receive. On Sunday, she stayed in for most of the match. She accumulated 11 kills on .280 hitting as well as one total block. She also had five digs.
Maldonado Diaz still had some struggles on serve receive including three reception errors. At this point, though, Rubio believes she is more consistent in that aspect of the game than Jaelyn Hodge.
“Jaelyn has been struggling,” Rubio said. “It hasn’t been easy for Jalen. It’s been a tough three weeks for her. It’s just like a quarterback...they got to be more multidimensional. If you’re going to play a multifaceted position that requires multiple skills other than just being athletic, you have to be well-skilled and you have to have good aptitude. Jaelyn is building like Sofia. Trying to build them into proficient five-tool type players right now.”
As that building project proceeds, there are days like the Wildcats had against the Cougars. Many of the teams’ stats looked similar. WSU had 15 attack errors in 95 attempts. Arizona had 13 in 96. UA had six blocks while WSU had four.
The tale was in the serve and serve receive aspects of the game. The Cougars had seven aces and five service errors. The Wildcats had eight service errors and no aces. When it came to defending against the serve and attack of the opponent, WSU had 37 digs to 29 by UA.
These issues are unlikely to be fixed quickly. Rubio has pointed to serve receive as an area that needs improvement since before the season started.
“We’ve always recruited one player that could just stand in there, whether it was Paige Whipple or Madi Kingdon,” he said. “And they started as freshmen and they just would stand in there and be the sixth rotation player and then help with a libero. And if you had one player that could do that, then it made everything else function really well. The problem is that we took the chance and the risk to recruit players that are potentially really good six rotation players, but no one who’s a solid six. And therein lies our issues. We’re trying to develop these players and when you’re in a heated battle like we are right now, it’s really easy to pick on our deficiencies.”
As Rubio and his staff continue working on the issues in practice, the players were already meeting after the loss. Everyone is looking for answers before the Bruins and Mac May come to town next week.