After Friday’s loss to UCLA, Arizona head coach Dave Rubio said he needed at least one of his pin hitters to show the kind of competitive fire he regularly saw in libero Kamaile Hiapo. He felt that Puk Stubbe could be that player, but she was out with illness all week. On Sunday, Stubbe was back and the competitive fire also seemed to be there in the early going.
It wasn’t enough for the Wildcats, whose mistakes late in sets put them on the path to defeat in a 3-1 (23-25, 25-18, 25-22, 25-20) victory by USC. It moved Arizona to 11-8 on the season and 3-5 in Pac-12 play.
“I think that is the typical script for us,” Rubio said. “Whether it’s not good communication, or that we’re pretty good from one to 15 and then from 15 to 25 is when we start making too many errors.”
After the disappointment in his team’s play on Friday, Rubio was more frustrated with the nature of again facing a team with super seniors on Sunday. He noted that USC’s super senior Brooke Botkin had 14 kills and only three errors and that she was just one of six grad students on the USC roster. After facing UCLA super senior Mac May on Friday, and Washington super senior Samantha Dreschel and Washington State super senior Penny Tusa last week, it was a sore spot.
“That’s a kid that shouldn’t even be here,” he said about Botkin. “And so she carries those guys, just like all the other teams that we’re playing against that have the super seniors....It’s like playing with a stacked deck and playing with loaded dice.”
Stubbe was not as concerned as her coach was. The 21-year-old freshman noted that her time on the international beach volleyball circuit meant that she had faced women up to a decade older than her at times. However, for the American freshmen and sophomores on the team, she acknowledged that things could be different.
Stubbe led Arizona in kills with 15 kills on 40 swings. With only four errors, she hit .275. She ended just short of a double-double with nine digs.
It continued a string of improved offensive performances from Stubbe. She has now hit at least .275 in seven of her last nine matches with five of those ending in hitting percentages of at least .333. Five of those matches have been in Pac-12 play. Prior to that, she had only hit over .182 once all season.
Stubbe also has five matches with at least 10 kills over that span and three more with nine kills each. Rubio said that she still needs to improve her serve, but her offense has come a long way since conference play started.
“I think I feel comfortable with the team, and they give me more trust,” Stubbe said. “So that’s helping me to be more [confident] in whatever I want. So I think that’s the thing that really changed for me [and] why my numbers are going up.”
Sofia Maldonado Diaz had a strong match from the service line with three aces. She also had 14 digs and two total blocks. Her problems came on the offense, where she had eight kills but also committed seven errors.
After a strong offensive showing on Friday, Jaelyn Hodge started the same way on Sunday. She wasn’t able to maintain it, though.
Hodge had six kills in the first set, but ended the night with seven on .075 hitting. A big difference on Sunday was that the return of Stubbe meant that Hodge moved back to the left side.
“I think that Jaelyn had her best night on offense against UCLA and it’s no coincidence that she was playing opposite,” Rubio said. “There’s a lot more space that happens, that opens up for the right side player. That’s why Puk is much more effective on the right than she is on the left. The left is just more demanding and you’re gonna have a bigger block. And typically, you’re going to get more sets over there when you’re out of system and so those guys they just don’t have the tools yet to be able to score against a solid-level block.”
The team will have to continue trying to adjust and improve as the super senior season wears on. At this point, Rubio does not know whether their breakthrough will come this season or next, but he still believes they have the talent to be a top-half team in a normal Pac-12 season.
The Wildcats will face yet another dominant super senior next week as they travel to the Mountain schools. Utah features outside hitter Dani Drews who is a two-time AVCA First Team All-American.
“I feel bad for our kids because it’s really unfair what’s happening here and yet it’s legal,” Rubio said.