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Career outing by Sofia Maldonado Diaz helps Arizona volleyball overcome travel woes, defeat Colorado

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Photo by Madison Farwell / Arizona Athletics

On their five-match losing JMU khi BGthrough the ups and downs of a young team facing much more experienced opponents. On Friday, they didn’t have that obstacle, but that doesn’t mean the universe let them off the hook.

This time, it was travel that threw hurdles in their path. A career night by Sofia Maldonado Diaz helped them clear those hurdles in a 3-1 (23-25, 25-16, 37-35, 25-21) victory over Colorado. Arizona improved to 12-8 on the season and 4-5 in Pac-12 play, moving ahead of the Buffaloes to take sole possession of eighth place in the league.

“I told them last week, you can always be proud of being a member of the Pac-12 in volleyball. I said the hard thing is just never knowing when you’re going to win again,” Arizona head coach Dave Rubio said.

They finally won again, but it wasn’t easy by any means. The Wildcats planned to practice in Tucson on Thursday morning then fly to Colorado from Tucson International Airport. Instead, their flight was canceled and they were forced to drive to Phoenix at 4:30 a.m. on Friday and fly from there. The team split into two groups because there weren’t enough seats to fly together. The match was delayed by an hour to accommodate the travel issues because they did not even arrive at the hotel in Boulder until 2:30 p.m.

“By all rights, they should have canceled the match,” Rubio said.

The Wildcats were fortunate that they didn’t. The Arizona players gave no indication on the court that they had spent so much time navigating highways and airports.

Maldonado Diaz was a prime example. She had a career-high 26 kills on .312 hitting. She added a solo block and an ace for 28 points. Last year’s Pac-12 Freshman of the Year also had an assist and three digs.

She was not the only Wildcats with a strong outing. Freshman Puk Stubbe had a double-double with 14 kills and a career-high 20 digs. It was just the third time in her young career that she had at least 10 digs. She added two aces and two total blocks

Like most of her teammates, Stubbe was efficient with a .324 hitting percentage. Stubbe and Maldonado Diaz joined three other Wildcats who hit at least .300 on the night.

Stubbe was one of three who ended her outing with a double-double. Setter Emery Herman had a season-high 52 assists, just four shy of her career high set last season. Herman also had 21 digs.

Libero Kamaile Hiapo completed the trio with 12 assists and 22 digs. The assists set a career mark, besting the nine assists she had last season against UCLA.

Jaelyn Hodge contributed double-digit kills with 11. She also had four total blocks for 13.5 points on the night.

“You can kind of start to notice the improvement with the younger players,” Rubio said. “Sofia played really well. Puk, I thought was outstanding today. Emery played great defense and ran the show. Jaelyn really started off well in the beginning of the match. All the reps and all the time on the clock certainly tonight started to show a little bit more.”

The first set was close throughout. Over their losing streak, the Wildcats regularly played their opponents closely for the first 15 points. From there, the other team would run away with it.

This time, Arizona bucked that tendency and stayed with Colorado. The largest lead by the Buffaloes was four points. Even when the home team got set point at 24-21, Arizona didn’t relent. The Wildcats closed the gap to 24-23 before the Buffs finally closed it out for the 1-0 lead.

One major difference on Friday was that Arizona wasn’t playing a significantly older team with a player of the year candidate as they have been for the past several weeks. Since the dismissal of sixth-year player Leah Clayton, Colorado is much more like Arizona as far as experience.

“Their pin players are young like ours,” Rubio said. “The two outside hitters are sophomores and freshmen and their opposite is a junior. So it certainly makes the playing field more level. I think that helped us just to play a team that’s much more along the same age group as we are.”

The Wildcats carried the momentum from the first set into the second. They ran out to an 8-3 lead and never let go. Their lead continued to stretch as they marched to a 25-16 win and evened the match.

Then came the epic third set. In a match that had already featured several long rallies, Arizona was able to overcome the fatigue and the altitude to make a huge stand. It almost didn’t happen.

The Wildcats built an early 12-7 lead and looked like they might be headed to an easy 2-1 lead. The Buffs had other thoughts.

With Arizona ahead 21-15, Colorado put together an 8-2 run to tie the set at 23. From there, the Wildcats let eight set points fall by the wayside. The Buffaloes lost three of their own before finally surrendering to the 37-35 defeat.

“There was just no quit,” Rubio said. “They just refused to give into it and how they felt. We talk about that all the time, just not behaving how you feel but maybe how you should behave. I know everyone was really tired because of the long day but they just competed like crazy and we had some really good leadership.”

The hosts kept things close in the fourth set until the 8-8 tie. From there, Arizona went on a 10-3 run. Colorado would never be closer than three points as the Wildcats put the finishing touches on the match with a 25-21 set punctuated by a Maldonado Diaz kill.

“I’m proud of the kids,” Rubio said. “They certainly rose to the occasion. Under the circumstances it could have been a lot worse. We were just all exhausted, but as they have all year under these types of situations starting in the tournament at New Mexico State, they rose to the occasion.”

The team will get back on their normal schedule now. They will leave Boulder on Saturday morning and travel to Salt Lake City to face a Utah team that just lost to ASU at home.