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Arizona volleyball’s Sofia Maldonado Diaz may be young, but she’s up to any challenge

Sofia Maldonado Diaz, Jaelyn Hodge and Alayna Johnson share a laugh.
Photo by Ary Frank / Arizona Athletics

It’s been a year of transition for Sofia Maldonado Diaz. The sophomore outside hitter burst on the Pac-12 volleyball scene last year and won the Freshman of the Year award, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing. The changes for the native of Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico were big both on and off the court.

On the court, it was about learning a new position. Maldonado Diaz had always played middle blocker for her Mexican club and national teams. Switching to outside hitter isn’t an easy task, but it’s one that she wanted, Arizona head coach Dave Rubio said.

“In basketball terms, [it would be like] if you’re someone that never brought the ball up the floor and then ran the point guard,” Rubio said. “All you did was just rebound before, that’s kind of how it is. You were just a big in the middle, and all you did was rebound and then do layups, and then all of a sudden, they want you to bring the ball up the floor and be the playmaker.”

Maldonado Diaz not only did it, she did it very well last season while also dealing with living and attending school in a place where she didn’t speak the primary language. It’s an indication of not only her physical skills but also her attention to detail.

“It’s a pretty significant difference between the two [positions],” Rubio said. “The real reason why Sofia has been able to do it is Sofia is so diligent about how she goes about her business in everything she does. She tries to do it exactly how you ask her to do it, so she’s very conscientious.”

The biggest change for Maldonado Diaz came in the back row. Passing and defense were not skills she had developed as a middle blocker. Even this season, Rubio has said that both she and fellow sophomore outside hitter Jaelyn Hodge are still working to become true six-rotation players who can stay in matches even when they rotate to the back row.

“I feel more comfortable with passing, defense, attacking from the back row,” Maldonado Diaz said. “And just grateful that Dave has given me that opportunity because last year, I couldn’t play back row every game.”

Her teammates have helped with that when her coaches can’t. She credits both Kamaile Hiapo and Emery Herman with giving her feedback during matches.

But the development of her volleyball skills isn’t the only improvement for Maldonado Diaz. Last year, she was still very uncomfortable speaking both on the court and off. A large part of that was the language barrier. While she seemed to understand English, she was still hesitant to speak it. That kept her from working on leadership skills that she wants to have and just communicating on the court.

“I think it’s also because I’m trying to talk more during the games,” she said about her improvement this year.

That comfort with the language has also been helpful in the classroom.

“Last year, it was so hard for me,” Maldonado Diaz said. “But now I feel good. They support us...with meetings, with advisors, with everything. So that’s a good thing for us, especially I think with international students.”

That comfort is showing in matches more as the season advances. Earlier in the season, she seemed to have fallen behind Hodge in her ability to play in the back row, but she has stepped up over the past several matches. Rubio started subbing her out less when she rotated to the back, and she started being more assertive on offense again.

She made her biggest impact yet this season in a difficult match at Colorado last weekend. After a very difficult trip to Boulder that was marred by a canceled flight and an early morning trip to fly out of Phoenix on match day, Maldonado Diaz had one of the best matches of her career. On offense, she had a career-high 26 kills on .313 hitting. She added an assist, three digs, a solo block, and a service ace in a performance that made the difference for a Wildcat team looking to end a five-game losing streak.

“I feel that I played kind of relax, like not overthinking things,” Maldonado Diaz said. Also, because I feel that the team trusts in me in that game, giving me sets, letting me [play] defense and everything. So I feel it was just me getting excited every point.”

Maldonado Diaz isn’t just learning from those on her side of the net, and she’s not afraid to go against some of the best in the country. Despite being on one of the few teams in the Pac-12 that doesn’t have a super senior on the roster, she sees value in having those players around. Some of her motivation for the future comes from the matches against them.

“When playing against...UCLA, Washington, they have super seniors,” she said. “I love watching them because it’s kind of like something we’re gonna do. As a team, we’re gonna be there. So it’s pretty cool. I love it.”