After the team did not qualify for the NCAA Tournament this season, Arizona volleyball head coach Dave Rubio decided that taking part in the Women’s National Invitational Volleyball Championship would be a good experience for his young team. Getting an opportunity to play more matches, especially in a win-or-go-home tournament, would help them prepare for a possible NCAA run next season. That young team got even younger on Friday when the NIVC opened, and the youngsters stepped up.
Freshman middle blocker Alayna Johnson got her opportunity when Merle Weidt, one of Arizona’s three seniors, was unable to play. Johnson had a career night as the team defeated the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley in three sets (26-24, 25-15, 25-16) on Friday evening. She set career highs in kills (5), points (7), digs (1), and total blocks (4), but the reason for her big night is a concern for the Wildcats.
“Merle is, unfortunately, sick as a dog,” Arizona head coach Dave Rubio said. “She’s really hurting and has been all week. We thought maybe she’d be fine today and she was gonna give it a go in practice this morning, but just feeling poor and she has the flu. We’ve been training all the middles, AJ and Nicole (Briggs). They get as much time—maybe even more time than—Zyonna (Fellows) and Merle just in the event that something like this happens and we’re training for next year.”
Offensively, Arizona was led by sophomore outside hitter Jaelyn Hodge. Hodge had 12 kills on 26 swings. Most importantly, she had just two errors, ending with a hitting percentage of .385. She also had a block assist to finish with 12.5 points.
Another young player—freshman opposite Puk Stubbe—was just behind Hodge with 10 kills on .389 hitting. Stubbe added two aces and a block assist to tie Hodge’s 12.5 points. She also had four digs.
Sophomore Sofia Maldonado Diaz contributed eight kills on .238 hitting, an ace, and two total blocks (one solo) for 10.5 points. She added six digs.
Setter Emery Herman ended just shy of a double-double with 31 assists and 9 digs. She added five kills on a perfect 1.000 hitting percentage, an ace, and four total blocks for eight points.
Everything wasn’t smooth sailing, though. The Vaqueros gave the Wildcats a run for their money in the first set despite almost every statistical category favoring Arizona. The home team had a higher hitting percentage, more kills, more digs, and more blocks than their opponent, but UTRGV led by as many as six points midway through the opening set.
“We made a lot of unforced errors in that first set,” Rubio said. “Serving errors, certainly, and a couple of attacking errors. We had 13 unforced errors overall in that first set, so that’s what kept it close. We were siding out pretty regularly. Our hitting percentages and our kills, the number of kills we were getting was certainly on track of what we’re trying to accomplish every set. It was just way too many unforced errors. And regardless of how you are doing offensively if you just keep moving the scoreboard for the other team by making unforced errors, it’s always going to be close, and oftentimes, you’re going to lose those sets.”
The Wildcats didn’t lose that set, but they got very close. The Vaqueros had three aces in the opening set. They also had three set points. Arizona saved them all and put the set away by going on a 5-0 run.
“I thought we served it really well in set one and kept them out of system a little bit,” said UTRGV head coach Todd Lowery. “And they took maybe a few safe swings that we were able to pick up and convert into some offense in set one. I think as the match went on...they got a little bit more aggressive with their serving and with their attack.”
Two players who haven’t seen as much playing time this season as they have in the past were key to helping the Wildcats settle down. As Arizona struggled with the serve of the Vaqueros in set one, Rubio subbed in junior outside hitter Dilara Gedikoglu. Gedikoglu is the best of Arizona’s outside hitters when it comes to passing and defense, but she’s not as terminal on offense. In this match, her back-row skills were needed.
When the junior entered the match, Maldonado Diaz had just made a reception error and Arizona trailed 15-9. With the Vaqueros up 16-11, the second key player was subbed in.
To turn around the serving and passing, Rubio put in senior defensive specialist Malina Kalei Ua. Arizona slowly chipped away at the UTRGV lead, tying the set at 18.
The Vaqueros built the lead again, getting to set point at 24-21. Arizona saved the first one, then Kalei Ua stepped to the service line again. She served four straight points to get her team the set.
“She really put some pressure on them with her serve,” Rubio said.
Alayna Johnson hammers it home— Arizona Volleyball (@ArizonaVBall) December 4, 2021
Set 2 | Arizona - 24, UTRGV - 13 pic.twitter.com/BzK2egLkAP
Arizona’s blocking game was also crucial. The team had 10 total blocks in the match. Senior middle blocker Zyonna Fellows led with five total blocks, including two solo. She also kept the energy of the team up, even from the sidelines. Every time Johnson made a play, Fellows jumped and waved a towel over her head, cheering the younger middle blocker on.
“It’s nice having Z,” Rubio said. “Z makes a big difference for us. She’s maybe one of the most improved players I’ve ever had from start to finish from freshman year to senior year in how much she’s improved since she’s been here. She’s certainly a difference-maker for us.”
The Wildcats move on to face a team that also put away their opponent in straight sets and also had a great night of blocking. UNLV defeated New Mexico State by a score of 25-21, 25-10, 25-22 earlier in the evening. The Rebels had 12 blocks in their match.
“I was very impressed with the way that my team came out today,” said UNLV head coach Dawn Sullivan. “I think we were kind of firing on all cylinders. And when we had to put people in, I thought they came in and contributed right away. And so I was just really impressed with them. And then I thought we did a nice job slowing down (New Mexico State’s) key hitters. They have some really nice offensive players over there.”
The Rebels have been able to slow down some teams that Arizona knows well. UNLV defeated Washington State and ASU this season. The Wildcats swept the season series against the Sun Devils but were unable to solve the puzzle of the Cougars in either of their matches.
“I knew they beat ASU,” Rubio said when told that UNLV defeated WSU. “So, they beat Washington State, as well? Wow. Okay. I’m surprised that they didn’t get an at-large berth (to the NCAA Tournament).”
Sullivan and her team are experienced and confident. During the spring season, they went undefeated in the regular season and advanced to the NCAA Tournament. They lost to eventual national champion Kentucky in the second round, ending their season at 13-1. Ten of the players from that team are back.
“I think we can compete with anybody,” Sullivan said. “We just got to be us. I think that’s what we keep telling ourselves. We got to serve tough, we got to control our side of the game with our ball control, and not stepping outside of it. And I think if we do us, we’re enough.”
When and Where
The second round NIVC match between Arizona and UNLV takes place on Saturday, Dec. 4 at 4 p.m. MST in McKale Center.
How to watch
The match will be streamed on Arizona Live Stream.
Where to find stats
In-game stats are available on Arizona Live Stats.
How to follow along with us
Follow us on Twitter @AZDesertSwarm or on our Facebook page for regular coverage during the week. For live tweets during games and other coverage, follow our deputy editor on Twitter @KimDoss71.