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Arizona volleyball can’t complete comeback, drops 5-setter to UNLV

But the team did learn a lot about what it needs to do in the future

Tucson, Ariz. — Arizona volleyball’s Jaelyn Hodge (11) and Alayna Johnson (32) go up for the block against UT-RGV on Dec. 3, 2021.
Photo by Mike Christy / Arizona Athletics

An unwelcomed ending

Now that postseason play was underway, any match could be the last one for Arizona seniors Zyonna Fellows and Malina Kalei Ua. The two players who came to Tucson together four years ago were fighting to ensure that Saturday’s match against UNLV wasn’t that final one, but it wasn’t to be.

The Wildcats came storming back from an 0-2 deficit to push the contest to five sets, but the Rebels recovered and took the 3-2 victory (25-22, 25-20, 17-25, 19-25, 15-9). UNLV moves onto the next round of the Women’s National Invitational Volleyball Championship. Arizona finishes the season with a 17-16 record.

“We’re 0 for 13,” Arizona head coach Dave Rubio said. “Any time we play a team that has an outside hitter who is a super senior we haven’t been able to climb that mountain and get over the top. And I think that it was pretty obvious today that when the match counted, who was carrying UNLV and scoring all their points. Number 7. And congratulations to them. She certainly played a great match.”

No. 7 is Mariena Hayden. She had 17 kills on the night. Five of them were in the fifth set starting when the two teams were tied 6-6. The final one was on match point. In fact, Hayden scored the decisive kill in each set that UNLV won.

The topic of super seniors has been a sore point for Rubio this season, especially since teams were allowed to add additional scholarship players from outside the program if their own fifth-year players opted to stay. Teams were still limited to 12 scholarships, but fifth-year players did not count against that limit unless they transferred into the program. Beginning next season, all super seniors will count against the scholarship limit.

For the second straight match, the experience issue was exacerbated by the absence of Arizona senior Merle Weidt. Weidt, who has been a starting middle blocker for the team over the past season-and-a-half, has been sick since Tuesday. She was unable to play in either of the Wildcats’ NIVC matches.

It didn’t stop with the absence of Weidt, though. Before the match, starting opposite Puk Stubbe complained of shoulder pain. While Stubbe is a freshman, she is 21 years old and has years of experience on the Dutch national beach volleyball team.

Stubbe tried to play, but she lasted for just two sets. She had 20 swings but only three kills and five errors.

Eventually, Rubio had to make adjustments. Despite having her own issues with pain, Sofia Maldonado Diaz stepped in for Stubbe on the right side. Dilara Gedikoglu joined Jaelyn Hodge on the left. Kalei Ua played more than she has most of this season. The changes almost worked.

Arizona had narrowly fallen into a 0-2 hole at the start of the match after losing the first two sets by a total of eight points. After the adjustments, the Wildcats took off and dominated sets three and four.

The Rebels scored the first point of both set three and set four. That was their only lead in either set. The Wildcats built a 6-1 lead in both. They led by as many as seven points in the third set before winning by eight. In the fourth, they led by as many as eight.

A fast start is a huge advantage in fifth sets, but Arizona couldn’t replicate their early-set success from the third and fourth when the final set rolled around. The Wildcats won the first two points, but the Rebels quickly tied it up. Arizona’s final lead was at 4-3, but UNLV couldn’t string points together until the final tie at 7-7.

A 3-0 run gave them a 10-7 lead and opened the floodgates for the Rebels. The Wildcats only scored two more points as their season came to an end.

The Rebels move on to play another day. Rubio said on Friday that he felt UNLV should have gotten an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament after playing a tough schedule, getting some big wins, and losing in their conference tournament final.

Last year, UNLV won the Mountain West. Its only loss all season was to eventual national champion Kentucky in the second round of NCAAs. Was there something to prove this year?

“Whenever we step on the court, I think we have something to prove,” UNLV head coach Dawn Sullivan said. “I don’t think you ever want to take that for granted.”

What’s next for Arizona?

While the loss put the end to the Arizona careers of Weidt, Fellows, and Kalei Ua, there were glimpses of the bright future. That future was especially evident in freshman middle blocker Alayna Johnson and sophomore outside hitter Hodge.

When Johnson signed with Arizona in Nov. 2020, Rubio said that she had a great deal of athleticism and potential, but she was realitively new to high-level club volleyball.

“You know who was like that was Devyn Cross and Liz Shelton,” Rubio said just over a year ago. “Both those guys came in with a little bit of club experience and a ton of potential. So, you know, the hope is that Alayna in a year or two will be able to come in and really play a lot.”

It didn’t take a year or two. Johnson had career highs in kills (9) and points (11). She tied her career high in total blocks (4) against the Rebels in the final match of her freshman campaign. She hit .467.

It was Johnson’s second start in as many days. Against UT-Rio Grande Valley, she had five kills on .667 hitting, seven points, and four total blocks.

Hodge showed that she might someday punish teams the way all those super seniors punished Arizona this season. The sophomore had a big double-double with 23 kills and 12 digs. She also had one block assist, giving her 23.5 points for the match.

“Jaelyn really carried us offensively,” Rubio said. “Jaelyn was spectacular today. And for me, the exciting thing about Jaelyn is that she never shied away from carrying the load. And that part, that’s a great thing because, like (UNLV’s Hayden) over there, who’s carrying the whole offensive load for them as a super senior, Jaelyn is trying to do that for us as a sophomore. And so when you look at the progression and the process, when Jaelyn becomes, hopefully, a super senior...if she lasts that long, you can imagine where her game is going to be at and where her mentality will be at and how mature. She’ll be able to handle those situations.”

And, if everything goes right, Arizona will finally be a complete team again.

“It won’t be just Jaelyn,” Rubio said. “Now you got Sofia Maldonado, and you got Dilara, and then you got Puk Stubbe. So there’s a huge range. So the problem that we’ve always had is we’ve always missed one or two pin players. We had Madi Kingdon, but Kalei Mau wasn’t ready. Then we had Kalei Mau, and then Kendra Dahlke wasn’t ready. So we always were lacking one or two players in the pins to be able to complement the other players. The one year we had them was the year we went to the round of 16. That’s when we had Kalei and Kendra—Kendra as a sophomore, Kalei as a senior. And so if we can keep this group together, in a couple years, you got to figure even next year will be significantly better. And same with the setting. Emery really made some great strides. That’s the reason why I wanted to win so badly tonight ...that just gives us another opportunity to reach another threshold individually as players and then as a team, as well.”

It wasn’t to be, so the Wildcats will now turn their attention to their spring development season and the portal. Since both Fellows and Weidt will be gone next season, Rubio is looking for something very particular.

“I think that the thing that would help us... (is) if we get a middle,” Rubio said. “That’ll be a focus for us. (A middle blocker) that has some experience... We have money available, so if we can find somebody, that would be fantastic. Really, that’s kind of the missing piece for us right now. If Zyonna and Merle were coming back, it would really make a difference for us, but both those guys are moving on. So, now we’re focused on trying to develop AJ and Nicole (Briggs). We will try to back them up with somebody that can maybe transfer in that’s ...played at a very high level and it’s going to give us some age.”

As the Wildcats were reminded on Saturday evening, age really does matter. Its influence on college sports will be outsized until at least the 2025 season when the final super seniors will have departed the college athletics landscape.