Arizona volleyball didn’t get out to great starts on Sunday, but it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. The Wildcats finished with the weekend sweep of Oregon State on the back of a four-set victory (25-17, 25-21, 25-27, 25-14) to move to 4-6 on the season.
“It’s always a little disconcerting when I feel like we’re not playing particularly well,” Arizona head coach Dave Rubio said. “I felt like the entire weekend we weren’t that sharp, but with so many young players playing I think that just kind of goes with the territory. And so I don’t like being down two to one, but I also like being up two to one. So it was nice that the response that we had was a good one. And the hope is that it just continues our progress and becoming the team that we potentially can be with time.”
Once again, freshman outside hitter Sofia Maldonado Diaz led the way for the Wildcats. She ended the day one shy of her career high in kills with 24, doing it with a .314 hitting percentage. She added a block for 24.5 points and had six digs to go along with it.
Fellow freshman Jaelyn Hodge tied her career high with 12 kills. She also had a dig and a block and ended the match with 12.5 points.
Freshman setter Emery Herman had 44 assists, a kill, a service ace, six digs and two blocks for a strong all-around day. She trailed only her 53-assist outing in a five-set loss to Washington in her young career.
“I think there’s a lot of confidence that has been coming up as we go on,” Herman said about her development. “Just getting used to the system, getting used to running a 5-1, getting used to having feedback on every set which is nice for me because I’ve never had that.”
Hodge agreed that the development of rapport, both on the court and off, between hitters and setter is coming along. They still have things to work on, though.
“I think the hitters, the problem is just finding the attacking line and being confident,” Hodge said.
The win didn’t come without its costs. Middle blocker China Rai Crouch was hit in the head late in the third set and had to leave the match. Merle Weidt entered the match for her and had a strong outing in the fourth set with three kills on .750 hitting.
Another Merle kill!— Arizona Volleyball (@ArizonaVBall) February 21, 2021
Arizona up 23-14! pic.twitter.com/tt9Zu9EVtk
“Merle gives us something a little bit different than the other two middles provide,” Rubio said. “Merle lacks a little bit of physicality but her timing and her effort level and her perseverance and her attitude is really a cut above, and so she really adds a different element that the other two don’t. And so that’s why you saw Emery not hesitate to set her.”
For the first three sets, Arizona had difficulty getting out of the gates as quickly as Oregon State. The Beavers built a 10-6 lead in both of the first two sets. In the third, they went out 6-2 to start things off.
In the first two sets, the Wildcats were able to kick things into gear and build their own lead. From that 10-6 mark in set one, Arizona went on an 18-5 run to gain set point. The Beavers were able to stave off two set points, but that was it. The Wildcats took the 1-0 lead on a score of 25-17.
In the second set, Arizona went on a 5-1 run to close that 6-10 deficit and tie things up. Oregon State was able to keep the home team in range, but couldn’t overtake the Wildcats again, allowing Arizona to take the 2-0 lead.
After being swept on Friday, the Beavers were finally able to keep things moving in their direction in the third. Arizona was able to tie things up several times, but had difficulty stringing points together the way they had in the first two sets.
Rubio felt that part of that was because Maldonado Diaz was less effective in the latter part of the match as Oregon State’s defense started to bother her more.
“Before we got to the middle of game three, she was literally on fire,” Rubio said. “I was surprised looking at the end of the match that her stats were as good as they were. I mean she hit over .300. She struggled in the second half of the third game and in game four. It was starting to get a little bit hard for her. She’s started getting blocked a little bit more, was getting dug. And so I thought in the first half she was terrific and really carving the ball around the block and scoring quite a bit. And so, the second half of the set I thought that she struggled. But she’s kind of our rock with Paige (Whipple) out. She’s the one that kind of takes over Paige’s load. This weekend, I thought overall she had a terrific weekend.”
The dip in Maldonado Diaz’s comfort level wasn’t enough to save the Beavers. The Wildcats came out much stronger in the fourth. Oregon State scored the first two points of the set, then Arizona put its foot down. The Beavers would only score 12 more points in the match.
The Wildcats end the weekend just outside the top half of the Pac-12. With 10 of their 22 matches played, they are almost at the halfway point of the season and stand in seventh with a 40 percent winning percentage.
“I always felt like we would hit our stride going into the second half,” Rubio said. “And so hopefully that happens and we continue to improve. I think that our system is pretty much in place. Now we can really start focusing on some individual training which is I think what we need more than anything at this time. But I think that the second half of the season we will start to play better.”