Arizona volleyball coach Dave Rubio said he expected his team to start showing improvement in the second half of the season. They’re now 11 matches into a 22-game slate and are definitely doing so.
The Wildcats followed up last weekend’s two-match sweep of Oregon State with a hard-fought 4-set loss to 15th-ranked UCLA on Friday in Los Angeles, falling 24-26, 25-18, 25-22, 27-25.
Rubio is pleased with the growth of his team, but he’s over the idea of moral victories.
“We’re in a different place than we were four weeks ago when we lost to Washington 15-13 in the fifth,” he said. “Now, there’s no consolation in coming close and losing. Right now the expectation is that we beat those teams that we come close to and are competitive with the teams that are in the upper part of the conference.”
It was once again a display of Arizona’s potential with standout performances by freshman hitters Sofia Maldonado Diaz and Jaelyn Hodge. There were also strong contributions from more experienced Wildcats, especially senior Paige Whipple, who was returning to the lineup after sitting out last weekend with a back injury.
Maldonado Diaz, the reigning Pac-12 Freshman of the Week, led the Wildcats with 17 kills and 19 points. She added an assist, an ace, seven digs and two blocks.
Hodge wasn’t far behind with 12 kills to go along with an assist, two digs and four blocks. That was good for 14 points.
Whipple contributed nine kills, three assists, six digs and three blocks, resulting in 10.5 points.
Merle Weidt, the transfer from Rutgers who made her first start as a Wildcat, had six kills and five blocks for 8.5 points. Zyonna Fellows provided similar power at the other middle blocker position. Fellows had six kills and four blocks for eight points.
Freshman setter Emery Herman contributed five kills with zero errors in ten attacks, good for a .500 hitting percentage. Her 33 assists and 17 digs gave her a double-double for the third time in her young career. Her assists, digs, and hitting percentage were all team highs.
Libero Kamaile Hiapo had nine assists and 16 digs. Both Hiapo and Herman were strong from the service line, putting together several stretches of solid serving to string together Arizona runs.
Going into the match, Rubio thought the Wildcats needed about 17 kills per set to have a chance to beat UCLA. They were able to do that in two of the four sets, but their overall average was dragged down by the second and third sets when they had just 11 kills apiece.
“We scored 17 points, I think, the first set and 16 points in the second set,” Rubio said. “Those are really exceptional numbers. The conference average right now is around 13 or 14. So both teams are siding out. And that’s what we need to be able to race to 25 and be able to side out with them.”
Despite that performance, Rubio did not feel that the hitters were aided by the setting. As a team, the Wildcats hit just .199, and no one but Herman hit over .214. Rubio briefly removed Herman from the match in the fourth set when the Bruins took a 6-3 lead.
“She struggled all match on setting the ball on the left side attacker,” Rubio said of Herman. “Set location was inconsistent. And so things get pretty heated. There’s a lot on her plate when she’s setting and I’m yelling at her and she’s trying to execute. And so if I give her a breather and just kind of give her some perspective, I think it helps to do that for her.... She played better after she went back in.”
The Wildcats didn’t waste any time in the first set. They built a 7-2 lead right out of the gates, forcing the Bruins to call a timeout.
That breather seemed to be just what the doctor ordered. UCLA went on its own 7-2 run to tie things at nine and it looked like the match was going to go the way of most of Arizona’s previous matches against the top teams in the league.
The Bruins didn’t stop at a 7-2 run. Before long it had turned into a 15-5 run and a 17-12 UCLA lead.
Then the Wildcats found something within themselves. Despite facing a team featuring the reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year, Arizona didn’t give in. They put an end to the string of runs that UCLA had been able to sustain.
Still, at 21-17, the deficit looked it might be too much to overcome. The two teams traded points. UCLA edged ever closer to the end, gaining a 24-21 advantage. Surely they would put away at least one of their three set points, wouldn’t they?
No, they would not.
The Bruins reached 24 points, then didn’t score again. The Wildcats took the final five points of the set to take the 1-0 lead. It was the first set Arizona had taken on the road all season.
In set two it looked like Arizona was going to go away and let UCLA have this match. The Bruins built leads as large as nine points. The Wildcats showed some resilience by saving two set points at the end, but it was only good enough for a 25-18 UCLA victory.
The final two sets were back-and-forth affairs. If substantial leads were built, the other team wiped them away. In the final set, the Wildcats saved two match points before finally falling to the Bruins by a score of 27-25.
The Wildcats proved that they could stay with UCLA. They don’t need to make dramatic changes to compete. They just need to raise the bar a bit in a few aspects of the game and force the Bruins to operate out of system more.
“I thought UCLA really served well, as I thought we did,” Rubio said. “I think the reason why we were in the game, and then in the sets that were close, was because we were able to kind of get them out of their system. So we got to do just a little bit better job of handling the tough serves.”
Arizona has a chance to do that and defeat UCLA at 1 p.m. on Sunday.