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A ‘shot in the dark’ led freshman sensation Sofia Maldonado Diaz to Arizona

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Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

Sofía Maldonado Diaz is taking Pac-12 volleyball by storm.

The Arizona freshman was named the conference’s newcomer of the week after posting historic numbers against No. 11 Washington. Her 25 kills on Saturday were the most by an Arizona freshman since 2007 and she only needed 41 swings to do it.

Maldonado Diaz also had 11 digs, making her the first UA freshman to have a double-double with 20 or more kills since U.S. national teamer Madi Kingdon did it in 2011.

Maldonado Diaz attacked in different ways. Spikes, tips, chops, you name it. It was such an awing display that Dave Rubio compared her to the volleyball version of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Her skills are that transcendent.

“Her hand-to-ball contact is exceptional,” the UA head coach said. “I mean, she can put her hand and move the ball around the block and the court, and her vision is exceptional. She does some things innately that she’s in the top 1% of all players in the country that can do what she does. And I feel fortunate that she’s in our program and only a freshman.”

Through four matches, Maldonado Diaz leads Arizona with 50 kills on .274 hitting while averaging 0.5 blocks and 1.43 digs per set. She said through translator Izzy Barnard that her hot start has been a pleasant surprise to her. Not everyone can say the same.

Chris Tobolski of Volleyball Mag once wrote that if Maldonado Diaz played for an American club in high school, she likely would have been considered the top recruit in her class.

It’s just that as a member of the Mexican junior national team, Maldonado Diaz rarely showcased her talent in the United States. Her team only played in one American club tournament a year—the SCVA Las Vegas Classic. Rubio remembers being there in February of Maldonado Diaz’s sophomore year. The gym was buzzing.

“People were coming up to me and would say, ‘Dave, you got to check this kid out, she’s really, really good,’” he said.

Rubio doesn’t speak Spanish—“I barely speak English,” he joked—but he was able to express his interest in Maldonado Diaz through her coach and they exchanged contact information.

Rubio did not hear back from Maldonado Diaz or her family, but he saw her play again at the same tournament the following year. He approached her coach again but didn’t expect anything to come out of it.

“It was really kind of a shot in the dark for us,” Rubio said. “I mean, we just handed the card and I’m going, ‘this is never going to happen.’ It’s one of those type of deals and we just kept following the breadcrumbs.”

Sure enough, Maldonado Diaz’s mother emailed Rubio a few weeks later to say that Sofia had strong interest in joining the Wildcats. Sofia said Rubio’s persistence, Arizona’s history of player development, and UA’s proximity to Mexico made it a desirable destination.

Once Rubio knew there was mutual interest, he went to great lengths to secure a commitment. Literally. In 2019, he flew to Mexico just hours after the UA volleyball team returned from its European tour.

“We traveled 24 straight hours from Milan, Italy, back to Tucson. We landed in Tucson at 12 o’clock at night. I was on a plane to Monterrey, Mexico at five o’clock in the morning to meet and watch Sofia play and then have an in-house visit with her,” Rubio said. “That’s how badly I was willing to go. I was willing to go to Guadalajara. I mean, if I had to walk there I would have gone to recruit her.”

Rubio knew Maldonado Diaz could be good, but not this good this soon. For one thing, she is learning a new position. She was a middle blocker with the Mexican national team but is playing outside hitter for the Wildcats. That’s where they believe she fits best. It also requires her to play in the back row and master new skills like passing, serving and receiving.

Maldonado Diaz said the transition has been difficult at times, but clearly it’s nothing she can’t handle.

“She’s just a really quick study and right now is just scratching the surface to how good she could be and will be,” Rubio said. “I’ve always been on the opposing team’s bench, looking at a player like that going, ‘man, that player is really good.’ And it’s really nice to have someone of that level and that quality of player on our team and she certainly makes a difference.”

Rubio has had very few international players in his 29 years at Arizona, but has three this season. He says they are unique in that they are laser focused on becoming the best player they can be. Going pro is their ultimate goal. Getting an education often comes second.

So even though Maldonado Diaz arrived as somewhat of an unknown commodity to Rubio, her practice habits made it obvious that she has a bright future.

“A really diligent, attention-to-detail type of player,” he said. “It’s been a good influence and a good exposure for our other players.”

Gelling with her teammates was a struggle at first. On top of learning a new position and system, Maldonado Diaz had trouble immigrating to the United States due to COVID-19 restrictions. And while her English is serviceable, she is not always comfortable speaking it.

Once she started to build up some confidence, she tested positive for COVID-19, forcing her to quarantine until she tested negative. That knocked her out of Arizona’s exhibition vs. New Mexico State on Jan. 14, though it was only a temporary setback.

She was one of the few bright spots in Arizona’s season-opening losses at Utah a week later.

“When she got the negative test back, and was able to reintegrate herself, it just made her want to do better,” Maldonado’s translator said. “It motivated her and she was playing with a lot of desire. ... With time, she’s been able to slowly adapt and get used to it and start to know her teammates better. And that’s helped her settle in here in Tucson.”

Maldonado Diaz is close with fellow international players Dilara Gedikoglu (Turkey) and Merle Weidt (Germany) but is more talkative around the entire team now. One day after practice she came out of her shell to let her teammates know that she finally feels comfortable around them.

“That just made my heart, everyone’s heart, so happy,” said sophomore libero Kamaile Hiapo. “We’re like, ‘thank goodness.’ And now she’s a baller out on the court.”

Maldonado Diaz has been likened to Samantha Bricio, a Mexican national team star and former USC All-American hitter. Maldonado Diaz smiled when her name was mentioned with Bricio’s, saying it’s an honor to be compared to a player of that caliber.

But as impressive as Maldonado Diaz has been so far, Rubio wants to see how she builds on her early success before proclaiming her to be some sort of savior for Arizona volleyball.

“I’m not ready to anoint her as the Second Coming until she can do it back to back and do it over a couple different weekends, but certainly the potential is there,” he said. “And certainly how she applies herself in practice every single day allows her to be on the learning curve that she’s on now. She’s improving quickly.”