After seeing his team get destroyed by injuries the last two seasons, it might be a lot to ask Arizona volleyball head coach Dave Rubio to feel sorry for the situation Stanford found itself in on Friday evening—in their first match with very little proper practice and only eight players available.
“I felt bad for Kevin (Hambly) for about five minutes and then I got over it,” he said.
This Cardinal team definitely wasn’t last year’s national championship squad, but they were still a program that has dominated the series—but not Friday’s match. That was the Wildcats, who swept the Cardinal (25-17, 25-16, 25-14) for their first victory of the season.
“I think it’s once a decade that we actually beat those guys,” Rubio said earlier in the week. “It may be a little too soon. I mean, I think we beat them when Penina (Snuka) was in her senior year. I think that was in 2016.”
The Wildcats did, indeed, beat the Cardinal on the road in 2016. Before that, Arizona had not defeated Stanford since 2005. A sweep? You have to go back to 2000. But it wasn’t too soon to do it again, this time by overwhelming the Cardinal.
“First time we beat them in my four years here, so that’s really exciting,” senior outside hitter Paige Whipple said. “And Arizona volleyball beat them in 2016. It doesn’t happen that often for us and so regardless of who they had on the court—it wasn’t their full team—but it feels good to beat a Stanford team.”
Just two weeks ago, Rubio didn’t even think there would be matches played this weekend. Stanford was still under strict Santa Clara County rules that kept them from being able to return home if they traveled. Opponents couldn’t travel there. Until just over a week ago, Stanford couldn’t even practice indoors.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats have been working their eight new faces into the lineup with difficult matches against Utah and Washington. They may have come in with an 0-4 record, but the team has shown strong growth in just two short weeks. In their fifth straight match against a ranked opponent, they finally broke through with a strong group effort.
Those new faces combined with veterans Whipple, Kamaile Hiapo and Zyonna Fellows for a dominant performance on Friday.
The Wildcats were led on offense by Sofia Maldonado Diaz with 10 kills on .273 hitting. She added nine digs, two aces and one block. The stat line was good for 12.5 points.
Whipple was right there with her, getting seven kills on .294 hitting, six digs and one block for 9.5 points.
Freshman Jaelyn Hodge added eight kills, one dig and one block for 8.5 points.
Setter Emery Herman had five kills of her own while assisting her teammates 24 times. She added three digs and two total blocks. Hiapo added 11 digs, five assists and an ace.
As balanced as the offense was, it wasn’t as high on the list for Rubio as other parts of the Wildcats’ play.
“I think our serving and passing is a foundation of ours, will be our success,” he said. “And certainly tonight I think that we passed well, I think we served well. I thought we did that against Washington, as well. Our offense still needs some polish, but I felt like the serving and passing was certainly the thing that carried us through tonight.”
Dilara Gedikoglu was a key part of that serving success. She led Arizona with three aces, including one to end the first set. As a team, the Wildcats aced the Cardinal eight times.
Blocking was clicking on all cylinders as well. Fellows led the team with three blocks. As a group, they had six total blocks.
While Hiapo thought some good days of practice led to a strong outing vs. Stanford, Rubio disagreed and warned that the Wildcats need to stay focused heading into Sunday’s rematch.
“I shared with the team, I said the difference of how I feel after the Washington match and how I feel after the Stanford match really isn’t much different,” Rubio said. “I gauge our program in terms of the progress we’re gonna make from day to day and week to week, and I was really frustrated with yesterday’s practice because I felt like the players just came in and participated. They weren’t focused, they weren’t dialed in. It felt like we were going through the motions.
“I mean, I was about ready to blow my top. Fortunately I didn’t, but we can’t afford to take too many days off and think that we’re going to be a good team, and young teams tend to do that. And that’s what we’re going to guard against going from Saturday with the day off, and then going into Sunday’s match against Stanford, who has plenty of talent.”