Last weekend’s matches against Arizona State showed just how unpredictable the Arizona Wildcats can be. Three relatively close sets turned into a sweep on Friday, and it looked like the season sweep was on its way after two sets on Sunday. Then, the team fell apart.
Considering what happened against another young team at ASU, what happens when the Wildcats face the more experienced Colorado Buffaloes’ this weekend? Arizona volleyball head coach Dave Rubio knows it will be a challenge.
“They’re older,” he said. “They have switched offensive system from a 5-1 to a 6-2, which is kind of a strong departure from what they had been doing, and I think offensively that helps them. They have two experienced setters, they have two really good lefts, they have two really good opposites. They have a really good libero and a really good middle, and the other middle is young and developing. So I think we have our hands full this weekend. I mean, I say that every single weekend, because we’re playing in the conference, but they’re older, they’re experienced, they have talent, and they’re well-coached.”
The Buffs come in with a 5-7 record, not wildly different from the 5-9 record of the Wildcats. They are three spots ahead of Arizona in the rankings based on winning percentage.
Both Colorado and Oregon State stand at 41.7 percent with identical 5-7 records. That ties them for sixth in the Pac-12. USC’s 3-5 record gives the Trojans a 37.5 winning percent and eighth place, while Arizona is at 35.7 percent in ninth.
The biggest difference is that the Buffs are coming off a big win against No. 15 UCLA, a team that only dropped one set to the Wildcats when they met in Los Angeles.
As the standings suggest, the two teams are close together in offensive stats, as well. Colorado sits in sixth in kills per set at 12.67. Arizona is seventh with 12.12 k/s. The Buffs’ team hitting percentage ranks two spots higher than the Wildcats’ at .213 vs .198.
The one major advantage Colorado has over Arizona is blocking. The Buffs come in fifth in the league at 2.24 b/s, while the Wildcats are eleventh with only 1.58. That is one of the drivers of Colorado’s superiority at scoring points with a 16.7 to 14.9 advantage.
Like Arizona, Colorado has dealt with injuries to starters, especially early in the season. One of Colorado’s injured starters was outside hitter Leah Clayton, a redshirt senior who transferred from East Tennessee State in 2019 and sat out last season.
Clayton has quickly become Colorado’s most potent offensive weapon since making her debut against Washington State on Feb. 10. In the 30 sets Clayton has played since she finally got on the court, she has risen to No. 11 in the conference with 3.37 kills per set.
In comparison, Arizona’s best offensive weapon is Sofia Maldonado Diaz. The freshman has played in 49 sets and sits at No. 3 in the Pac-12 with 3.84 k/s. Maldonado Diaz has also been more efficient, hitting .227 to Clayton’s .174.
Maldonado Diaz also holds the edge in aces per set, blocks per set, and points per set. If the contest were simply between the teams’ top offensive threats, the scales would all tip in Arizona’s favor.
But there are five other players on the court at a given time, and Rubio has some concerns about the most important one on the floor: setter.
As a freshman, Emery Herman has her hands full, stepping into the Pac-12 at the position that is responsible for running the offense at a very young age. At times, she has struggled, especially when she has to set from the front row.
“It’s like you go from arithmetic all the way to physics when you go from three-hitter set to the two-hitter set when she’s front row,” Rubio said. “And it just takes time to be able to understand those dynamics and develop the instincts for it. So I like where Emery’s at... If you would ask her, she’s kind of wearing under the pressure of everything that goes with that position. But, like I told her, the only way out is through. I mean, the only way she’s gonna get to the next stage in her development is to get through this and there’s gonna be some rough nights that go along with it. I thought the ASU match was a rough match for her, but that’s part of the development and part of the process that she has to go through.”
Rubio has been very careful in the way he talks about Herman this season, choosing his words so as not to damage her confidence.
“The weight of the world is on Emery's shoulders and I can kind of feel that,” he said.
That does not mean that he is not concerned about the setting, among other things.
“The thing that’s holding us back at this point is our inability to be consistent in serve receive and then our setting needs to be better in the location,” Rubio said. “The set needs to be a little more consistent. If we can get those things kind of where they need to be, then we’re going to be from a win-loss record, probably in a better place than we are right now. We’re close. We’re competitive. We’re doing a lot of things. Individually, we’re making some good strides. But I think that certain things are more important, setting being maybe one of the most important parts of our ability to have any kind of offense.”
What the coach does like about his offense is the work the middle blockers are doing. While China Rai Crouch will probably still be unavailable this weekend due to the concussion she suffered against Oregon State, all three middles have been effective his season.
When asked who has made the most strides on his team, Rubio did not name one player. He named two: Merle Weidt and Zyonna Fellows.
“The last two matches, we were up from 30 percent to 32 percent of our total sets were in the middle, where before then it was 20 to 25 percent,” he said. “So those are substantial numbers that we’re sending the ball more to those positions, and that really helps out overall, so we’re not as predictable offensively. And the only reason we’ve been able to do that is because we’ve had a lot of success with Zyonna hitting the slide and Merle staying in front of the setter. Hopefully, that trend continues. But I’ve been really happy with the development of the middles, both of them in absence of China. And that’s the unfortunate part of China being hurt is that she’s not with those two, learning and growing as those two are and have been.”
The Wildcats have a lot of tools, but they are still learning to use them. The matches against Colorado are the next step in that process. While the Buffaloes are not a team on the level of Washington, Oregon or Utah, they are a very solid and experienced one.
Whether or not Arizona can rise to the challenge and defeat the Buffaloes, the learning process is what the Wildcats are concerned about right now.
“My whole approach this spring has been we’re just going to plan on trying to get as good as we can for the fall,” Rubio said. “The fall is really where I think for us it’s going to be kind of where we hit our stride.”
Colorado is the next teaching moment.
How to follow the match
- Date/Time: Friday, Mar. 12 at 6 p.m. MST and Sunday, Mar. 14 at 12 p.m. MST
- Location: McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz.
- Streaming: Both matches will be streamed on Arizona Live Stream
- Stats: In-match stats will be available via Arizona Live Stats
- Twitter: Follow us at @AZDesertSwarm. You can also follow our editor at @RKelapire and our reporter at @KimDoss71 for coverage during the game and throughout the season.