As Arizona prepared to face Colorado early Sunday afternoon, Paige Whipple only needed one kill to get to 1,124 career kills. That would move her into sole possession of No. 12 on Arizona volleyball’s career kills list, overtaking associate head coach Rita Stubbs. That was supposed to be the story, anyway.
Instead, the story was the Arizona block party led by setter Emery Herman and middle blocker Merle Weidt, both of whom are in their first year with the program. The two combined for 15 total blocks, including three solo, as the Wildcats defeated the Buffaloes in four sets (26-24, 21-25, 25-19, 25-19) to complete just their second weekend sweep of the season.
“I’m really proud,” Arizona head coach Dave Rubio said. “We’ve been spending quite a bit of time on the blocking. For the pin blockers picking the right spots, and then the middles just... (trying) to get over the net, get square. We’ve been spending a lot of time with that the last three weeks... so it’s nice that we were able to kind of continue to improve in that area, get reinforced by that in the last couple matches.”
The last time the Wildcats swept anyone, they were facing a Stanford Cardinal team that brought just nine players to McKale for their first competition of the season. The Cardinal had not been allowed to practice indoors for months due to restrictions in Santa Clara County and they had to leave several starters back in Palo Alto. At the time, Rubio said that for him the sweep had a little bit of an asterisk next to it.
Colorado came into Tucson with experience, adequate numbers, plenty of practice and a big win against then-No. 15 UCLA just last weekend. This time, there was no such asterisk.
There was also still that great story about Whipple, the lone four-year senior on the team, and her tie with her coach.
“It’s important that we say it’s a tie still,” Stubbs joked after Friday’s match.
Whipple didn’t waste any time making sure it was not a tie anymore. On the fourth point of the match she used the Colorado block to get the kill, moving herself up the leaderboard and tying the set at 2-2.
Herman, Arizona’s freshman setter, was involved in a match and career-high eight total blocks (including one solo) on a day when her team blocked the Buffaloes 15 times (22 assisted and four solo). Herman also contributed team-highs with 46 assists, two service aces and 16 digs. And don’t forget the one kill, which gave her 7.5 points for the match.
“Emery’s really a terrific athlete,” Rubio said. “If you really just kind of sat and watched her move and play and dig all the balls that are an inch off the floor. Pretty impressive. The things she does that she probably needs to improve the most would be setting, and that’ll be an area that I think for her will make the most improvements. I think all the other things—defending, serving, the blocking and all the in-between plays—she already does at a very, very high level.”
Colorado also struggled against Arizona’s middles. Weidt had seven blocks, including two solo, and Zyonna Fellows added five blocks.
Weidt was crucial on offense as well. The junior, who transferred in from Rutgers last spring, had 10 kills on a team-high .333 hitting percentage. That was good for 14.5 points. Fellows also had four kills, continuing the trend of the middle blockers being dangerous point-scorers.
“I like the fact that (the middles) are getting set more,” Stubbs said on Friday. “We hold this debate in the office quite often. But part of it is us putting ourselves in the position to be able to score.”
The Wildcats’ offense was paced by Sofia Maldonado Diaz. After a few matches where head coach Dave Rubio felt she had “hit a wall,” the dynamic freshman had a double-double with 17 kills and 14 digs. Her .317 hitting percentage was the second-best on the team, and she added five digs and two blocks. She amassed a match-high 18.5 points.
“I thought Sofia today played much more like she had been playing,” Rubio said. “I thought on Friday she had a little off night for her, but again you can’t fault her for all the things and how productive she has been for us throughout the season.”
Fellow freshman Jaelyn Hodge was second on the team with 14 kills on .235 hitting. She also had five digs, four blocks and 16 points.
Whipple made it four Wildcats with double-digit kills and two with double-doubles. She contributed 11 kills, 15 digs and one assist.
The Wildcats improved to 7-9 on the season while the Buffaloes fall to 5-9. Arizona went into the match with a loss percentage of .600 and lowered it to .563. Colorado’s loss percentage increased from .615 to .643, dropping them further behind the Wildcats in the Pac-12 standings.
“Colorado... split with UCLA last week and they’ve gone five with several really top-level programs,” Rubio said. “And so, for us, it kind of gives us some tangible proof that we’re making some good improvements. And the last few weeks have been really good for us. I think we’ve won three out of the last four matches. So that part’s been really good. I see some really good individual improvement and as a result, our team is certainly a little more consistent and putting ourselves in a position to win.”
Arizona is currently in the top half of the league standings. Next on the to-do list is a road win. That opportunity comes next week at last-place California.
“I don’t really see a difference between games on the road and at home, especially with COVID,” Weidt said. “Just putting us in the situation that we’re in with not really any fans. So, I actually think that we’re definitely going to get our first win on the road this weekend.”