Arizona volleyball got its first look at what works and what still needs work at Saturday’s Red-Blue scrimmage. Now, it’s time to prepare for the real thing as the season-opening Cactus Classic approaches on Friday.
Sophomores Jaelyn Hodge and Sofia Maldonado Diaz stood out among the returners. Among the bigs, freshmen Puk Stubbe and Nicole Briggs also showed promise. Head coach Dave Rubio was also impressed by his group of defensive specialists.
“I think our littles are terrific,” he said. “A really solid group and they bring the best out of one another, and they continue to kind of raise the bar for one another. So that part was really good. I thought our ball control, in general, defensively was good. That’s been showing in practice every day.”
On offense, Hodge led the match with 21 kills in four sets playing for the Red team, which consisted of Stubbe and most of the starters from last season. Maldonado Diaz switched between the teams, showing most of her offensive power in the first and fourth sets.
Although she didn’t join her teammates until Aug. 16, Stubbe found her game quickly. In the first set, she and Maldonado Diaz led the Red team in scoring.
“Puk is a terrific player,” Rubio said. “The thing that’s happening with Puk, a lot like Sofia Maldonado, is just getting used to being here and being away from the family. It’s a brand new system for her. She’s used to really high sets; we’re setting the ball really low. And then she’s got academics on top of that. For (the international players) the system’s way different. Academics were never part of their athletic, daily routine. And so I think, until she gets really comfortable, we’re not going to really see the Puk that we would if she was playing in the Netherlands. Very talented young lady, as you can tell.”
Briggs was effective offensively and on the block. She led the match with six blocks and had three kills in the first set. That was promising since, during the previous week’s media day, Rubio said that her lack of high-level club experience meant that it might take her some time to adjust.
The Wildcats didn’t get to see what freshmen Jennifer Wroblicky, Alayna Johnson, or Ava Francis could do, as all three were out. The absence of Wroblicky and Johnson meant that Arizona had just three middle blockers available. In their absence, three of the team’s managers stood in on the Blue team, requiring Hodge, Stubbe, and Maldonado Diaz to find ways around the blocks of three male players when the managers were in the front row.
One of Arizona’s challenges was obvious with the absences of 6-foot-7 Wroblicky and 6-foot-3 Johnson. The team lacks the size that Rubio thought they would have when he received commitments from Wroblicky, Johnson, China Rai Crouch, and Lauren Ware.
Ware has opted to play basketball only and Crouch is taking what the coach referred to as a “medical gap year” after being injured for half of the spring season. That removes players who measure 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-6 from the lineup. It also reduces the depth and experience at the middle blocker position.
Seniors Zyonna Fellows and Merle Weidt are the only middles on the team who have NCAA experience. With the injuries Arizona has experienced at that position over the past several years, depth never hurts. Freshmen Wroblicky, Johnson, and Briggs will have to learn fast. They also need some help from their setters.
“The middles need a little bit more work,” Rubio said after the scrimmage. “We didn’t set the middles enough. And I think that with Zyonna and with Merle and even with Nicole— Nicole offensively is really, really good—we need to set them a little bit more.”
Perhaps more important than physical skills is the development of leadership and communication. For the last two seasons, the Wildcats have relied heavily on Paige Whipple for leadership. Last year, Kamaile Hiapo also played a significant leadership role. With Whipple now gone, Hiapo has more responsibility and others need to step into that role, as well.
“I didn’t see enough communication,” Rubio said. “There’s got to be more communication during the dead time. And when things start to go south a little bit, that needs to happen. And that’s a big influence.... on a scale from one to 10 in terms of just level of communication and competitiveness, we’re about a three out of 10. I mean, we got to get up to seven or eight, eventually.”
As for what Hiapo expects from herself and her team in regards to leadership, she knows that it’s a big part of her job, but she also knows that it doesn’t all fall on her.
“I knew you guys were going to ask me that,” she said on media day. “I definitely miss Paige a lot. Now that she’s gone, I realized how much of an impact she had on the team and how much responsibility she had. I didn’t even know half of my responsibilities until the season started. So it’s a big role to fill, but I think I have so many (leaders) behind me like Emery (Herman), Malina (Kalei Ua), and Z and Merle. So I’m not alone.”
The program as a whole has a reason to feel less alone this year. The intrasquad scrimmage marked the first time since November 2019 that Arizona had played in front of fans in McKale Center.
With the changes on the roster since that time, it was also the first in-person glimpse Arizona fans have had of most of the players. Thirteen of the 20 players on the Arizona roster have never played NCAA volleyball in front of a crowd.
There is plenty to work on before Arizona plays in front of that crowd again. Rubio was pleased with the defense and raved about Hodge at the Red-Blue match, but he has expressed concern about serve receive and the use of the middle blockers both times he has met with the media this month.
There isn’t much time to address those issues. The Wildcats will face their first real opponent of the season at 10 a.m. MST on Friday, Aug. 27 when they open the Cactus Classic against Marist. At 6:30 p.m., they will face New Mexico State, a team that beat them in a scrimmage in the spring.
The weekend wraps up with a match against UC San Diego at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday. UCSD hasn’t played since the 2019 NCAA Tournament after the Big West canceled the women’s volleyball season last year, but they have only had one losing season in the past 15 years.