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Young trio leads Arizona volleyball to two wins to open Cactus Classic

Jaelyn Hodge goes for the kill in a match against New Mexico State on Aug. 27, 2021.
Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

With the extra year granted to college players last season, there’s a chance that Arizona volleyball fans got a glimpse of the promise of the next four years at today’s Cactus Classic. Jaelyn Hodge, Sofia Maldonado Diaz, and Puk Stubbe paced the Wildcats as they opened the season with straight-set wins over Marist College (25-11, 25-15, 25-23) and New Mexico State (25-19, 25-14, 25-20).

“I think for all the three pins if we pass the ball’s tough to figure out who (Emery Herman is) going to set, and then it creates splits in the block,” Arizona head coach Dave Rubio said.

The trio took advantage of that on Friday. Hodge took the lead.

The day started early with a 10 a.m. match against the Marist Red Foxes. Hodge was ready, leading her team with 14 kills on .243 hitting. She added three blocks, one of which was solo, for 16 points.

Hodge didn’t let up in the evening match against the New Mexico State Aggies. The match before them ran about 30 minutes long, but once the Wildcats got on the floor, she contributed a double-double with 11 kills and 11 digs. The digs might be the most important stat since Hodge is tasked with playing all six rotations this year and needs to be able to contribute from the back row.

Hodge also had two blocks, an assist, and an ace in the nightcap. She improved her hitting percentage to .250.

Fellow sophomore Maldonado Diaz was not far behind. Last year’s Pac-12 Freshman of the Year had seven kills on .333 hitting in the early match and added eight more kills in the evening. She also contributed three service aces for 10 points against Marist, then had three blocks and 9.5 points against the Aggies.

Stubbe, a freshman from the Netherlands, took a little more time to get acclimated in her NCAA debut. The early game was not especially impressive, but she broke out in the late match. Against Marist she had four kills on just .133 hitting, but she added three blocks to give her 5.5 points.

Stubbe was a force against New Mexico State. In that match, she led all players with 13 kills. Even more impressive, she did it on .435 hitting. Adding a service ace gave her 14 points. But Stubbe wasn’t just scoring. She had an assist and six digs against the Aggies, as well.

“We hadn’t seen Puk be that good in practice,” Rubio said. “It’s been a slow transition from the Netherlands and the system they run there. She’s a beach player, and kind of being an indoor player. So today we kind of saw a little bit of the level which we think that she’s going to be able to play. I always knew that she was going to be a terrific player, so it was nice for her to kind of get a little more comfortable out there.”

Senior middle blocker Merle Weidt had to sit out practice on Wednesday after being hit in the head with a ball; the initial fear was that she had sustained a concussion. Fortunately, that fear was unfounded and the day off did nothing to slow Weidt down.

Weidt had five kills on six swings with no errors and added five blocks against the Red Foxes. That gave her eight points for the match. She was not as efficient against the Aggies, but she still had three kills and four blocks. She also contributed two digs in each match.

While the bigs get the attention, they need their littles to do their job if the team is to win. Rubio felt that junior libero Kamaile Hiapo was the key.

“Kamaile was the person who really keeps us in system,” Rubio said. “Had a lot of touches, a lot of digs, a lot of serve receive, a lot of covers. She, for us, is kind of a game-changer.”

Everything wasn’t smooth sailing for the Wildcats, though. In the morning, they initially looked like they were going to blow Marist off the court. They won the first two sets 25-11 and 25-15. The waters got rougher in the third.

Arizona led at 3-2, but would not have another lead until 17-16. The Red Foxes weren’t able to pull away, but the Wildcats weren’t able to overtake them, either. When Arizona built a 20-17 lead, it looked like the home team finally had things under control.

That wasn’t the case. Marist regained the lead at 22-21 and again at 23-22. From there, Arizona won the final three points, punctuating the match with a block by Emery Herman and Zyonna Fellows.

“We were battling some nerves this morning, so it just was not as good as we’d want, especially in game three,” Rubio said. “Marist came out nervous as well, and I think Marist is a much better team than they showed in the first two sets and they finally kind of got a bit more confidence to settle down a little bit... Our execution was okay, we weren’t bad, but tonight was much better for us. And I think what we saw tonight is more of what I see every single day in practices.”

As Rubio suggested, the Wildcats had a much better time of it in the evening. Part of that was simply better execution. New Mexico State was not at its best, though.

The Aggies had a rough first match earlier in the day. UC San Diego pushed them to five sets before NMSU was finally able to pull out the victory. That match started at 12:30 p.m., and the Aggies had to be back on the court six hours later to meet Arizona.

The Aggies were only able to produce 23 kills over three sets compared to 43 by the Wildcats. Five of those kills were by Tucson native Katie Birtcil who tied teammate Shaney Lipscomb for the team high. Both of them had double-digit kills in their earlier match against UCSD.

Against Arizona, NMSU kept in close early in the first set. At 8-8, the Wildcats took control of the set. They slowly pulled away to win the opening set 25-19.

The Aggies were never in the second set. Arizona led from the start and had double-digit leads on several occasions, doubling New Mexico State’s score at 20-10 and again at 22-11. They would end things at 25-14.

The Aggies kept things much closer in the final set, but their last lead was at 2-0. The Wildcats didn’t run away with the set, but they easily closed the match out in straight sets.