Arizona head volleyball coach Dave Rubio has been talking about his long-term plans for the program since 2019. That's when he signed a top-10 class that he felt could eventually put the Wildcats firmly into the top half of the conference and into the national conversation. Sophomore Jaelyn Hodge is a big reason why.
Last season, Hodge and 2020-21 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Sofia Maldonado Diaz showed what they could do on offense. The problem for the Wildcats is that both had a way to go to turn into the kind of six-rotation players that Rubio needed.
“(Hodge has) worked really hard throughout the summer to become the full-time six- rotation player, and it really shows out there,” Rubio said. “She passed well, defended well, she attacked well. So she’s one step closer to where she could be a really full-time complete player... I thought Sofia Maldonado did well. Her passing isn’t nearly... as far along yet, but it’s nice to not have to sub those guys out. The more I don’t have to sub those guys and they can play in a real match, then it furthers their development that much more.”
While Maldonado Diaz, who was a middle blocker on her national team prior to arriving in Arizona last year, is still working on that aspect of her game, Hodge took a huge leap forward in the four-month off-season by working on her own and with the team.
“I went into my old club and worked there, two or three times a week,” Hodge said. “And then coming into summer ball, we did a lot of position training and worked a lot on my defense every single day.”
That work is paying off. Last year, Hodge had a season-high five digs against Colorado. She averaged 0.65 digs per set. In three matches this season, she already put up her first double-double with 11 kills and 11 digs in a straight-set win over New Mexico State. She averages 1.8 digs per set in the early going.
Playing full-time and getting the opportunity to play non-conference matches have given Hodge the opportunity to improve her numbers across the board. She has double-digit kills in all three matches this season, averaging 4.22 k/s. She has done that while improving her efficiency every match. She went from a .243 hitting percentage in her first match to .344 in her third.
In the blocking game, she has improved from 0.51 blocks per set last season to 0.89 b/s in the early going this season. On the serve, she had just two aces over 74 sets last year. In nine sets so far this season she already has her first ace.
All of those numbers translate to the most important stat: points scored. Hodge scored 2.64 points per set over 21 matches last season. She has raised that to 4.94 early in her sophomore year. All of those numbers will almost assuredly go down as the competition gets more difficult, but her early showing is promising.
With Hodge, Maldonado Diaz, and freshman opposite Puk Stubbe, Arizona now has a dangerous trio who should be together for at least three more years. With the additional year granted to last season’s players, it could even stretch to four more years.
“That’s the exciting thing,” Rubio said. “I think if you put (Stubbe) right with Sofia Maldonado and Jaelyn Hodge, they’re all three different types of athletes. Jaelyn is so fun to watch. She’s so fast and she’s like a jumping bean and just a pogo stick out there. Sofia is crafty. Not as high, but she’s really got some good hand-ball contact. And then Puk is kind of in between, good jumper, maybe not as fast and as explosive, but she can put her hand on the ball. And I still think we have a long way to go before Puk feels really comfortable here. I think once she really gets the system and kind of establishes herself here and it feels good and comfortable, I think she’ll go to another level.”
This season, the trio forms the backbone of a team that isn’t just aiming to get back to the NCAA Tournament. While allowing for the elements of chance that come in the form of injuries and tournament matchups, Rubio thinks they are built to get to at least the round of 16 this year—and that’s just the start.
Hodge says the goal is a Final Four before their careers at Arizona come to a close. If they can reach that goal, it would be just the second time in program history. The Wildcats reached their only Final Four in 2001.