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Arizona volleyball will take step up in competition in Texas

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Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

Arizona volleyball was supposed to play in the state of Texas this season. It just wasn’t supposed to be at the home of the top-ranked Texas Longhorns.

The Wildcats were supposed to visit the Texas State Bobcats to play in the Bobcat Invitational. On paper, that would have been a decent tournament. The Bobcats went 31-9 last year and got to the NCAA Tournament.

It was a matter of time that sent Arizona head coach Dave Rubio looking for other options. He didn’t like the schedule being offered by Texas State.

“It really influences us...when we have to play an early match... when we fly east, or in a different time zone,” Rubio said. “When we play a 10 o'clock match, we’re waking up at five in the morning. And so I refuse to play a match until noon, which would be 10 o'clock our time. That means waking up at the kind of a normal time for us here. And (Texas State) just wouldn’t relent on that.”

Taking sophomore setter Emery Herman back to her home state for a tournament was important. So was getting some good opponents. Arizona ended up with the best of the best opponent.

Rubio was able to snag a spot in a three-team tournament on the home court of Texas, last season’s national runners-up. Also included is Notre Dame, which also made the NCAA Tournament last year.

In the end, avoiding the trip to San Marcos, Tex. may be better for Arizona’s RPI. While the Bobcats had a good year last season, they are 1-6 in the early going this season. Their losses include a 1-3 loss to Cincinnati, which has an unofficial RPI of 216. TSU now sits at 188 in RPI.

Before the season started, Rubio said that his team was aiming to have no more than two losses during the non-conference season as they tried to return to the NCAA Tournament after a two-year absence. It was expected that Texas would be one of those losses.

After a loss to UTEP last weekend, a loss to the Longhorns would mean the best Arizona could finish in the non-conference is 9-2, which meets the goal Rubio and his team set for themselves. With Texas being the only team left on the schedule with an unofficial RPI of better than 148, that’s entirely possible.

This weekend should also have fewer logistical challenges than last weekend’s trip to New Mexico State, as well. Arizona left Las Cruces with a 5-1 overall record after going 2-1 on the weekend, but it wasn’t easy getting there due to both the competition and the schedule challenges.

“UTEP comes in. We win the first two, (then) kind of let down on the last three,” Rubio said. “That match started a half-hour later than it should have. It started at one. We didn’t walk out of there until 3:45. We get back in the hotel at four, we got to turn right back around at five and go back to the gym and get ready for New Mexico State, who had a great win against Northwestern. And so now we’re just feeling the effects of the mental exhaustion, emotional fatigue, and the physical fatigue, and just get crushed the first two sets, right? And finally, we get a little bit of life in us. Win the third game and then go back and win. So, that was a great match for us just from... a competitive standpoint.”

The mental and physical fortitude the team showed could come in handy when the Wildcats visit the Longhorns.

“I haven’t coach too many teams that would be able to do what they did,” Rubio said. “It shows a lot of character.”

On the court, the coach thinks Arizona needs a more varied offense. He is particularly concerned about improving the production from the right side and the middle.

“The one that I think we need to really get going is Puk (Stubbe),” Rubio said. “Offensively, we’re not setting her enough. I think we need to set the middles way more. We just need more offense on that side of the floor. And so I think everybody who watches our film says Arizona better start setting their middles a little more and get a little more offense from Puk. So, I think those are pretty obvious things.”

Through the first six matches of the season, the team has averaged 12.54 kills per set. More than 32.5 percent of those are coming from Jaelyn Hodge, who has 4.08 k/s in the early going. When the 2.65 k/s of Sofia Maldonado Diaz are added, almost 53 percent of Arizona’s kills are coming from the swings of those two players. The 1.96 k/s from Stubbe account for just 15.6 percent of the team’s kills.

Her attack numbers back up Rubio’s feeling that she needs to be set more. Stubbe takes 5.92 swings per set. Hodge takes the most at 11 while Maldonado Diaz gets 8.09. As a team, Arizona attacks 32.63 times per set.

As for the middle, four players have appeared in the two positions this season, although the vast majority of the time has gone to senior starters Zyonna Fellows and Merle Weidt.

“It’s setting the middles,” Rubio said. “Getting the middles more involved in the offense. This last weekend, they were pretty nonexistent. We’re pretty much dominated by the outside, by the left, and we’re not going to get very far unless we diversify.”

Weidt is having more success than the other middles, averaging 1.42 k/s and leading the team with 0.92 blocks per set over 24 sets. While her blocks are identical to the 0.92 b/s she had last season, the kills are down from the 1.60 k/s she contributed over 52 sets last season.

Rubio would like to see more sets to the middle, but they also need to be able to produce when they get their opportunities. He was encouraged by Weidt’s effort last weekend when she averaged 1.53 k/s on .405 hitting. The work of Herman was a significant contributor to that.

“You got to set her more, I think. Run the sets that I think she does well with,” Rubio said. “She’s got such a good motor. Physically she’s... not imposing, certainly at our level, but because she has such a great motor and tries so hard—and she’s a good player, a good, solid player—I think that Emery picking and choosing the right time to set her allows her to have more offensive success.”

Everything needs to be on point if the Wildcats hope to be competitive on Friday night. On media day, Rubio said that he believed Arizona was a year away from really being able to bother a team like the Longhorns.

For RPI purposes, the match against Texas will be positive regardless of the results. Arizona is currently No. 54 with its two best wins over No. 145 New Mexico State. Ready or not, it’s time to face the Longhorns.

Texas Longhorns

Record: 5-0

Rankings and RPI: Texas is No. 1 in the AVCA coaches poll. The Longhorns are No. 14 in the unofficial RPI maintained at Figstats.

Date, time, and location: The match will be played in Gregory Gymnasium in Austin, Tex. at 5 p.m. MST on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021.

Viewing information: The match will air on the Longhorn Network. Stats will be available at Arizona Live Stats and Texas Live Stats.

What to expect: Texas finished second last season, losing to Kentucky in the national title match. They are looking to get back to that height and grab the prize this season. Considering that the Longhorns have returned all of their players from that 27-2 squad, it’s an attainable goal.

On the other side of the net, Arizona relies on three sophomores and a freshman to run its offense and score. It would be one of the biggest upsets in Wildcat history—for any sport—if Arizona was able to pull off the victory.

Rubio says: “Texas is the team that can win the national championship legitimately. I mean, they went to the finals last year and return every single player. So I think that’s where we aspire to be. And, you know, I’m looking forward to playing them.”

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Record: 2-4

Rankings and RPI: Notre Dame is not ranked in the AVCA poll. The Irish currently sit at No. 206 in the unofficial RPI.

Date, time, and location: The match will be played in Gregory Gymnasium in Austin, Tex. at 11 a.m. MST on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.

Viewing information: The match will not be available via television or stream, but stats will be available at Arizona Live Stats.

What to expect: The Irish don’t have a lot to hang their hats on. Their best win is over Figstats’ RPI No. 134. That’s better than Arizona’s best win. The problem for Notre Dame is the loss against No. 249 UW-Milwaukee.

Last weekend, while Arizona was having its struggles in Las Cruces, Notre Dame was having much bigger struggles in its own gym. The Irish lost all three matches in the Shamrock Invitational, picking up only two sets over the weekend. In addition to losing to a team barely in the top 250, Notre Dame lost to No. 202 Bowling Green and No. 216 Cincinnati.

After going 15-4 and making it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season, the Irish have only won eight sets in six matches to start the fall campaign.

Rubio says: ”Our non-conference schedule, so far I’m not liking what I’m seeing. A lot of losses out there from the teams. Hopefully, that’ll change the next couple of weeks, but Notre Dame is struggling. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not going to play well against us or it won’t be a good matchup. We have—everybody has—things they got to fix. You know, it just depends on how big those things are. For us, it’s going to be serve receive. We got to continue to work on trying to be a little more efficient there, a little more consistent. But, you know, that’s unfortunately not a quick fix.”