Arizona volleyball needed to accomplish two things as they opened the Wildcat Classic. They needed to get some match time for their reserves and they needed to end the day with two more wins. The Wildcats managed to do that, but not in a way that made head coach Dave Rubio happy despite winning both matches 3-0.
The morning went as expected as Arizona faced the UC Riverside Highlanders. Rubio was able to play 15 of the 19 players on his roster in the three-set (25-11, 25-18, 25-22) victory. It was the evening match against San Diego State that left the coach feeling frustrated with his team.
“I was not happy with the way that we played,” Rubio said. “San Diego State’s really banged up. I mean, there are three or four starters out. And you know, here they are trying and our execution was inconsistent. The energy level was low. I wasn’t particularly happy even though we won in three, it was not at any point did I really feel like we were in control of the match.”
The biggest news of the morning was sophomore setter Emery Herman becoming the sixth-fastest Wildcat to reach 1,000 assists. The only Arizona setters to reach the mark faster were Penina Snuka, Dana Burkholder, Stephanie Butkus, Amy Dyck, and Paige Weber.
Herman came into the match with 990 assists. She reached the milestone with an assist to senior middle blocker Merle Weidt at 18-9 in the opening set of her 30th match.
“It’s amazing that in such a short period of time here that she’s already there, but there’s a lot more to come for Emery,” Rubio said. “She can be a lot better and she will be a lot better.”
Herman wasn’t aware of her impending milestone until it was announced over the public address system in McKale Center.
“I had no idea. I heard it and I was like...” Herman said, making a shocked expression.
For her, it was better that way.
“I don’t want to overthink it,” she said. “And it was a cool surprise.”
Herman ended the morning match with 31 assists and narrowly missed a double-double with nine digs. She rounded out a strong match with three kills on .500 hitting and three aces.
For the seventh time in nine matches, outside hitter Jaelyn Hodge led the Wildcats in kills. Hodge found the floor 12 times on .348 hitting and added a solo block for 13 points. She also had two assists and eight digs.
Just behind Hodge was fellow sophomore outside hitter Sofia Maldonado Diaz whose 10 kills, one ace, and one block assist contributed 11.5 points to the Wildcats’ effort. She added an assist and eight digs to her morning stat line.
Freshman opposite Puk Stubbe matched Maldonado Diaz with 10 kills of her own on a strong .450 hitting. She also contributed four digs.
In the second match of the day, the Wildcats took three sets by what looked like a comfortable margin (25-20, 25-22, 25-15). The result pleased Rubio, but the effort did not.
“I think the energy level needed to be much better,” he said. “I was telling the players, this is coachspeak. And it doesn’t matter what sport it is, like football, basketball, baseball, it’s like, ‘The energy level is so terrible. This is how we played because our energy level is so bad.’ And you know, it’s hard to define that. The complexion of every match is a little bit different. It’s easier to play with great energy when you feel like you have to be able to do that. And tonight the kids didn’t feel that threatened by San Diego State, which I don’t know why they wouldn’t.”
San Diego State took care of Texas Southern in straight sets in the morning session, then returned to show that they were better than their 2-8 season record. Despite being without several players—and losing another in the second set—the Aztecs accomplished that.
It very easily could have gone wrong for the Wildcats in their coach’s eyes. Looking back at the UTEP match, in which Arizona led 2-0 before losing in five sets, is enough to remind them of that.
“These kinds of matches, they can slip away very quickly,” Rubio said. “They can turn sideways even though you’re up two to zero. I mean, that’s what happened with Texas-El Paso. They’re good enough to beat you, and if you start to relax a little bit things can turn around pretty quickly.”
After dropping the first set 25-20, the Aztecs looked to be controlling the second. Then, they lost outside hitter Heipua Tautua’a.
“The (SDSU) kids really played hard, despite the fact that they had a bunch of freshmen out there who hadn’t even been on the floor before,” Rubio said.
Even with the loss of Tuatua’a, Arizona needed a great effort from Weidt to pull out the win. While the Aztecs gave the Wildcats everything they could handle, the senior middle blocker led her team’s offensive effort, especially in the difficult second set. Her setter exploited the opening the Aztecs gave them.
“Their blockers weren’t really doing well blocking her and she was super fired up and doing really well,” Herman said. “So it’s like, ‘Okay, here you go.’”
Weidt ended the match with a match-high 10 kills, mirroring the marks of teammate Maldonado Diaz and Aztec senior Victoria O’Sullivan. She did it while hitting .500 and getting a match-high five total blocks.
In the end, the Wildcats were just too much for a shorthanded SDSU to handle. The Aztecs won the first point of the final set, then quickly fell behind. After one more run to get them within a point of Arizona, they had nothing left.
The Wildcats have just one more objective for the weekend—and another one looming around the bend.
“Definitely another win,” Herman said. “Three sets straight, and then just get ready for ASU. Try not to let what happened last year happen again.”