On Wednesday, Arizona volleyball head coach Dave Rubio was a bit worried. The cause of his concern was Ben Wallis and his UTEP Miners, a team that had not defeated a major conference team since 2005. It turns out that Rubio had a reason to be worried.
“(The) former New Mexico State assistant is now in his third year at UTEP,” Rubio said. “And he’s done a really nice job of recruiting some fine athletes. They’re not real big, but they’re quick, fast, explosive, and got some really good arms. And so he’s built a nice roster. And so they’ll actually be, in my mind, the most competitive team that we played since we started the season.”
Despite easily sweeping New Mexico State last week in Tucson, he also had some concerns about the Aggies, who beat the Wildcats the last time the two teams met in Las Cruces.
“I think New Mexico State Friday night will probably give us everything we can handle as well,” Rubio said.
That was also well-founded.
It took the stellar play of sophomore Jaelyn Hodge to keep the Wildcats from suffering two upsets in a single day. Hodge led the Wildcats with 15 kills in a five-set loss (25-23, 25-22, 21-25, 22-25, 6-15) to UTEP. Like the rest of the Wildcats, she struggled with efficiency, hitting just .078. She added 12 digs for the double-double and had two blocks to go along with it.
It was in the evening match against the Aggies that she really dominated. Hodge had 30 kills on .313 hitting in the second match. That more than doubled her previous career high of 14 kills. An ace and a solo block gave her a match-high 32 points. She notched her second double-double of the day with a career-high 16 digs while also adding an assist.
The Wildcats started the morning well. They went up two sets to none over the Miners despite some difficulties. While the match wasn’t streamed or televised, the stats suggested problems with passing and serve receive. Then, the wheels really came off.
The Wildcats fell behind 15-11 in the third set and could never come back. Eventually, the Miners built a 22-15 lead. Arizona made it respectable by going on a short streak at the end of the set, but they could not dig out of the hole they had dug for themselves.
Set four was a close affair throughout. Neither team had a lead of more than two points until UTEP went up 23-20. They were able to maintain that three-point advantage to the end and force the deciding set.
At this point, Rubio tried something else. He took reigning Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Sofia Maldonado Diaz out of the line-up to start the fifth. In her place, he inserted Dilara Gedikoglu.
The lineup change didn’t fix the problem, as Arizona did not come to play in the fifth. UTEP ran out to an 8-2 lead and it was all but over. They built an 11-6 lead and then closed out the match with the help of two errors by the Wildcats.
As a team, Arizona hit just .141 for the match. The Wildcats had 32 attack errors. Meanwhile, the Miners racked up free points on their serve with 11 aces to just three by Arizona.
It looked like the day was just going to get worse when the Wildcats took the floor against New Mexico State in the evening match. Once again, Maldonado Diaz was not in the starting line-up to start a set, but this time it was the opening set.
In the early going, Rubio made multiple changes. He removed starting setter Emery Herman for freshman Ava Tortorello, then he put in grad transfer Elena Shklyar. He tried freshmen middle blockers Nicole Briggs and Alayna Johnson. And, once again, it didn’t help the Wildcats overcome the Aggies.
Poor passing, poor serve receive, poor serving, poor setting. Just about every part of the game was going wrong for Arizona. As the Wildcats shot themselves in the foot, the Aggies took the first two sets easily by identical scores of 25-14.
With their backs against the wall, Arizona found a way to fight back. After winning tight sets by scores of 27-25 and 25-21, they came out strong in the deciding set. The final tie was at 4-4. The Wildcats led by as many as four points and finally closed it out despite not playing at the top of their game.
It wasn’t a pretty win. Arizona walked away with a .200 team hitting percentage, 30 attack errors, and 13 service errors to just four aces. The Wildcats won just 37.9 percent of points on their own serve, but they were able to hang in and salvage something from a difficult day.
Arizona will attempt to end the weekend with a win over Northwestern on Saturday. The other Wildcats lost to both New Mexico State and UTEP on Friday. Arizona will try to move to 5-1 after Saturday’s match. It’s not what they might have hoped for when they arrived in Las Cruces, but considering how things went on Friday, things could be much worse.