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Arizona volleyball notebook: On recent history, scoring, Alayna Johnson’s development, and more

Arizona middle blocker Alayna Johnson (32) goes for the kill in McKale Center
Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

Arizona volleyball is doing a lot of things right. Head coach Dave Rubio wants his players to know that. The frustration for all involved is that one mistake can nullify the effects of those good things. That’s been the story for the Wildcats since Pac-12 play started.

This weekend, Arizona is looking for its second and third Pac-12 wins. To do it, the Wildcats must go through Stanford and California. What are the chances and what needs to happen to get the results they’re looking for?

Recent history

The long-term history against the Stanford Cardinal isn’t in Arizona’s favor. Few schools can say that it is in their favor, so the Wildcats aren’t unique in that regard.

The two programs have played 81 times in the series. Stanford has won 70 of those matches. The Cardinal just haven’t won much since the pandemic threw everything into turmoil, leaving them young and injured for much of the past two years.

The Wildcats have won three of the last four meetings. All three victories came in Tucson. Last year in McKale Center, it was a quick straight-set win over the Cardinal, which was ranked 15th at the time.

This year, Stanford comes in looking more like itself. The Cardinal are ranked No. 7 in the country. They have wins over teams that were ranked No. 2, No. 3, and No. 17. All four of their losses came to teams ranked in the AVCA poll.

In short, teams should have savored the two years that Stanford was below its usual standard because they appear to be over.

Scoring more

Rubio is pleased with a lot of things his team is doing on the court.

“For 80 percent of the game [we] are really playing well,” Rubio said. “The serving, the passing, the defense, the blocking. The thing that we’re struggling with is we’re just not scoring enough. Just take a look at the numbers from last year to this year. We’re getting more production out of the middle. More production out of Jaelyn [Hodge]. Much better. And Puk [Stubbe] and Sofia [Maldonado Diaz] are the ones that are—certainly this last weekend—struggled the most. So I think the frustrating part is if those players play kind of...[how] they played last year, then we’re 5-1 or 4-2 [in Pac-12 play]. It’s a dramatically different place than we’re in right now. So we’re really close. That’s the thing. The good news is that we’re really playing some good volleyball. We just need to be a little more productive on the pins.”

Alayna Johnson is ahead of schedule

When sophomore middle blocker Alayna Johnson signed with Arizona in November 2020, she was an under-the-radar player who had not played much high-level club volleyball. Her athleticism was her calling card.

“You know who was like that was Devyn Cross and Liz Shelton,” Rubio said at the time. “Both those guys came in with a little bit of club experience and a ton of potential. So, you know, the hope is that Alayna in a year or two will be able to come in and really play a lot.”

It didn’t take a full year. Johnson got some time on the court as a freshman, playing behind starters Zyonna Fellows and Merle Weidt. This year, she is making a name for herself starting alongside Fellows.

“It’s just really kind of remarkable how much better she’s gotten from last year to this year, and how important she is,” Rubio said. “She’s a pretty significant part of what we do. And she’s got a great mentor in Zyonna. I don’t think that she’d be as far along as she is without having Zyonna in front of her. So that’s, again, the value of having someone like Zyonna in the program. It has really helped the young players develop, and their mindset and the physical part of playing the position.”

The one thing Rubio would like to see improve is her assertiveness and aggressiveness on the court.

“I think I am like a pretty aggressive person, just outside of volleyball, which is kind of weird,” Johnson said. “So I’m trying to just fight the urge to be super nice to everyone and just do like my first instinct and just go out and play.”

Lineups could change

While Rubio is pleased with what the middles are doing, the pins continue to be a problem outside of the overall strong play of Jaelyn Hodge. The coach has tried to make in-game adjustments to get more out of the other two positions.

At various times, Lauren Rumel, Ana Heath, and China Rai Crouch have seen time at opposite for Stubbe. At other times, an extra defensive specialist has been inserted into the lineup. Outside hitter Dilara Gedikoglu has seen time in the front row despite her height putting her at a disadvantage against bigger Pac-12 front lines.

“There’s a lot of options that we’re...evaluating,” Rubio said. “We’re always trying to make the players work to get better in practice, and then we look at the lineups.”

While Crouch is in her third week of concussion protocol, others may notice the amount of time they see on the court changing. With almost one-third of the conference slate already in the books, it’s something that Rubio can use to try to spark the team and help it become the group they all expected it to be. Waiting any longer could mean writing the season off, which would be a disappointing end for such a talented roster.

Gameday atmosphere

While it may not have the same impact as changing the lineup, the Wildcats came into the season with changes to the gameday atmosphere. One of those changes was the music, which has become much more prominent during quiet times during the match.

It was a change that Rubio implemented to make it a more fan-friendly experience. To that end, the music is not contemporary. It’s aimed at the middle-aged set that tends to fill the stands at Arizona women’s sporting events. That means a lot of music from the 80s like Guns N’ Roses doing “Welcome to the Jungle” or Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer.”

It came together in a marketing meeting.

“I had all these songs, and I said here’s this particular segment of the match, you determine what song fits best for the segment,” Rubio said. “And then I had this list of songs and I was playing them on the speaker. And I said, you guys go ahead and vote. We had like a dozen people voting. So it was really kind of fun.”

The sections of the match included the period between when the hype video is played and the match starts, the time between sets, and other pauses in action.

“There’s a lot of dead time there,” Rubio said. “Even though it’s not very long. It may be 30-45 seconds, but there’s enough time to play a clip of a song.”

While the music isn’t necessarily his tastes—Rubio said he prefers the Rolling Stones to Guns N’ Roses—the songs captured the feelings he wanted to see in the crowd.

“I think music really enhances an environment,” Rubio said. “If you can pick the right song that everyone can relate to, and if you have a DJ and an emcee that can really get the crowd involved, then you can really create this great environment.”

The inspiration came from a Pac-12 rival that takes it even further.

“I’ve seen it done at USC,” Rubio said. “There’s a DJ that is amazing. I feel like I’m at a disco in the 70s. This guy’s talking to the crowd and then he’s putting on the song. Everybody knows the song and everyone’s standing and clapping. It’s just really interactive. With the right DJ, you can really kind of get the crowd going.”

Arizona had just over 2,400 people at last Friday’s match against USC and just under 1,800 at Sunday’s match against UCLA. If the Wildcats could get that many people truly engaged, it could be a formidable environment.

Stanford Cardinal (10-4, 5-1 Pac-12) @ Arizona Wildcats (11-6, 1-5 Pac-12)

When: The match will start at 6 p.m. MST on Friday, Oct. 14.

Where: The match will be played in McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz.

Viewing: The match will stream on Arizona Live Stream. There will be no television coverage.

Stats: In-game stats are available at Arizona Live Stats.

Rankings: Stanford is ranked No. 7 in the AVCA coaches poll and No. 4 in RPI. Arizona is No. 87 in RPI.

California Golden Bears (7-9, 0-6 Pac-12) @ Arizona Wildcats (11-6, 1-5 Pac-12)

When: The match will start at 12 p.m. MST on Sunda, Oct. 16.

Where: The match will be played in McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz.

Viewing: The match will air on Pac-12 Arizona and Pac-12 Bay Area.

Stats: In-game stats are available at Arizona Live Stats.

Rankings: Neither team is ranked in the AVCA poll. California is No. 170 in RPI. Arizona is No. 87.

How to follow along

Follow us on Twitter @AZDesertSwarm for all things Arizona Wildcats. For live tweets of volleyball matches and news throughout the week, follow our deputy editor @KimDoss71.