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Arizona volleyball gets a strong match from Sofia Maldonado Diaz but can’t keep up with No. 7 Stanford

Head coach Dave Rubio was happy with all three of his pins

Arizona volleyball player Sofia Maldonado Diaz (2) faces the camera and teammate Puk Stubbe (10) faces away from the camera Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

A recurring theme for Arizona volleyball has been errors at inopportune times. It was once again the theme on Friday evening as the Wildcats lost to No. 7 Stanford in straight sets sets (25-23, 25-22, 25-16).

What wasn’t a continuing theme was the uneven play of the Wildcats’ pin hitters. For the first time in conference play, head coach Dave Rubio was pleased with the play of all three pins.

“It was the best match we’ve played all season,” Rubio said.

While Jaelyn Hodge has been strong all season, the play of Sofia Maldonado Diaz and Puk Stubbe have concerned Rubio.

Part of the improvement came from changes Rubio made. Earlier in the week, he hinted at possible changes to the lineup. When match day rolled around, he didn’t change who played, but he did change where and for how long they played.

For most of the season, Hodge and Maldonado Diaz have started on the left side and Stubbe has started on the right. Against Stanford, Rubio switched Maldonado Diaz and Stubbe.

Since scoring from the right side is generally easier, he knew the change would suit Maldonado Diaz. He wasn’t sure how Stubbe would do on the left, but it turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

Stubbe had six kills on just 11 swings and committed only one error, giving her a hitting percentage of .455. It was the first time the sophomore had hit over .160 since she hit .240 against UTEP on Sept. 16. She had not hit over .300 since the team faced Maryland on Sept. 10.

It was by far Stubbe’s best showing in Pac-12 play from a hitting standpoint. Heading into the match against the Cardinal, she was hitting .064 in conference play and had just 1.65 kills per set.

Perhaps more importantly, Rubio altered his rotation. In previous matches, all three pins were subbed out fairly regularly in an effort to shore up play in the back row. On Friday, he largely scrapped that and was pleased with the results. His players were even more pleased.

“It keeps me on the floor, so that’s good,” Maldonado Diaz said. “I really like it. He also said the pins were all hitting good. Even though we have changes, we played good. So I’m happy about it.”

The Wildcats played an extremely clean match through the first two sets. They hit .409 in set one and .374 in set two with a total of just six hitting errors in those opening sets. Yet, the Cardinal led 2-0 heading into the third set.

The problem was when the errors occurred. After leading by up to five points in the first set, the Wildcats clung to a two-point lead at 20-18. Down the stretch, they had two of their four service errors in that set. It has been the tale of Arizona’s season since Pac-12 play started.

While the Cardinal had six service errors to Arizona’s four in the opening set, the Wildcats were unable to get their serves in play at the most important juncture as Stanford took the opening frame 25-23. The only stats the visitors led in were kills and assists.

It could have demoralized the Wildcats to see the set slip away, but they came out fighting in the second. The Cardinal took an 8-4 lead only to have Arizona go on a 4-0 run to tie it up.

Stanford would open a four-point lead again, then see Arizona cut it in half. The Wildcats tried to return the favor with their own late-set comeback, eventually coming within one point at 21-20. From there, the Cardinal narrowly edged them out 4-2 to take the second set.

The Cardinal pulled away easily in the third set, but it wasn’t enough to dampen Rubio’s feelings about the match as a whole. Now, he wants to see it replicated against teams that they Wildcats may see as softer opposition.

Arizona will head into Sunday’s match against a California team that is 7-10 overall and 0-7 in the Pac-12. The Golden Bears lost to Arizona State in straight sets on Friday. A victory against the Bears would recquaint the Wildcats with what it feels like to win. Their coach thinks that confidence is important if they are going to have a better second half of conference play.

“Playing Cal is the most important match of the season for us,” Rubio said. “It’s every bit as important as playing Stanford.”