Arizona volleyball needed to show two things going into the match against an overmatched California Golden Bears team that was 0-7 in Pac-12 play coming in. The Wildcats needed to be dominant and they needed to get production from all three of their pins, especially sophomore Puk Stubbe.
The Wildcats had flashes of both, but they also were lifted by a stellar outing from fifth-year middle blocker Zyonna Fellows. Fellows had a career-high 12 total blocks, including two solo blocks, in a match where Arizona had 15 total blocks as a group.
“A lot of times without a solid block or without a block at all, it’s harder for the back row to get the ball up,” Fellows said. “And I kind of just went up aggressive with each approach to blocking that I had. I just wanted to make it easier for my back row so that we can transition and score.”
In Friday’s match against No. 7 Stanford, the Wildcats got strong offense from all three pins. For the first time this season, head coach Dave Rubio moved Stubbe to the left side and Sofia Maldonado Diaz to the right. He also stopped subbing Stubbe, Maldonado Diaz, and Jaelyn Hodge out so often. It was expected to help Maldonado Diaz, but it had an even bigger and perhaps more unexpected impact on Stubbe. She continued that against Cal.
“It’s giving us a little more offense,” Rubio said. “I think that Puk on the left has been terrific. I mean, both days she hit for great numbers, and then Sofia gives a little more punch on the right as well. I think the move has been good.”
Stubbe had seven kills on .400 hitting against the Golden Bears after getting six on .455 hitting on Friday against Stanford. The two matches marked just the fourth and fifth times she had hit .300 or better all season and the first two times in conference play. Both the move to the left and the reduction in subbing out of the game have suited her.
“To be honest, for me it feels like I’m more involved in the game,” Stubbe said. “That is really good. So I think that’s the biggest difference for me the past three days.”
Hodge was as steady as she has been all season. The junior outside hitter led the match with 15 kills on .294 hitting. She added four block assists for a match-high 17 points.
Maldonado Diaz was just shy of double-digit kills with nine, but she was not as efficient as the other two pins. She ended the match with a .115 hitting percentage. She did contribute seven digs and six total blocks, though. She ended the day with 12 points, tying Fellows for second-most on the team.
As for dominance, the Wildcats came out on fire. They hit .375 as a team in the opening set, committing just two hitting errors while getting 11 kills on 24 swings. Six total blocks helped, too. Arizona ran away with the 25-13 set.
Cal started getting things together late in the opening set, though, and they kept that momentum in the second. Lydia Grote began enforcing her will for the Golden Bears, who led by as many as five in the middle set. Grote had seven of her 13 kills in that set alone.
“She’s got a great motor,” Rubio said about Grote. “Played with great energy and very aggressive. She kind of single-handedly kept those guys in the game. Those guys had an injury. Their outside hitter [SamTaumoepeau] turned her ankle against ASU so that certainly changes things for them. But the thing that I liked about Cal, they never quit playing. I mean they were fighting. It didn’t matter where they were in the match.”
Arizona finally got it going trailing 8-3 in the second set. The Wildcats tied it up at 9-9 but could not grab a lead. They finally grabbed that lead at set point on one of Fellows’ double-digit blocks. A net violation by Cal gave Arizona the 25-23 set win and a 2-0 lead.
It didn’t rouse the Wildcats out of their funk. The Bears once again built a lead early in the third set. Cal went on a 5-0 run to take a tied set to 8-3 in its favor and didn’t look back for most of the frame. The closest Arizona got was 11-9 before the Golden Bears went on another huge run to take a 17-9 advantage.
It didn’t look like the Wildcats would have enough time when the Bears reached 20 points and still had a seven-point lead. It turned out that there was enough fight left in the Wildcats. Arizona didn’t stop and Cal couldn’t keep up down the stretch.
The comeback started with a kill by Maldonado Diaz to make it 20-14. A kill by Fellows came next. A block assist by Fellows and Hodge was followed by a solo block by Fellows. It was 20-17 and Cal had to call time.
Cal scored out of the timeout, but it would be one of only two points they scored in the rest of the match. From the largest deficit of eight points, Arizona had a 16-4 run to close out the match.
“You never want to get down by eight,” Rubio said. “That was the first thing. And we got stuck in a rotation or two and not being able to side out. The fact that we were able to kind of withstand that charge to be able to play well enough to get back into it. Our blocking really became a factor throughout the match. One of our better blocking matches. But that really speaks to how well we served. All those runs that we had at the very end of game two and game three came without any serving errors.”
Serving errors late in sets have hurt the Wildcats in previous matches. They worked that out when they really needed to against Cal.
Now, Arizona needs to take that into another tough stretch of matches. The Wildcats travel to Pullman to face Washington State on Friday, Oct. 21 in what is always a tough road trip. On Sunday, they take on No. 15 Washington.