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Inconsistency once again dooms Arizona volleyball despite strong showing by Jaelyn Hodge

Arizona volleyball’s Jaelyn Hodge (11) goes for the kill in the first round of the NIVC on Dec. 3, 2021 in McKale Center.

For Arizona volleyball head coach Dave Rubio the path to victory is simple: pass the ball well, set the middle, and open up things for the outside hitters. The problem for the Wildcats is that they cannot consistently accomplish those tasks. On Sunday afternoon, it once again led to a four-set defeat as Arizona fell to UCLA by a score of 21-25, 25-22, 25-12, 25-16.

“We’re deficient and struggling on the pins,” Rubio said. “Jaelyn [Hodge] is the only one that’s, at this point, putting the numbers up.”

Hodge had 13 kills on .303 hitting. She added two digs and five total blocks, contributing 15.5 points. Unlike last season, her game has only improved since Pac-12 play started.

Hodge has hit at least .250 in four of Arizona’s six conference matches this season. She also met that standard in four nonconference matches. Last year, she hit over .250 just twice in Pac-12 play, both times against UCLA. In nonconference play last year, she hit that mark five times.

“For me anything above .250 is fantastic,” Rubio said after Hodge hit .281 against Oregon State last weekend.

The focus on containing errors this season has had a huge impact on Hodge. The daily work and feedback are improving her game.

“In practice, we keep stats, every single swing,” Hodge said. “So knowing what my stats are after practice [helps] and being smarter with the ball. Not just going up for a kill every time because those sets aren’t good every single time.”

On Sunday afternoon, Hodge got some help from sophomore middle blocker Alayna Johnson. Johnson had eight kills on .353 hitting and six total blocks for 11 points. Fifth-year senior Zyonna Fellows also had eight kills, but she did it on .222 hitting. She added a dig and seven total blocks for 11.5 points.

What Arizona really needed was improved serve receive, though. The Wildcats won the opening set by getting a quick start. They never trailed, almost making it look easy. They did it with that simple formula.

“It’s a domino effect,” Rubio said. “If you look, when we pass the ball well enough to set the middle, we score. If we do that consistently, and then they start to punch up in the middle and then we start setting the outside, and now our outside hitters are going to have one blocker, which you should be able to score [against].”

The players Rubio was depending on to provide those passes weren’t able to do it for the entire match, though. Volleyball uses a three-point system to rate passing. Each pass is graded, then a player’s total score is averaged by the number of times she passed the ball.

For Arizona, the two players Rubio emphasized as critical to the passing game were Dilara Gedikoglu and Madison Ellman. Neither was able to pass as well as Arizona needed her to in order to keep the outside hitters from having to face tough blocking.

“Both were below 2.0,” Rubio said. “Their standard is 2.4 on a 3.0 scale, and so we have to be better than that. Because if we’re not positioned to consistently set the middle, then our outside hitters are loaded up against these two monsters outside.”

All of the blame didn’t go to the passing, though. Outside hitter Sofia Maldonado Diaz struggled throughout the match regardless of whether she was facing a tough block or not. She ended the match with a -.050 hitting percentage.

“She really had an off night,” Rubio said. “And it’s hard for us to beat these teams without all three pins. Jaelyn hit over .300 today. I’d much rather have each pin at .200 and we win the match.”

The combination of poor serve receive, the resulting inability to set the middles, and the difficulties of both Maldonado Diaz and right-side hitter Puk Stubbe that went above and beyond the blocking of UCLA caused the bottom to drop out for Arizona.

After winning the first set, the Wildcats came out flat in the second set and let the Bruins take an 8-1 lead. Arizona put together its own 8-3 run to close the lead to two points at 11-9.

It was tied at 17-all, and it looked like the Wildcats had a chance to take the 2-0 lead and possibly the match. Instead, UCLA outscored Arizona 8-5 down the stretch to win 25-22.

The Wildcats rebounded early in the third, building a 6-3 lead. They stalled at 7-4, letting the Bruins go on an 11-0 run to take the 15-7 advantage. From the point of that 7-4 lead, Arizona only scored five points the rest of the set.

In the fourth and final set, Arizona was last in close contact with UCLA when the Bruins led 12-10. The Wildcats only scored six more points in the match, and two of those were after UCLA had already reached match point.

The Bruins came into the match on a 1-5 slide. They ended a five-match losing streak at Arizona State on Friday night by beating the Sun Devils in straight sets for their first Pac-12 victory.

“The frustrating thing is, we’re certainly good enough to beat every single team that we played,” Rubio said. “There’s not a team yet that we played that’s overmatched us if we can just execute better.”

The players are trying to keep morale up despite that frustration.

“I think we’re just all upset that we come close with these games that we should be winning, but end up losing,” Hodge said. “The most difficult part is knowing you should win.”