Friday afternoon was a historic match for Arizona volleyball. The Wildcats hadn’t defeated the No. 20 Washington Huskies in over a decade and had only beaten them twice since 2002. The next day, Arizona football pulled off its huge upset of No. 9 UCLA. Could volleyball make it three upsets this weekend by pulling off the win against Washington State?
The Wildcats came out of the locker room looking like the answer to that was going to be an emphatic, “Yes!” They couldn’t maintain it, though, as WSU came back to win 3-1 (22-25, 25-17, 25-17, 25-20).
After several matches of tinkering with his lineups and rotations based on the practice ranking system known as the competitive cauldron, Arizona head coach Dave Rubio had to revert to some old patterns later in the match to counter the strong serving of Washington State.
While Friday-night starters are determined entirely by the week’s practice rankings, Sundays are influenced by performance in the matches on Friday nights. As a result, junior outside hitter/opposite Sofia Maldonado Diaz was back in the starting lineup on Sunday after coming off the bench on Friday.
This change has been the most difficult part for some of the players to adapt to according to junior setter Emery Herman.
“Everyone’s mindful throughout every practice,” Herman said. “Everyone’s focusing on every point because they know it’s going to be statted. It’s going to affect whether they play or not the next weekend. But I think what’s hard is what happened the weekend before doesn’t really count towards what goes into the first game, the Friday game, over the next weekend. You can’t say, ‘Oh, I played good this past weekend. I don’t need to be on my best game or have to show out at practice throughout the whole week.’ Now, the cauldron kind of helps make people stay accountable and do that throughout the week.”
As she has since the cauldron was introduced, Maldonado Diaz was a force to be reckoned with. Although her hitting percentage began to drop late in the match as the Cougars concentrated their block on her, she led the Wildcats with 14 kills on .136 hitting and was a major reason they committed just two hitting errors in the first set.
Maldonado Diaz also had an ace and three total blocks for a team-high 16.5 points in the match. She narrowly missed a double-double with nine digs.
“She’s really grown quite a bit,” Rubio siad. “It’s been a hard year for her. For all the players, I think it’s been hard [lately] because of the system that we’ve gone to now to decide that starting lineup for Friday night’s lineup. Last Sunday, Sofia was the best player on the floor by far. If you saw her stats last Sunday, they were amazing. The following week, she had the lowest stats in our gym, which means that she’s not starting on Friday. All right, so you go from the best player in the gym—and arguably the Conference Player of the Year Skylar Fields [of USC] was in that gym—to in our gym, the lowest-stat person of the five outside hitters. She’s one of the lowest stats. You just don’t want to ever as an athlete have that great of a range, best to worst.”
— Arizona Volleyball (@ArizonaVBall) November 13, 2022
Sof tallies her 10th kill of the match! pic.twitter.com/FOKxDQkGOA
Jaelyn Hodge, who is usually the one who has to face the bigger block, had nine kills on .236 hitting. She committed just three hitting errors all match. She also had four digs, three total blocks (including one solo), and nine points.
Where Hodge struggled was the aspect of the game where many Wildcats struggled. Serve receive ultimately cost them. Hodge had four of the teams 12 receiving errors. She was matched by libero Kamaile Hiapo.
“Washington State really raised, elevated their game,” Rubio said. “Their serving more than anything, and it was a struggle for us to receive. And the hard thing is when when our normal passers aren’t passing well. So if Kamaile is not passing well and Dilara [Gedikoglu] is not passing well, that puts more pressure on Jaelyn and puts more pressure on Sofia. And then I’m now mixing and matching and trying to find a way. So, that issue—just the execution of serve receive—they really bullied us tonight on that skill and then that just carried over to the net play. We couldn’t stop them at all.”
One thing Rubio tried to do to counter the WSU onslaught that began in the second set was bring in players who have experience but haven’t played much lately. He initially tried freshman Lauren Rumel, who has started the last two Fridays, and said that he probably should have given her more time. He pulled her after a receiving error and fell back on his more experienced hitter Puk Stubbe, who had two kills and two total blocks in the final two sets.
“I’m glad Puk got a chance to play,” Rubio said. “She’s been working hard.”
Arizona dominated the first set, although Washington State narrowed the gap late in the set. That dominance didn’t last.
As dominant as the Wildcats were in the opening set, the Cougars were even more dominant in the second and third sets. WSU had a 10-point lead at 22-12 in the second. It grew to the final margin of eight at 23-15 in the third.
As they prepare for next week’s matches in the Bay Area, the Wildcats can at least take comfort in the fact that they came back in the fourth and threatened to push it to five.
Arizona fell behind by six early in the final set. From a deficit of 10-4, the Wildcats went on a 12-4 run of their own to take a two-point lead. The last tie came at 18 apiece as the Cougars closed the match on a 7-2 run.
While the momentum they gained with their defeat of Washington on Friday faded after the first set, there was some carryover from the positives that happened earlier in the weekend. Arizona volleyball fans were treated to some fun by Wildcat quarterback Jayden de Laura during the break between the second and third sets.