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Arizona volleyball still trying to find balance between too much playing time and not enough

Arizona volleyball’s Jaelyn Hodge (11) and Alayna Johnson (32) against UCLA on Oct. 9, 2022 in McKale Center.
Photo by Catherine Regan / Arizona Athletics

When Arizona volleyball faced Stanford on Oct. 14, Wildcats head coach Dave Rubio made some changes to his lineup and substitution patterns. Those changes are still a work in progress.

Six matches ago, Rubio swapped left-side hitter Sofia Maldonado Diaz and right-side hitter Puk Stubbe. He also quit making substitutions for Maldonado Diaz, Stubbe, and fellow pin Jaelyn Hodge when they rotated to the back row. The changes looked good over the first weekend, but other concerns have emerged since that time.

Rubio has likened the situation to trying to plug leaks in a dam. As soon as the coaches think they have fixed one, another one spouts. When that one is fixed, the first one opens back up.

“I’d like to be able to be solid at one aspect of the game and then move on to another aspect and not worry about whether or not that’s gonna break down again, and we just haven’t been able to do that,” he said. “And I think every team has its issues, and so we just haven’t been able to overcome some of the issues in order for us to beat some of the teams that are ahead. We’re close, obviously, but we’re just not quite there yet.”

Maldonado Diaz had 11 kills on .215 hitting in the first two matches after the changes, but she played especially well against league-leading Stanford. In that match, the new opposite had 13 kills on .320 hitting and six digs. Two days later, she was neither as effective nor as efficient on the attack, but she was part of a lethal blocking game with six block assists.

For Hodge, the positives after the change were her kill numbers. In the six matches since the change, she has had at least nine kills five times and has double-digit kills three times, including a total of 31 kills last weekend against Oregon and Oregon State.

There have also been negatives, though. Hodge hit at least .250 in four of the six Pac-12 matches before she started staying in to play back row. She has only done so twice in the six matches since and both came against the bottom-dwellers of the Pac-12 (Oregon State and Cal).

Stubbe had a strong weekend when the changes were first made. The sophomore had a total of 13 kills on 26 swings and just two errors in the two matches immediately after Rubio made the switch.

Since those matches against Cal and Stanford, though, it has also become fairly obvious that the Wildcats need at least one pin who is strong on serve receive and defense. As a result, Dilara Gedikoglu has been seeing more playing time lately, including taking over Stubbe’s starting spot against Oregon State on Oct. 30.

Like the other players, though, Rubio sees other issues cropping up in Gedikoglu’s game since she started playing more.

“Dilara certainly stabilizes our serve receive,” Rubio said. “ But, as we witnessed in the Oregon State game, after set one she completely forgot how to pass. And what happens to all those players if they haven’t played a lot or the players that only played halftime and are now playing full time, then their production goes down. So even though Dilara really is more of a back row player for us, when she started playing full time, then her production went down as a back row player. So in the Oregon State game, we’re subbing her out in the back row which is typically her strength.”

There have also been problems with Arizona’s serve since the changes were made. Maldonado Diaz is one of the better Wildcat servers. During the six matches since the changes were made, she has continued averaging about as many service errors as before, but she has only had one ace. In the previous 17 matches she had 25 and had only gone without an ace in four matches. Her aces per set have fallen from 0.4 over the first 63 sets of the season to 0.04 over the last 23 sets.

It’s not just Maldonado Diaz who is having some problems with her serve lately, though. Rubio points to problems across the board with both serve and serve receive.

“I look at the last six matches only because that’s when we made the change,” Rubio said. “We put Sofia [on the right]...Look at the total with our hitting percentages, compared to our opponents. We’re at 250...and our opponents are [about] 230. Our blocks, we’re blocking more. The digs are negligible, but the thing that really stands out is service errors versus our opponents and receiving errors. We’re getting aced far too many times and we’re missing too many servers. Even though we’re theoretically doing better because our attacking percentages are higher and everything else being virtually the same, the matches are so close and we’re losing, and so it’s been a little frustrating. So we’re obviously working on that particular aspect of the game.”

Rubio would like to see the service errors cleaned up so they average about two per set. Over the past six matches, the Wildcats averaged 2.7 per set. That’s a slight increase over the 2.4 per set they have averaged in all 23 games this season.

Meanwhile, Arizona’s opponents have 41 aces over those six matches compared to just 25 for the Wildcats. Those opponents are hovering right around even in regards to aces versus service errors, having committed 43 errors on serve compared to the 61 committed by Arizona.

Do the Wildcats have a chance to get right this weekend in Los Angeles? When they faced USC last time, Skylar Fields carried the Women of Troy to a 3-1 victory with 22 kills. All four sets were close, primarily because Arizona served fairly well. The Wildcats had six aces against just eight errors.

At that time, hitting percentage was a problem for the Wildcats. They started the match hitting negative in the first set then went on to hit below .140 in the third and fourth sets. USC was especially dominant with blocking in the opening set, getting six total blocks in the opening frame. Arizona had single-digit hitting errors in every set, but USC had even fewer. If Arizona could serve as well as they did in that match, the improved hitting could make the difference.

The UCLA loss in Tucson also came down to the attack. Arizona managed to hit just .118 in another four-set defeat.

Rubio thinks things will eventually even out, though.

“I think there’s just a period where they just gotta get accustomed to the mental acuity that you need to play every single ball on every single rotation where when you’re getting subbed out, you have a chance to relax,” he said. “I think there’s a period where they just need to get comfortable doing it.”

As the Wildcats work to find a balance between being effective attackers and executing on serve and serve receive, they are pushing ahead with the absolute belief that they have something to play for the rest of the season. That thing is the same thing it was at the beginning of the season.

“Obviously two wins,” said setter Emery Herman. “Always.”

Arizona Wildcats (13-10, 3-9 Pac-12) @ UCLA Bruins (11-10, 5-7 Pac-12)

When: Friday, Nov. 4 at 7 p.m. MST

Where: Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles, Calif.

Streaming: UCLA Live Stream

Stats: UCLA Live Stats

Rankings: Neither team is ranked in the AVCA poll. UCLA is No. 60 in the RPI. Arizona is N. 103.

Standings: UCLA is 8th in the Pac-12 standings. Arizona is 10th.

Arizona Wildcats (13-10, 3-9 Pac-12) @ UCLA Bruins (11-10, 5-7 Pac-12)

When: Sunday, Nov. 6 at 3 p.m. MST

Where: Galen Center in Los Angeles, Calif.

TV: Pac-12 Arizona and Pac-12 Los Angeles

Stats: USC Live Stats

Rankings: Neither team is ranked in the AVCA poll, but USC is receiving votes. USC is No. 21 in the RPI. Arizona is N. 103.

Standings: USC is tied for 3rd in the Pac-12 standings. Arizona is 10th.

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.