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Arizona volleyball sweeps opening day of Cactus Classic

Sophomore middle blocker Alayna Johnson and freshman setter Ana Heath lead the way.

Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

There are certainly things that Arizona volleyball needs to improve on as the season progresses, but overall head coach Dave Rubio was pleased with his team’s opening-day sweep of Long Island and New Mexico State. The Wildcats dismissed both teams in straight sets with a 25-16, 25-10, 25-19 victory over LIU and a 25-14, 25-19, 25-19 defeat of NMSU.

“I thought today was a lot like what has been in our in our practice gym, which I think is good,” Rubio said. “We have really been working hard on trying to be low error. I thought the first match against LIU we were kind of right where we want to be from (an overall) percentage. I thought that there were too many hitting errors. And then today (against NMSU), way too many serving errors, but overall, I mean, I’m happy kind about where we’re at.”

What the team still needs to work on is having everyone “on” at the same time. Jaelyn Hodge had a very strong opening match, getting 13 kills on 23 attempts. She had just one error and hit .522. However, Sofia Maldonado Diaz had difficulty scoring. She had eight kills but they came with .148 hitting percentage and a 15 percent error rate. Rubio said he would like to see that down around 12 to 13 percent.

In the later game, things flipped. Maldonado Diaz hit .385 and had just one error, but she still had difficulty scoring. The third-year outside hitter had just six kills on 13 attempts. Meanwhile, Hodge had her hitting percentage bottom out at .143, While she only had two errors, she was able to eek out just five kills on 21 attempts.

That is an issue that stretches back to last season, but even in that facet of the game, Rubio thinks things have improved.

“The inconsistencies are different this year than they were last year,” he said. “So I still think that they’re managing their game way better. The error percentage, even though maybe they’re not scoring at the standard we want right now, but they’re not erroring at the rate they used to. Last year they were well above 17, 18 percent...We’re really focused on just trying to play lower error.”

With his pins not as effective as they would like, Rubio got offensive production from the middle. In the early game, it didn’t start well for the middles, but they eventually got more sets and were able to produce.

Senior Zyonna Fellows had eight kills on .700 hitting against LIU while also producing three total blocks. Sophomore middle Alayna Johnson was also effective. Johnson had seven kills and hit .308. Fellows was not as effective against NMSU, but Johnson kept right on going.

Johnson led Arizona against the Aggies with eight kills and no errors. She hit .571 and had four total blocks, including one solo block. In all, the two middles provided 15 kills against LIU and 12 against NIU.

“Offensively, that’s my strong suit,” Johnson said. “Defense has been something I’ve been working on.”

The second-year middle blocker is one of two working to replace the departed Merle Weidt, who transferred to Denver in the offseason to pursue her graduate degree. Both Johnson and Nicole Briggs will rely heavily on Fellows to help prepare to take on her role next season.

Freshman setter Ana Heath led a serving attack that accounted for 17 total aces on the day. Heath was responsible for seven of those aces, serving three of them in the first game and four more in the second. Her left-handed top-spin serve is something that Rubio thinks can keep opponents off-balance.

“Being left-handed, it spins a different way,” Heath said. “So since not a lot of left-handed people have top-spin serves, serve receive isn’t used to it.”

The Wildcats need to clean up the service errors. They had just five in their first match but 11 in their second. If they can do that, the serve can be a way to get easy points this season. That’s something they couldn’t rely on last year.