It was not an illustrious start for Arizona volleyball in their final match of the Cactus Classic. The Wildcats took a lead over Alabama State, but they could not keep the Hornets from repeatedly cutting into it.
A strong second set helped propel Arizona to a straight-set victory (25-20, 25-8, 25-16) on its way to an undefeated opening weekend, but there were issues that will hurt the Wildcats against stronger competition.
“I thought that we didn’t pass the ball well enough,” Arizona head coach Dave Rubio said. “And Jaelyn (Hodge) and Sofia (Maldonado Diaz) really struggled offensively, especially Jaelyn...it was a tough night for her.”
The Wildcats once again got strong showings from their middle blockers, but the passing kept it from being even better. Rubio said that the inability to pass the ball well meant that Maldonado Diaz and Hodge were forced to try to make things happen out-of-system. When the team passed better and were able to set the middles, they had more success.
Sophomore Alayna Johnson held down the fort offensively in the early going as Arizona’s pin hitters worked to get going. She ended the day with seven kills on .636 hitting and added three blocks (one solo) for nine points. Senior middle blocker Zyonna Fellows was right there with her, getting six kills on .556 hitting and five total blocks (two solo) for 9.5 points.
Rubio played 15 different players. His goal was twofold. One, to find something that worked after the offense struggled in the opening set. Second, he wanted to use the occasion to get experience for as many players as possible.
In the second set, Rubio made some changes to help get the offense going. He started outside hitter Dilara Gedikoglu and freshman setter Ana Heath in place of Hodge and Emery Herman. It seemed to work.
Gedikoglu had four kills on seven attempts and served a string of eight points as the Wildcats ran away with the set.
According to her coach, Gedikoglu’s biggest challenge is keeping focused. She played beach volleyball last spring, and she believes the demands of that sport helped her with those focus issues.
“It also helped me to manage my game,” Gedikoglu said. “You’re just with yourself and with your partner, so it's just you and you’re always getting the touch of the ball. And then you have to manage your game even when things are not going your way.”
As for his setters, not only did Heath and Herman get time setting, but so did sophomore Ava Tortorello. Rubio was very pleased with Herman’s performance Friday night against New Mexico State, but he said that all three setters are progressing well.
“I think that Ava Tortorello has really improved from last year,” Rubio said. “Ana Heath’s on her way, as well. Emery, though, from a serving standpoint, a defensive standpoint, an experience standpoint...”
Although she shared time with the other two setters, Herman narrowly missed a double-double against Alabama State. She had 20 assists and nine digs to go with three kills, two aces, and a block for 5.5 points.
Maldonado Diaz led the Wildcats with 10 kills on .412 hitting. Six of those kills came in the final set. She also had an assist, five digs, and two total blocks.
Stubbe was right there with her at nine kills on .300 hitting. She also had a service ace.
The Wildcats head back to the practice gym to continue working on the offense. The central focus is to improve the offensive numbers without driving up the error rate. There’s plenty of work to do to get there.