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Arizona volleyball’s Jaelyn Hodge has improved her offensive efficiency, but she’s still not satisfied

Jaelyn Hodge (11) and Madison Ellman (1) celebrate after a point against New Mexico State on Aug. 26, 2022
Photo by Ary Frank / Arizona Athletics

If the Arizona Wildcats are going to get to the promised land of the NCAA Volleyball Tournament it is vital that talented outside hitters Jaelyn Hodge and Sofia Maldonado Diaz take the next step in their development. That step has been driven home by head coach Dave Rubio all season: score while keeping errors as low as possible. Hodge is taking that to heart. She’s also pushing herself to take the next step.

It’s a tricky process that Hodge has been trying to navigate for the past two years. Almost one-third of the way through her junior season, she’s still working on her hitting percentage but she sees the progress. Having more time on the court with the team has helped all of the hitters with their percentages in Hodge’s estimation.

“I think actually having a full spring season really helped our team just focusing on where to hit the ball, what shots and just when,” Hodge said.

Hodge is hitting .250 with 3.30 kills per set through the team’s first eight matches this season. While her kills per set have taken a bit of a dip from 3.77 k/s during nonconference play last year, her hitting percentage has improved dramatically from the .195 she hit against non-Pac-12 opponents last season.

The question is whether the focus on hitting percentage and errors has decreased Hodge’s aggressiveness or ability to score. Rubio believes that scoring will become more important as the team moves into Pac-12 play next weekend.

For now, Rubio is happy with the fact that the team has been able to follow the game plan of limiting their errors even if it means being less likely to terminate the point. He noted that they could recover from a ball that is blocked or simply doesn’t go for a kill; they can’t recover from a ball hit out of bounds.

“I don’t think it takes away aggressiveness,” Hodge said. “I think it just makes us play smarter. Just knowing when to hit shots. Still getting up and hitting balls but just adding shots and tooling off the block.”

Hodge led the Wildcats in kills per set last season, but it got more difficult as the season progressed. As a sophomore, her kills per set and hitting percentage both dropped once the conference season started. She went from hitting .195 against non-league foes to hitting just .127 against conference opponents. Conversely, fellow left-side hitter Maldonado Diaz grew stronger in the latter part of the season than she was early on.

That will not be enough if Arizona is ever to reach its full potential. For that to happen, Rubio knows that both of his starting outside hitters and starting opposite Puk Stubbe must get to the point where they all consistently “on” at the same time.

The Wildcats have had more of those matches recently. Rubio raved about Arizona’s showing against North Carolina two weeks ago, saying that it was the first time he had seen all three pins playing at the top of their games at the same time. Each member of the trio had double-digit kills and were still hitting over .300 late in the fourth set, although Hodge eventually finished at .245 for the match.

It was an important weekend for Hodge. She struggled in Arizona’s last home match against Alabama State. The next week, she was back.

Against Wake Forest, she carried the offensive load as Maldonado Diaz sat out with a minor ankle injury. Hodge followed that up with a strong showing in the team’s first true road match of the season against UNC.

“Jaelyn had an outstanding weekend,” Rubio said after returning from North Carolina. “The best weekend she’s had since she’s been on the program. I mean, her error percentage and kill percentage and managing her game, it was terrific and against really good competition.”

For Hodge, the improvement in hitting percentage is encouraging. She’s still not completely happy, though. Last season, she was working her way into being a six-rotation player, but all three pins had issues with receiving errors.

With the emphasis on reducing errors on serve receive this season, Rubio has been subbing Hodge out for either a defensive specialist or reserve outside hitter Dilara Gedikoglu when she rotates to the back row. While she understands why, she wants to improve her game so she can stay on the floor more.

“During pre-season everyone is getting in there...getting playing time,” Hodge said. “So, okay, I’m fine with it, but I want to get back into playing back row.”

What does she need to do to get that opportunity again?

“Just limiting receiving errors,” she said. “I feel like that’s the main thing. Just not getting any receiving errors. That will help me not get taken out.”

She’s not afraid of being the one the opposing team goes after in the back row. She feels that has happened in the past.

“That’s why we would have someone pull back in the corner,” Hodge said. “But I’m fine with that. I would want to be the person that gets picked on rather than someone else.”

It’s not just about proving that she can pass and play defense, though. Hodge misses the offensive options that come with playing in the back row.

“I’m just saying, ‘Just don’t get aced! Don’t get aced!” Hodge said. “But other than that, I love hitting out of the pipe in the back row, so that’s another reason why I want to get back there.”

Not that there aren’t fun things to do in the front row. Hodge is a solid blocker. She’s currently fourth on the team in blocks per set with 0.50.

“I just like shutting the other opponent down,” Hodge said. “Because I know personally, I hate getting blocked. So I know how that feels and I just love doing it. It’s my favorite thing.”

Hodge and the Wildcats will finish nonconference play with the Wildcat Classic on Friday, Sept. 16 and Saturday, Sept. 17. It’s a tricky weekend. Sacramento State showed last week that Arizona can be vulnerable, although the Wildcats were able to pull that one out under tricky conditions.

“I think the teams that we’re playing this weekend are gonna be equally as talented and as prepared to play as a Sacramento State was,” Rubio said. “It’s gonna be important that we’re ready to play against every single opponent this weekend.”

A loss against any of the teams in this weekend’s tournament could be disastrous for the Wildcats’ RPI, but it’s not out of the question. UTEP defeated Arizona last season, after all.

As it currently stands, the Wildcats sit at No. 56 in the unofficial RPI at Figstats. Their strength of schedule so far is 199. Their opponents this week are No. 130 (UTEP), No. 241 (CSUN), and No. 245 (Texas A&M-Corpus Christi) in RPI.

“The RPI right now is not in our favor,” Rubio said. “The teams, hopefully, as they get in the conference they’re going to win.”

The only thing Arizona can control now is not losing the games in front of them.

Follow along with us: Follow us @AZDesertSwarm on Twitter. Our deputy editor will live tweet the matches and provide updates during the week @KimDoss71

Texas A&M-Corpus Christi @ Arizona

When and where: Friday, Sept. 16 at 10:00 a.m. MST in Tucson, Ariz. in McKale Center.

Broadcast: The match will be streamed on Arizona Live Stream.

Stats: In-game stats are available at Arizona Live Stats.

UTEP @ Arizona

When and where: Friday, Sept. 16 at 6:30 p.m. MST in Tucson, Ariz. in McKale Center.

Broadcast: The match will be streamed on Arizona Live Stream.

Stats: In-game stats are available at Arizona Live Stats.

CSUN @ Arizona

When and where: Saturday, Sept. 17 at 1:30 p.m. MST in Tucson, Ariz. in McKale Center.

Broadcast: The match will be streamed on Arizona Live Stream.

Stats: In-game stats are available at Arizona Live Stats.