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Arizona volleyball fortunate to escape CSUN in 4-set victory

Arizona volleyball player Sofia Maldonado Diaz (2) faces the camera and teammate Puk Stubbe (10) faces away from the camera Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

There was one more match to prepare for the all-important Pac-12 season. On Saturday against California State Northridge, Arizona volleyball head coach Dave Rubio wanted his team to learn some things. He’s not sure they learned the most important lessons. Those lessons have to do with team culture.

“The biggest challenge by far is the players not evaluating the opponent on the other side,” Rubio said. “And so (falling behind is) what happens. And it’s human nature to do that. You see that in football, right? Notre Dame loses to Marshall and Georgia Southern goes in and beats Nebraska at Nebraska. So, the players evaluate and disrespect the opponent, and that’s what we did today. I mean, this whole weekend, we just disrespected the opponent because we didn’t play hard. And then as a result of not playing hard, we’re making unforced errors and it’s sloppy and it’s not meaningful. And so, that’s the broader picture is that...championship-level teams don’t do that. And that’s...the type of culture we’re trying to build.”

They did learn a few positive things on the way to a 3-1 victory (23-25, 25-16, 25-10, 25-21) over CSUN. One is how important the middle blockers are to Arizona’s success on offense and in the blocking game. Sophomore Alayna Johnson plays a huge role in that.

Johnson and outside hitter Sofia Maldonado Diaz helped Arizona get the score of the first set back to a respectable level after falling behind the Matadors 14-9 early on. They kept the Wildcats within striking distance until some of their teammates began to come around.

Johnson had four kills and just one error in the first set, as well as combining with Dilara Gedikoglu on a block. Johnson ended the game with 13 kills on .296 hitting to go along with seven total blocks and 16.5 points. She credited the communication with her teammates, especially with her setters, for the success.

Maldonado Diaz got stronger as the match wore on. She and Johnson were tied with four kills each in the first set, but Maldonado Diaz ended with a match-high 16 kills on .387 hitting. She threw in two aces, a block assist, and three digs. Her 18.5 points led all players.

Another big lesson was how important Gedikoglu is to the Wildcats’ depth. Both Rubio and the players have mentioned that depth is their biggest asset. The senior outside hitter is a big reason why.

Starting opposite Puk Stubbe was out with an injury that Rubio had described as a hip pointer after Friday’s win over UTEP. Rubio did some shuffling of his starting lineup, moving Jaelyn Hodge to the right side in place of Stubbe and starting freshman Lauren Rumel in Hodge’s normal spot on the left side.

That didn’t work so well. In the first set, both Rumel and Hodge struggled. Enter Gedikoglu. She ended the match with eight kills and no hitting errors. Those kills came on 22 swings, giving her a hitting percentage of .364. She threw in 11 digs to barely miss a double-double, as well as contributing three assists, three total blocks, and 9.5 points.

“I knew the team needed me because unfortunately, Puk had a little injury, but she’s hopefully gonna come back for the ASU game,” Gedikoglu said. “So, she was out for the game, and Lauren had a bad day, and Jaelyn was kind of off and on, so I know there was not another sub. So I just was telling myself, ‘You have nothing to lose, just go for it!’ And, ‘The team needs you!’ And then I just played for my team. And then I had like a positive mindset generally. I think that helped a lot throughout the game. So I was always in that mindset.”

Gedikoglu is not known for blocks. Coming into the match, she had contributed to just three blocks all season. She had 10.0 in her entire Arizona career.

Gedikoglu doubled her season total in this match, leaving with 6.0 blocks on the season. It was especially encouraging for her because of what it meant about her time in this game.

“I’m not playing in the front row a lot,” she said.

On Sunday, she played in the front row much more than usual and she made the most of it.

While Rubio had a great deal of praise for Maldonado Diaz, Herman, and his defensive specialists for their play on Saturday, he was not happy with the team’s overall performance the entire weekend. That doesn’t have to be this team’s legacy, though.

“Coaches are never happy because they always want the team to play better,” he said. “In regards to what happened last weekend versus this weekend, if you were to compare the two, I was happier last weekend. Every day and every week is different. That’s the thing when you’re dealing with human beings. Things become unpredictable and potentially get very messy. Monday is a new day. They get the day off tomorrow, and (then) we got to get to work.”