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Arizona volleyball fades against determined ASU in Pac-12 opener

arizona-wildcats-volleyball-usc-four-sets-herman-hodge-maldonado-diaz Photo by Catherine Regan / Arizona Athletics

Arizona hadn’t lost to ASU in Tucson since 2019. It was just one of three times in the 21st century that the Sun Devils had won in McKale Center. Add a fourth as the visitors weathered a strong start from the Wildcats to take the next three sets in a 3-1 victory (23-25, 25-20, 26-24, 25-20).

“I thought that we had some individual players who really struggled tonight,” Arizona head coach Dave Rubio said. “The group hasn’t really played well since the San Diego State match...There were just too many players that just weren’t on their game today.”

Given that the San Diego State match was on Sept. 9, that’s a concern for the Wildcats heading into Pac-12 play.

Both teams feature a crew of talented pins who can be inconsistent. On Wednesday night, ASU’s Marta Levinska, Iman Isanovic, and Geli Cyr were reliable and strong. All three had double-digit kills and both Levinska and Cyr hit well over .300.

“We couldn’t stop their lefts,” Rubio said. “Up until this match, we were second in the country on limiting opponents hitting percentage. They hit over .300. We weren’t stopping anybody.”

On the other side of the net, Arizona pins had some difficulties. While Rubio noted that Sofia Maldonado Diaz had a difficult night, he was especially concerned about right-side hitter Puk Stubbe.

“When Puk struggles, we struggle,” Rubio said.

The pins weren’t the only place the Wildcats struggled, though. Rubio felt that starting setter Emery Herman was not at her best, either. With several starters having difficulties, he opted to play with the lineup looking for combinations that worked.

In the second set, sophomore setter Ava Tortorello came in for Herman. In the third set, it was setter Ana Heath who came in for Stubbe at opposite.

Heath ran a 6-2 offense in high school, so she came to Arizona with experience as a hitter. It showed. When she entered the match, Arizona was able to make a run at ASU.

“She certainly gave us a spark,” Rubio said. “It was something that was needed. Puk was really struggling. It was important for us to find somebody. We hadn’t done that except for a couple of times, but I felt like that was probably the right answer for us to put Ana in there. But we lose a lot when Puk isn’t in there from a back row standpoint.”

Not all of the pins struggled. Jaelyn Hodge tried to carry the load for the hitters. She had 13 kills on .281 hitting.

Hodge got help from the middle with Alayna Johnson contributing 12 kills on .435 hitting to go with three total blocks and Zyonna Fellows throwing in six kills on .400 hitting and six total blocks.

Arizona got out to a quick start, building an 8-2 lead in the opening set. The Wildcats stalled there, allowing the Sun Devils to go on their own 8-3 run to close the lead to 11-10. Arizona kept pulling away only to have ASU reel it back in, but it was just too much to keep coming back. ASU tied the set several times down the stretch but could never take a lead.

The second set was tight throughout. ASU started to pull away after building a 16-15 lead. From that point, the Sun Devils went on a 9-5 run to close out the set and even the match.

The Wildcats trailed throughout the third set, going down by as many as eight points early. They took their first lead at set point at 24-23. They weren’t able to convert the point, though, and the Sun Devils closed it out 26-24 to put the home team on the ropes.

Arizona couldn’t get off those ropes. ASU opened the fourth set on a 6-0 run. The Wildcats chipped away to make it an 11-9 set, but the Sun Devils responded strongly. At 18-10, the end seemed inevitable. Arizona made the final score a more respectable 25-20, but the set and match were never in doubt.

It wasn’t as if ASU was a well-oiled machine. The Sun Devils were forced into playing out-of-system quite often throughout the match. Wild stabs at the ball kept it from hitting their side of the floor time and again. They didn’t fold.

“Their hitters were way better out-of-system than ours were,” Rubio said.

It may have helped ASU that they played nine of their 12 nonconference matches on the road and faced a much tougher schedule than Arizona did. The Sun Devils had faced far more adversity against far better competition than the Wildcats had. On Wednesday evening, they looked like a team that would remain unflustered when things weren’t going their way. It earned them an uncommon win in McKale Center.

“They were way better,” Rubio said.