Pac-12 play wasn’t supposed to start this way. Arizona opened conference play against ASU in McKale, a place where the Sun Devils had only won three times in 21 years. Then, they went to face a Utah team whose best player has missed three straight matches due to injury and features several underclassmen in important roles. It was a prime opportunity to open the league season 2-0.
It wasn’t to be. The Wildcats again struggled in serve receive and dropped their second straight match. Utah was in control of things for most of the evening, taking the straight-set victory by a score of 25-19, 26-24, 30-28.
“The first set, it was really just a lack of being able to serve and pass very well,” Arizona head coach Dave Rubio said. “And we just couldn’t ever get in an offensive rhythm.”
While the serving issues would eventually work themselves out, serve receive continued to be a problem for most of the match. Libero Kamaile Hiapo ended up with eight assists, something Rubio attributed to the team’s difficulty with both serve receive and transition play.
“If the digs are hard-driven digs, and they’re hard to control and Emery (Herman is) not in position—they’re not dug well enough for her to get her hands on the ball,” he said. “And with Kamaile playing in the middle of the court, oftentimes she’ll be in a better position to take the second ball on that.”
The Utes were able to claim the second victory in their last five matches even though fifth-year outside hitter Madelyn Robinson spent most of the second set sitting on the bench. Robinson had been out with injury for the last three matches but returned with a monster game against Arizona with 19 kills on .368 hitting and eight digs.
“She was certainly a difference maker in the match,” Rubio said. “She was terrific.”
Even when Robinson sat on the bench in the second set, her team was able to control things. They did it by leaning heavily on sophomore Lauren Jardine, who transferred to Salt Lake after spending last year at Wisconsin. She had 14 kills on .270 hitting.
Arizona also dealt with its injuries. Right-side hitter Puk Stubbe has been dealing with a hip injury for over a week. She struggled once again as she played with her hip wrapped. She played in just two sets and had only two kills on 15 attempts.
Rubio doesn’t put her struggles down to her hip, though. He feels she has had difficulty all season, saying that she had really only been at the top of her game in two matches.
“I don’t know if she’s suffering from confidence issues,” Rubio said. “She never strikes me as one that ever loses her confidence, but she’s probably pretty good at hiding it. I’m not sure if the sets are to her liking. But, overall, she needs to play harder. I mean, that’s another thing. She needs to come out of the gate and play harder right off the bat.”
The other two Wildcat pins had relatively good games. Sofia Maldonado Diaz led the team with 16 kills, but she only hit .205. She added two aces and a block assist for 18.5 points. The junior outside hitter also had three digs. On the downside, she had two service errors and two receiving errors.
Jaelyn Hodge added 11 kills on .250 hitting. She had an ace and three block assists for 13.5 points. She also had four digs.
The only Wildcat to hit over .300 while also getting more than one kill was Dilara Gedikoglu. The senior had five kills on .364 hitting. Her two aces gave her seven points. Her eight digs made her crucial on a night when Arizona struggled on defense.
After falling fairly easily in set one, the Wildcats again started out behind the eight ball in set two. Rubio tried to find answers on his bench.
“We ended up trying to do some things late and they end up working,” he said. “I was kind of going in my bag of tricks and trying to figure out how to try to win a set here, and we put ourselves in a position to win the set. We were down 20-18...just couldn’t seem to get enough execution at the end and we just weren’t very smooth.”
He also found time for players who haven’t seen the floor much if at all this season. Sophomore middle blocker Nicole Briggs, who had only appeared in seven sets this season, got some time. Even more surprising was the entry of China Rai Crouch during the final two sets. The 6-foot-6 sophomore middle blocker/opposite returned to the team this year after being out with injuries for a season-and-a-half.
“I thought that was great,” Rubio said. “We did some nice things there. China’s very intimidating as an opposite blocker. She adds quite a bit over there as a blocker.”
Rubio continued to work with his lineup in the third set. This time it almost worked. The Wildcats built an early lead, but they ultimately could not hold it.
“I started Sofia at opposite and took Puk out,” he said. “Dilara came in and played front row, and played great. Was really good, and kind of gave us some stability in the passing. And that was a big deal for us. Our serving and passing I thought did well in set three and had it been more consistent like that throughout the first two sets, I think it would have been a lot different. But be that as it may, it’s obvious that we’re really struggling to serve receive, and that’s kind of dictating everything else for us.”
The Wildcats need to get that sorted out because things don’t get easier as the Pac-12 season progresses. It’s also not something that just started this season.
“The pieces are there,” Rubio said. “I think we’re a product of the lack of real success that we’ve had in the last couple of years. This group just hasn’t been able to do it, put it together. Arguably, our best win has been the Maryland match in San Diego, and just conference is a lot different. Mentality’s different. The pressure is different. And I think that we’re suffering a little bit of that (lack of) confidence in knowing that we can play well. And I think that’s just part of the growing pains for this group. Even though I think that we’re gonna be really good—I know we’re gonna be really good—and all the pieces are there, we’re just at the critical times of the matches, we’re just not performing well.”