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Arizona volleyball has a block party but cannot overcome Oregon State

Arizona outside hitter Jaelyn Hodge (11) at Oregon State on Oct. 15, 2023.
Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

There was a lot to like about what Arizona volleyball did against Oregon State. Blocking. Setting. Fighting back. None of it was enough, though, as the Beavers won their first back-to-back Pac-12 matches since the pandemic-shortened season in the spring of 2021.

It was OSU’s second straight five-setter. The Beavs took down No. 19 Arizona State on Friday. On Sunday, it was a 29-27, 16-25, 23-25, 25-16, 15-12 affair against the Wildcats.

In many ways, the match was a microcosm of Arizona’s season. It was uneven and inconsistent. There was great play by some and underperformance by others.

The Wildcats came into the match last in the Pac-12 in blocks. No one would have known. They had a season-high 11 blocks in the third set and ended with 16 total blocks. Nicole Briggs led the way with eight total blocks. Jaelyn Hodge was just behind her with seven total blocks.

It was a very strong game for Briggs, who also had six kills on .500 hitting. She didn’t commit a hitting error and was third on the team with 10 points. Fellow middle blocker Alayna Johnson also had six blocks and six kills, but she threw in two errors for a .286 hitting percentage.

Arizona head coach Rita Stubbs was pleased with the job Ana Heath did both setting the ball and scoring. Stubbs has been trying to get Heath to dump the ball more, something the coach says should always be in the arsenal for a lefthanded setter. Heath did it twice in the match. The first time, Stubbs smiled and applauded the sophomore.

“That was probably the best overall match that Ana has set, just moving the ball around,” Stubbs said. “...I just wanted it for Ana.”

Heath also had a solid day blocking. She ended with five total blocks, including the only solo block by any of the Wildcats.

The one thing that Heath didn’t do as well as she usually does is serve. She had two aces, but she had three serving errors. One was critical.

With Arizona leading 25-24 in the first set, Heath served into the net. It was just one of a series of errors by the team in the opening frame that would go on to cost the Wildcats down the stretch.

Although they had a phenomenal hitting percentage of .422, went up by as many as four points early, and had a 21-18 lead late, errors by Heath, Hodge, and Sofia Maldonado Diaz toward the end of the set put them in a 0-1 hole.

“When we don’t have [Hodge and Maldonado Diaz], we’re in trouble,” Stubbs said.

Maldonado Diaz had her offense come around. She led the team with 21 kills and hit .228. She added three total blocks for 22.5 points. She also had 16 digs to secure the double-double.

Hodge had 19 digs and seven total blocks, but she never got going offensively. She ended with more than twice as many hitting errors (13) as kills (6) and a hitting percentage of -.175.

The problem for Arizona, once again, was that most of the errors were of its own doing. The Wildcats had 30 hitting errors against six total blocks by the Beavers.

The first set could have taken the wind out of Arizona’s sails. In several matches this year—including Friday’s match in Eugene—letting a set slip away has been the Wildcats’ undoing. Instead, the team rebounded and controlled the second set. After a 2-2 tie, Arizona never trailed. The team again hit over .400, ending the set with a team hitting percentage of .435 and leveling the match.

It was a tougher battle in the third. OSU jumped out to a 5-2 lead. Arizona defensive specialist Giorgia Mandotti stepped to the serving line and served nine times. The 9-0 run included two aces by Mandotti, two kills and two total blocks by Briggs, and two total blocks by Heath.

It didn’t stop the Beavers, though. They fought back, coming back to tie it at 14 and eventually building a 22-18 lead. In many matches, that has been “game over” for Arizona. Not this time, though.

The Wildcats took the 2-1 lead by going 7-1 down the stretch of the third set. They only needed one more.

They couldn’t get it. OSU dominated the fourth set. The last tie was at 4-4. The Beavers slowly built from there as the Wildcats failed to string more than two points together the rest of the set.

That seemed to do Arizona in. And the officials weren’t helping. The match had an excessive number of official challenges. All but one resulted in the call being overturned after video review, indicating that the officials were making a surprising number of incorrect calls on the court.

“In terms of the number of challenges, you should never have a match where there’s seven, eight challenges,” Stubbs said.

The most damaging call might have been one that wasn’t challenged, though. With Oregon State leading 7-2 in the fifth, Elizabeth Schuster served. The replay appeared to show the hand of Joy Galles getting under the ball, but the official blew the whistle and stopped the play, calling it an ace and giving the Beavers an 8-2 lead. The TV play-by-play announcer suggested that Stubbs did not have a challenge left.

“I had a challenge there but nothing was going the way we needed it to go,” Stubbs said. “[And if] any part of the ball hits the floor it’s down. That’s the part that [the players] don’t understand the way we should understand. She couldn’t legitimately say her hand was underneath the entire ball.”

With the angle and fact that any part of the ball touching the floor would make it an ace, Stubbs did not think it was worth challenging. Perhaps she should have given it a try even if she wasn’t sure because the match wasn’t over—not by a long shot.

The Wildcats gave up three more points to fall behind 11-2, but the frustration with the call seemed to light a fire under them. With the Beavers just four points from taking the set, Arizona finally responded. A 10-1 run by the Wildcats made it a 13-12 set. Galles served six points during that run.

Had Arizona been able to get the OSU ace call overturned, it might have been match point for the Wildcats with the score 14-12 in their favor. It was not to be, though. With the score at 13-12, OSU scored the final two points to take the 3-2 victory.

“We fought, but we got a group of people that have to learn how to believe in themselves, believe in their teammates, and push through,” Stubbs said. “And we could have rolled over and it could have been 15-2, but we didn’t.”

The Pac-12 season is almost halfway over. Arizona is 1-7 in conference play and 6-13 overall, but Stubbs doesn’t want to see anyone roll over.

“We’re still gonna fight and compete and whatnot,” Stubbs said. “I’m gonna always play to win.”