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Middle blockers have another big match but Arizona volleyball drops 5-setter at Utah

Arizona volleyball’s Alayna Johnson (22), Jordan Wilson (5), Haven Wray (8), Sofia Maldonado Diaz (2), and Joy Galles (12) celebrate after winning a point against Utah on Oct. 22, 2023.
Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

With the starting rotation taking on a new normal without injured outside hitter Jaelyn Hodge playing in the front row, it wasn’t easy to know how Arizona volleyball would come out against Utah. The first two sets didn’t look good, but the Wildcats turned it into a match before succumbing to the 3-2 (25-17, 25-17, 14-25, 20-25, 15-12) defeat.

With one of their pins essentially playing a defensive specialist role, Arizona again looked to get offense from new places. Once again, the middle blockers were a big part of that. At Colorado on Friday, it was Nicole Briggs. On Sunday in Salt Lake City, it was Alayna Johnson.

Johnson had a strong all-around game. She finished with six kills on .750 hitting. It was huge for the junior, who has been struggling with hitting percentage all season. As Johnson said earlier in the year, the goal for her position is to hit at least .350. Sunday was only the second time she had met that mark in conference play and the seventh time this season.

It wasn’t just about the offense, though. Johnson also was a big part of Arizona’s successful serving strategy. Arizona has not had a middle blocker who regularly served since Devyn Cross graduated following the 2019-20 season, but Johnson has served for much of the season.

Johnson had three aces against the Utes and served several crucial runs that helped the Wildcats get back into the match. Her first run was a four-point turnaround in the opening set that cut Utah’s 12-7 lead to 12-11. When Arizona had its back against the wall in the third set, it was Johnson who served two separate runs and had two aces to help the Wildcats extend the match with a dominant 25-14 win.

Johnson also had two total blocks in another strong blocking effort by Arizona. Fellow middle blocker Nicole Briggs led the way with nine total blocks, including one solo, but it was an all-around team effort. The Wildcats also got five total blocks from Sofia Maldonado Diaz and three from Ana Heath on their way to 11 total blocks as a team.

Maldonado Diaz led the match with 16 kills, but it took some time and a lot of work to get there. The senior hit just .098 as she struggled to get going early in the match. As a team, Arizona hit .038 in the opening set and .111 in the second set before Maldonado Diaz and Jordan Wilson started to get going.

For Wilson, it wasn’t so much about not scoring early. It was about not playing early.

Wilson didn’t sub in until Utah led 9-6 in the first set. Despite only playing back row, Hodge got the start. Freshman pin Sydnie Vanek was also in the starting lineup.

Wilson was in much earlier in the second set, but it didn’t help the Wildcats. At the end of two sets, they trailed the Utes 2-0 and she had three kills.

Arizona head coach Rita Stubbs made some changes to start the third set. They worked well.

This time, she opted to go with Maldonado Diaz and Wilson as her starting pins while putting an extra defensive specialist in the back row. Arizona ran out to an 11-4 lead and never looked back.

Wilson had five kills in the set. She ended the match with 12 kills on .423 hitting. Maldonado Diaz matched her with five kills in the third and added a block. The team hit .385 in the third frame to extend the match.

More importantly, Utah’s serve became less effective in the third. After five aces in the first set and four in the second, the Utes had only two in the third. The home team picked it up again in the fourth and fifth sets, but Arizona’s ability to win the serve game in the third was critical to avoiding the sweep.

Another quick start in the fourth set put Arizona in the driver’s seat. The Wildcats led 10-4 early before the Utes tied it up at 11.

Utah couldn’t take the lead, though. Each time it got close, Arizona was able to extend its lead again. The final tie came at 19-all. A 6-1 run by the Wildcats pushed it to the fifth set.

Arizona went up 5-2 early in the final set, but Utah responded after a timeout. The Utes used a 3-0 run to tie it at five points each. From there, the teams tied seven times. Utah did not take a lead again until 12-11 but used a 3-1 advantage to close out the match from there.

The match unfolded much as Stubbs suggested it might. Before leaving on the road trip, she spoke about how Arizona, Colorado, and Utah were all experiencing similar ebbs and flows within their matches and seasons.

“I know that watching film on both of them, I can imagine how their coaches are feeling working with them because sometimes things work and then other times things don’t work,” Stubbs said.

On Sunday, things worked a few extra times for Beth Launiere and the Utes than they did for Stubbs and the Wildcats.

Arizona returns to McKale Center on Friday, Oct. 27 after two weeks on the road. The Wildcats will host No. 3 Stanford before facing California on Sunday, Oct. 29.