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Arizona volleyball celebrates the ‘little wins’ in straight-set loss to Stanford

Arizona volleyball prepares to take on No. 3 Stanford in McKale Center on Oct. 27, 2023
Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

When the match started, everything that Arizona volleyball could be was on display. The Wildcats came out strong on serve, picking apart Stanford pin Caitie Baird. They were efficient, hitting over .300 for much of the set, and able to pass well enough to vary the offense. It was part of a successful strategy that put the home team up by as many as eight points before the No. 3 Cardinal finally found their feet in a 3-0 (25-23, 25-17, 25-22) victory.

Focusing on Baird was one of Arizona’s goals. Wildcat head coach Rita Stubbs said that the coaches set small goals within sets and matches. One was to force Stanford head coach Kevin Hambly to sub Baird out. Another was to force him to be the first to call a timeout. A third was to score off the edges of the Stanford block. They had some success with the smaller goals, but they couldn’t turn that into a set win.

“I think we kind of took our foot off the gas pedal a little bit on the serve,” Stubbs said. “I thought we were playing it more safe. I don’t think they were intentionally doing it. It was more of a subconscious thing.”

Stubbs was pleased with several things the team accomplished against a much bigger opponent. Most important was limiting Stanford to six total blocks, an average of 2.0 per set. The Cardinal average 2.7 blocks per set this season.

Stubbs was also pleased with setter Ana Heath looking for her own offense with the dump while the Wildcats limited Stanford setter Kami Miner, allowing no kills on -.125 hitting. Miner averages 0.70 kills per set and has a .388 hitting percentage this season.

Sophomore Jordan Wilson led the Wildcats on offense with 11 kills on .381 hitting. She was the only Wildcat to have double-digit kills.

Arizona also got offense from the middle again, especially early in the match. Alayna Johnson had seven kills and hit .375. It was just the third time in conference play that she has hit at least .350. Johnson also led the team with three total blocks including one solo. Her fellow middle, Nicole Briggs, had three kills on .333 hitting.

The Wildcats went away from setting the middle as much after the first set, although both middles had a kill in the final set. After the match, Stubbs said that she hadn’t had time to talk to Heath yet because the players were in an autograph session, so she wasn’t entirely sure why the setter went away from the middle later.

“I’m gonna venture to guess she didn’t think about it nearly as much as she did in the first set to know what actually worked,” Stubbs said. “And so one of the things is the way you keep your middle going is by rewarding them for being up in the air. And when you don’t get set enough, then you start going, ‘Okay, I’m not gonna jump as hard,’ so then it kind of plays off of that.”

Stubbs wasn’t disappointed in the effort of her two middles, though.

“I was pleased to see how both Alayna and Nicole played the entire time,” Stubbs said. “When you’re playing against a team as big as Stanford is and have the weapons that they have, it could weigh on you a little bit. It’s just like, ‘Oh, am I ever gonna block a ball? I’m never gonna do this.’ So, because we had the little goals within, we had a lot of wins. And for us, that’s what it’s about at this point in time, is getting those little wins.”

Outside hitter Jaelyn Hodge again started but played only back row. Unlike last week against Colorado and Utah, she had a few back-row attacks and ended with two kills on .500 hitting.

“It is all medical,” Stubbs said. “Whatever they say she can do is what she’ll do. As much as we would like to think it’s us, it’s not. I know she was ready to go in the front row, and she kept asking, but it’s a medical decision.”

Hodge’s serve was also a big part of Arizona’s hot start. She served the Wildcats to a 4-1 lead out of the gates. Two rotations later, a serving run by setter Ana Heath that included two aces had Arizona up 10-4.

Arizona’s biggest lead came at 13-5. At that point, Stanford had only won two points in a row once, but the Cardinal started chipping away from there. The Wildcats pushed the lead back out on several occasions but stalled after going up 21-14. From there, Stanford went on an 11-2 run to win the set.

Unlike in several previous matches, Stubbs didn’t feel like the team gave up after letting the lead slip away. She felt that there were problems with their serve later in the match and that they may have stopped setting the middle like they should have, but it wasn’t for lack of effort or desire.

Arizona continued to show that fight in the final set. Stanford went up 5-1 to start, but the Wildcats closed the gap repeatedly. When the Cardinal built a 16-9 lead, UA closed the gap to three points at 19-16 and two points at 20-18.

Even when the visitors reached match point at 24-20, the home team didn’t give up. The Wildcats saved two match points before finally succumbing to defeat.

Despite the season not turning out as they wanted or expected, the Wildcats still continue to draw fans. On Friday, the official crowd total was 2,132. The Zona Zoo has been especially active this season after not particularly supporting women’s sports in past years. The student section didn’t disappoint against the Cardinal.

“I absolutely love playing in front of this crowd and being able to play for all the people that come and watch us,” Wilson said. “It’s amazing. It’s fun.”

Arizona hopes to use that energy when it faces California at 12 p.m. MST on Sunday, Oct. 29. In their last match against the Golden Bears, the Wildcats had a meltdown in the first set with several mental errors. They let a 21-16 lead in the opening frame turn into a 24-26 loss and ended up losing the match 3-1.

“That’s not who we are,” Wilson said. “We’re going to show them right now what Arizona volleyball is about.”