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Career day for Sofia Maldonado Diaz gives Arizona volleyball first Pac-12 winning streak of the season

Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

It was all smiles in the Arizona volleyball locker room. For the second time in one day, an Arizona Athletics program had come back to defeat the Colorado Buffaloes. First, it was Arizona football walking off the Buffs in Boulder. Not long after, Sofia Maldonado Diaz had a career day in Arizona volleyball’s 3-2 (25-21, 22-25, 21-25, 26-24, 15-12) defeat of CU.

The win gave Arizona its first back-to-back wins in Pac-12 play this season. They had two before conference play, but the last one was on Sept. 15-16 against New Mexico State and Alabama State. It had been so long ago that Wildcat head coach Rita Stubbs forgot when it happened.

Maldonado Diaz had career highs in kills (27) and hitting percentage (.543) against the Buffs. She also had 13 digs to give her a double-double. Don’t forget about the two solo blocks, either. Along with the kills, they gave her a match-high 29 points.

Maldonado Diaz has had matches with high numbers of kills this season. The senior pin hitter has done it her entire career. What she often struggles with is efficiency. There were no such struggles on Saturday afternoon as she committed just two hitting errors. She credited her teammates, especially setter Ana Heath.

“It’s been a hard season for me individually,” she said. “So, I think what worked for me today was the team effort. That’s what Rita said, too. Everyone was just all in, literally. And I think that had me up, too. And Ana’s sets were just in a spot to get a kill every time.”

The kills were great, but they weren’t what was most important to Maldonado Diaz. She wanted to talk about the thing she needs to improve if she is going to be the kind of player she strives to be: defense. She is leaning on the advice of assistant coach Deitre Collins-Parker, who has played at the highest levels of the sport.

“I was focused not really on hitting because I knew if I’m not in my best day of hitting, we have really great pins, too,” Maldonado Diaz said. “I talked to Deitre before the game and she said if you want to be a really good player, you have to play defense, too. So, I was really ready to play defense, and I think that made me feel really like in focus to also get good hits and just play smart.”

Sophomore Jordan Wilson continued the offensive hot streak she has been on for most of conference play. She had 16 kills on .294 hitting, three digs, and one total block.

Senior pin Jaelyn Hodge also had 16 kills, but her efficiency was not as strong as that of her teammates. Hodge hit just .167, but she joined Maldonado Diaz with a double-double by adding 14 digs.

When the match started, it didn’t look like it was going to take five sets to get the W. The Wildcats ran out to a 12-5 lead in the opening set.

They stalled there. The Buffaloes went on a 7-0 run to tie the set at 12 points. They couldn’t take a lead, though, and the final tie came at 17-17. Arizona took the 1-0 lead on a kill by middle blocker Nicole Briggs.

Things got difficult from there. The Buffaloes might have dropped the first set, but they used their comeback late in the set as momentum in the next two. In both frames, Arizona tried to come back after falling behind to the visiting team, but the Wildcats couldn’t complete the attempt. Before long, they were looking up at CU, which had a 2-1 lead.

They kept plugging away, though. In the fourth set, UA fell behind by five points on several occasions. The final one came at 17-12. Then, something happened that the Wildcats haven’t been able to do very often against Pac-12 competition. They raised their game.

Suddenly, it was tied at 18.

“We just kept fighting,” Wilson said. “There was no point where we gave up or felt like, ‘Oh, okay, we’re gonna lose.’”

Even when CU reached match point at 24-22, the Wildcats kept fighting. They saved two match points. The first came on middle blocker Alayna Johnson’s kill. It was one of seven kills for the junior. She took 15 swings without an error, ending with a .467 hitting percentage.

The second match point was wiped away by a Colorado hitting error. It was a new ballgame, and Wilson had them in her sights. Two of her 16 kills saved the match for the Wildcats and got them to the fifth set.

It was a tight final set. Neither team led by more than one until Arizona reached its own match point at 14-12. Hodge used the block for the final kill of the day. The Arizona bench ran onto the court and began celebrating, but they had to stop in their tracks.

In a match marred by an excessive number of challenges, CU challenged match point. Arizona huddled on the court. Their coaches made sure they were ready if they needed to continue playing.

“We engage them,” Stubbs said. “We talk about what’s going on and try to keep them focused. So, when they did the challenge at the very end, we don’t know what this call is going to be. You have to still be ready to go. This is the place where you just see what you’re going to do, so it’s just constantly giving them the information versus allowing them to stand around and look out in the stands and stuff like that. So, let’s just keep them together.”

Most of the challenges were won by the coaches, but the officials had this one right and Arizona had its first Pac-12 winning streak.

The Wildcats have a good chance to end the season on a positive note that they can use to build on in the spring and next fall. Now at 8-19 overall and 3-13 in conference play, they are looking at four more games on the schedule. Only one of them is almost assuredly a loss. That would be the Nov. 19 match against the No. 6 Oregon Ducks.

Arizona will first face Oregon State, a team it lost to 15-12 in the fifth set when they played in Corvallis. That match was marred by 12 official challenges. This time around, it will be played in Tucson, where Arizona has played much better.

After playing Oregon, the Wildcats travel to Washington in their final road game of the season. Like Arizona, the Huskies are in their first year with a new head coach and have not lived up to their own standards this season. They have talent, but they can also be very inconsistent.

The season winds up with UA hosting Arizona State. While the Sun Devils are ranked No. 17, they did not play especially well against the Wildcats at the beginning of the season. The loss was as much about Arizona’s poor play which made Stubbs “angry,” according to her own assessment at the time.

Can the Wildcats wind things up 3-1 in their final four games? It may not be probable, but it’s certainly possible.