It’s been a good week for the Arizona Wildcats. They all needed it.
Before Thursday’s game, first-year head coach Rita Stubbs gave her players goals she wanted them to meet. She had a special one for junior middle blocker Alayna Johnson, who has been struggling with her confidence lately. What was it?
“Be happy,” Johnson said.
Stubbs asked Johnson to share that goal with her teammates before the game. She wanted them to hold each other accountable for those goals.
“I would say I’ve been kind of a downer lately, mainly in practices, and especially this week just with all the losses,” Johnson said. “And today she’s just, ‘Be happy.’ Okay, I can do that.”
Not only was Johnson happy, but she was effective in Arizona’s 3-1 (25-16, 25-22, 22-25, 25-18) victory over Utah. She had seven kills on nine swings without committing an error. That’s good for a .778 hitting percentage. Johnson also threw in two total blocks, part of an eight-block effort by the Wildcats as a team.
There were lots of reasons to be happy this week. Stubbs signed the No. 7 class in the country—a class that includes the No. 1 player in the country—on Wednesday. On Thursday, the Wildcats got their second conference win of the season in a true team effort.
The story of the night was the serving. Earlier in the month of October, Arizona got aced by Utah 17 times in a five-set loss when the two teams played in Huntsman Arena. Not only did the Utes not get 17 aces against the Wildcats this time, but they gave Arizona 16 free points off service errors. Meanwhile, UA had 12 aces this time around and only eight service errors.
What was the difference?
“Being mindful,” said senior outside hitter Jaelyn Hodge. “Because I know the past few days Ryan [Windisch], our coach, he has been on us about reminding us how many aces they had versus us last time we played. So, I think being aware of their aggressive serving and sticking the platform out. Getting the ball up in the air is just the main point of that, so I think being aware of it and really concentrating on that one skill has helped us and I think showed tonight with passing, especially.”
The serving disparity swinging wildly in the Wildcats’ favor made a huge difference. Arizona won its three sets by a total of 19 points. Sixteen of those came from Utah’s service errors. Was it Arizona’s goal to flip the serving advantage?
“Honestly, no,” Stubbs said. “When we were up there, we were aced 17 times So our goal was to not do that again. But we went back and as we got comfortable...we have a couple of servers that we think do a pretty good job in disrupting things. And so when they catch on fire, that’s good. But today Haven [Wray] did a good job of serving. We had her go back and serve short, and she became very successful at that point. So it kind of got them out of their rhythm and then it didn’t help them that they made as many service errors as they did.”
Hodge led Arizona with a match-high 15 kills on .423 hitting. She also had six digs.
Hodge is still dealing with an injury that has been causing problems in her foot since last March. She sat out of the spring tournaments, but she tried to play through it during the regular season. It eventually got to be too much, and her activities in practice and matches have been restricted. When the Wildcats played in Utah, she only played in the back row and did not jump. She finally returned to six-rotation play and jumping last week.
“Mentally, emotionally good,” Hodge said about how she’s feeling. “Physically, I’m still [having] pain and foot problems, but holding off during practice during the week has helped with not jumping. So, better. My foot’s a lot better.”
In addition to the offense from Hodge and Johnson, Arizona got another strong offensive game from sophomore outside hitter Jordan Wilson. She was the only other Wildcat with double-digit kills, finishing with 12 on .261 hitting. She also contributed two solo blocks for 14 points.
Wilson has become more consistent as the Pac-12 season has progressed. She has at least 11 kills in 10 of the Wildcats’ 15 conference matches. She has hit at least .250 in seven of those matches.
“For her, it’s a matter of sometimes calming down versus trying to make that spectacular play,” Stubbs said. “And so what she’s doing now is something that she’s been capable of doing all along. But the key is, she likes the ‘Wow!’ versus just keep it simple.”
Senior pin Sofia Maldonado Diaz was not as efficient as her teammates, but she played a big role in the service game and on the block. Maldonado Diaz finished with nine kills on .111 hitting, but had four aces against just one error and threw in one solo block. That tied her with Wilson for second on the team with 14 points.
Johnson’s fellow middle blocker Nicole Briggs had a match-high .800 hitting percentage with four kills on five swings. Neither middle blocker committed a hitting error. Setter Ana Heath led all players with five total blocks.
Arizona dominated out of the gate and in almost every aspect of the game. In the first set, the home squad hit .381. The ‘Cats had three total blocks, four aces, and 11 kills. Most importantly, they limited their errors, something they’ve struggled to do most of the season.
In the opening set, UA committed just three hitting errors and two serving errors. They blocked Utah three times and did not commit a blocking error. It was a runaway 25-16 set that showed what the team can do when everything is working well.
As the match progressed, the errors started creeping into the Wildcats’ game. After hitting .381 in the first frame, they dropped to .250 in the second and .226 in the third before rebounding to .360 in the final set. It almost precisely correlated with the gap between the two teams.
Arizona snuck out the 25-22 victory in set two as Utah raised its game and the Wildcats moved back towards the mean. While UA was hitting .250, Utah was swinging at a very efficient .391. Still, the ‘Cats looked to have a good chance of getting their first Pac-12 sweep of the season.
By set three, the Utes had really found their feet in almost all aspects of the game. Their efficiency jumped yet again. Now, Utah was hitting a hot .429 compared to Arizona’s .226. They had overtaken the Wildcats in total blocks. The only thing really holding the Utes back was the serve game.
Utah had one ace in each of the first three sets but had also racked up 14 serving errors. That wasn’t going to get it done when Arizona had almost an exactly 50-50 split with nine aces and 10 serving errors through three sets.
If the Utes could clean up the serve and pass game, they had a very real chance of beating Arizona. The Wildcats kept the tough serving up, though.
The inability to effectively serve receive had killed Arizona’s own chances in so many matches this season. This time, it was their turn to watch another team implode simply because it couldn’t get either the opponent’s serve or its own serve over the net and into the court.
Arizona’s next match will be held in McKale Center on Saturday, Nov. 11 at 2 p.m. MST. The Wildcats (7-19, 2-13) host the Colorado Buffaloes (14-12, 6-9) in a match that will be streamed on Arizona Live Stream. The Buffs lost to No. 17 Arizona State in four sets on Thursday evening.