It’s difficult to predict what might happen in an opening scrimmage that starts off the tenure of a new head coach. Arizona volleyball showed why on Saturday afternoon when the Wildcats faced their teammates in the annual Red-Blue game. The red team won the match 3-1 (22-25, 25-22, 25-18, 25-17).
“I saw a lot of things that we needed to see,” said Arizona head coach Rita Stubbs. “Saw a couple things I don’t ever want to see again, but I think that’s the norm right now.”
The first big surprise was a good one. The Wildcats welcomed home former middle blocker and current professional player Zyonna Fellows. With only three middle blockers on the roster and needing four to play a two-team scrimmage properly, Fellows enjoyed another day in McKale Center wearing cardinal and navy.
An even bigger surprise was what happened with the setting, and it was not so positive. It wasn’t something that Stubbs thought would happen even last Wednesday when she met with the local media.
Going into the season, the competition for starting setter was supposed to be between sophomores Kasen Rosenthal and Ana Heath. Junior Ava Tortorello was no longer going to set. Instead, she was in the running for the position of starting libero. Tortorello hadn’t done any setting, even in practice, since last November. That changed on Saturday afternoon.
Rosenthal started out setting for the red team, which included most of last year’s starters, including Sofia Maldonado Diaz, Jaelyn Hodge, and Puk Stubbe. Heath was on the other side with highly touted transfer Jordan Wilson and freshman Sydnie Vanek on the pins along with one of the team’s male managers.
The red team struggled in the opening set as Rosenthal struggled. It came on quickly, but Stubbs referred to it as the yips. She said Rosenthal began battling it on Thursday, and it was now extending into the third day.
“The day before yesterday, it was just with the [four sets],” Stubbs said. “And then yesterday in practice, it got a little bit better, and then all of a sudden, it was on the fours and the back set. So, we can’t do that. I mean, Sofia and Jaelyn were very noticeably frustrated as a result in the beginning, because they want to do what they can do and it’s frustrating when you don’t have a ball that you can do anything with.”
Asked if she thought Rosenthal was in her head, Stubbs agreed that was the case.
“That’s what she said, for sure,” Stubbs said. “All spring, never saw that at all.”
As a result, Tortorello was sent out on the court to practice setting for about five minutes before the second set. She entered the game for the red team as the setter while freshman Giorgia Mandotti took over as libero for the blue team.
Stubbs was pleased with what she saw from Tortorello with such little preparation.
“When Ava was a libero on the one side, I thought she was doing a good job,” Stubbs said. “She just provides so much energy and direction. She’s a true leader in that sense, so she kept that side stable in the midst of what we had going on on our side. And then she had to come set and brought that same energy, which was good.”
Last year, it was Fellows’ voice that could be heard from the stands, giving direction to her teammates. On Saturday, it was Tortorello whose voice came through loud and clear regardless of the position she played.
The concern about playing Tortorello at setter is her size. She’s listed at 5-foot-8, which is small for a setter. It’s likely that the number is inflated, as roster heights often are. That is something Stubbs feels she’s going to have to live with.
“I have no choice,” she said when asked if she was going to return Tortorello to the setting position.
Another surprise was the player who remained unphased by any outside issues. Stubbe had a terrific freshman season two years ago but didn’t have the same kind of impact last season. With the addition of Wilson, it appears that she’s headed for a backup role. Stubbs said that her junior opposite was fine with that, but Stubbe’s play on Saturday looked like she wanted to have her name considered for a starting role.
Stubbe had 16 kills on .444 hitting, tying Hodge for the game high in kills. She served 17 times without missing a serve and had an ace. Her 10 digs gave her a double-double. She had 13 serve receptions and just one reception error. She threw in one solo block. Her 18 points led the match, narrowly edging out Hodge’s 17.5 points.
“Competition makes everyone play a little bit better,” Stubbs said. “And the fact that they knew who Jordan was. So, Jordan comes in that position. They know they have to be on their A-game at all times. So, I think it’s good.”
Stubbe agreed that the competition has increased in the gym, and that’s a good thing.
“I think that’s very true, but I think there’s good competition,” Stubbe said. “So, it’s not that we don’t want each other to play. We just know that there’s someone who can back you up if you don’t have a good day.”
Stubbe still reiterated something that her coach said at media day on Wednesday. She’s perfectly willing to be a reserve if that’s what the team needs her to do.
“I will always give 100 percent,” Stubbe said. “And if I don’t play my best on that day, I will accept when there’s a player that does better than me. Then I will support that player.”
She knows she can have an impact whether she’s on the floor or not.
“I want to find out what my role is in the team, and I think there can be multiple stuff,” Stubbe said. “I’m the oldest, so I think I can share a lot of things that I already know. And I think there will be a big part for me, but I also wanted to be able to show whatever I can.”
Other players that stood out were freshmen Sydnie Vanek and Journey Tucker. Vanek had 11 kills and one block for 11.5 points. Tucker had two kills on .400 hitting and three blocks, contributing 3.5 points.
“[Tucker] did a good job for someone who is as inexperienced as she is,” Stubbs said. “I mean, she’s a huge block...she got Jaelyn and Sofia. I said, ‘You can’t challenge her.’ You can go over her head or go high off the hands, but you can’t challenge that inside hand. And that’s a skill that’s hard to teach. She came with it, which is really nice.”
There’s a lot for the team to work on before the games start counting next week.
“We have to do a better job of serving,” Stubbs said. “We would serve two balls in and then we miss. In our gym, we do a two-ball series where they have to get those two in order to move on. So now we need to move to three, then there’s a move to four. And then a couple serves were just too easy in my mind. So serving is probably number one. We will always have to work on passing. that goes without saying. And then getting the setters to get in a rhythm, because they never really gave Sofia the ball that she can use. Because she can hit line as well as cross very well, and the ball dies inside which means her line is gone. So now she sees a block so well, so she’s limited in what she can do.”
The Wildcats take the court again on Friday, Aug. 25 at 10 a.m. MST against UC Davis. It will mark the return of former Arizona outside hitter Kendra Dahlke, who is continuing her coaching career with the Aggies as she prepares to resume her professional playing career next spring.
Arizona had two recruits at the game on their official visits. One was 2025 outside hitter Paige Thies, who committed to the program on the first day she was able to back in June. The other was 2025 middle blocker Maya Flemister, who is uncommitted.