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Passing game, inconsistency doom Arizona volleyball on opening day of Cactus Classic

The Wildcats open the season 0-2 with losses against UC Davis and North Carolina

Arizona volleyball head coach Rita Stubbs talks to her team ahead of the season opener against UC Davis
Photo by Mike Christy / Arizona Athletics

It was not how Rita Stubbs or her players wanted to start her first season as the head coach of her alma mater. Arizona volleyball struggled in the serve receive and passing game on its way to losses against UC Davis in four sets (25-21, 17-25, 25-19, 25-18) and North Carolina in five (25-18, 25-21, 24-26, 18-25, 16-14) on the opening day of the season.

Serve receive difficulties plagued Arizona through both matches. They gave up 10 aces to the Aggies in the early game and followed it up by getting aced by the Tar Heels 13 times in the nightcap. On several occasions in both games, the libero chose not to play the ball only to have it land inside the back line and cost Arizona the point. On others, pin hitters stepped in front of defensive specialists to play the ball only to shank the pass. At other times, it didn’t matter who was receiving the ball; it was simply misplayed.

It’s a problem that hurt Arizona last year, too. Despite the talent the Wildcats have had on the pins over the past few years, if the ball isn’t passed properly, it makes it harder on the setter which makes it harder on the attackers.

“We couldn’t pass,” Stubbs said. “And as a result, if we can’t pass, we’re gonna struggle with anyone. And I think we got aced 10 times tonight. It continues to be an issue for us, and until we get better at passing, we’re going to find ourselves out of system and having to figure out ways to score. But we fought. We didn’t give up, so that was good. I appreciate how they came back this evening after this morning.”

The morning match against UC Davis was difficult for just about everyone on the Arizona roster. Only senior outside hitter Jaelyn Hodge was consistently effective. Hodge had 15 kills on .294 hitting. Her 13 digs gave her a double-double. She also had two blocks (one solo), giving her a total of 16.5 points. Hodge accomplished that despite being served a team-high 23 times.

Her fellow pins weren’t as effective in the morning game. Fellow OH Jordan Wilson had 12 kills, but she struggled on serve receive. She had three receiving errors in just 10 receptions.

Sofia Maldonado Diaz had difficulty in most aspects of the game against the Aggies. She had 10 kills but nine hitting errors.

All three of Arizona’s starting pins were regularly hitting into the UC Davis block and getting stuffed. While the Wildcats had just four blocks in the early game, the Aggies had 13.

Other than the second set, Arizona looked outclassed by UC Davis in just about every aspect of the game. As Stubbs mentioned, though, they didn’t let it defeat them. The team returned in the evening and fought back. Maldonado Diaz had a huge impact on the bounce-back performance.

Arizona’s starting opposite had a double-double in the late game and came up two kills short of her career high. Maldonado Diaz ended the five-setter with 24 kills on .388 hitting. She added 13 digs. Her ace and four block assists gave her a game-high 27 points.

“We got her involved right away,” Stubbs said. “She wants to be the person that we rely on and go to, and it wasn’t that way [in the first match]. Whatever the reasons are. I could probably come up with a thousand reasons.”

Hodge also put together a double-double in the nightcap with 13 kills and 12 digs. She was once again the most targeted of Arizona’s pins, getting served 26 times by the Tar Heels. Only libero Joy Galles with 34 receptions got more. Hodge added three block assists and one ace for 15.5 points.

Wilson had difficulty in the second match, getting just one kill on 10 swings. She also struggled on serve receive. After two straight shanked passes in the second set, Puk Stubbe came into the game for her. Wilson did not return.

Stubbe excelled against the Tar Heels, as she did last week in the Red-Blue game. The junior had 12 kills on .258 hitting and seven digs while starting the final three sets. Her one ace and one block assist gave her 13.5 points.

Another bright spot was middle blocker Nicole Briggs, who is in her first full year as a starter. The junior had a total of seven kills and six block assists in the two games.

“Nicole has always been a good blocker,” Stubbs said. “She doesn’t look like it’s because she’s not as big as Alayna [Johnson], but she does a great job of getting her hands over the net quickly, and that’s something she’s priding herself on. One of the things I said is I wanted the players to all be different.”

In that sense, Briggs and Johnson lived up to Stubbs’ desire for the middle blocking tandem. Johnson primarily contributed on offense. She had 15 kills in the two matches, but she tallied just two block assists. She did not have a block in the first match.

Arizona started the second match much like it ended the first. The Tar Heels never trailed in the opening set. The last tie was at 6-6, and UNC eventually built an 18-9 lead. The closest the score got after that was a four-point difference at 22-18. The Tar Heels scored the final three points to take the early lead.

The second set wasn’t quite as lopsided, but once again UNC never trailed. The final tie came at 17-17, and it looked like the Tar Heels were going to make quick work of Arizona with a straight-set victory.

The Wildcats, their coach, and the boisterous crowd decided that wasn’t going to happen. The Zona Zoo turned out in considerable numbers, as did the community. Unlike former coach Dave Rubio, who was more likely to show exasperation than enthusiasm during a match, Stubbs raised both hands in the air and cheered when her team did things well. The crowd fed off her and the added energy from the players over the final three sets.

Arizona flipped the script in the third set. It was the Wildcats’ turn to lead for almost the entire set. They built a lead of five on several occasions, but UNC fought back and took match point at 24-23.

The Tar Heels couldn’t put it away, though. Stubbs called time. Arizona came back from the timeout and scored the final three points of the set to extend the match. Maldonado Diaz had two kills to get the Wildcats to set point, then Hodge ended it.

Arizona wanted the reverse sweep. After tying it at 4-4 in the fourth set, the Wildcats slowly started pulling away. They pushed their lead to 10-6. The lead was soon five, then six, and then seven. Arizona’s biggest lead was eight points. At 24-18, it was once again Hodge who put the set away to give her team the chance at that reverse sweep. The crowd just got louder.

The final set was a battle. UNC had a three-point lead on several occasions. In a 15-point set, that’s a considerable lead.

Arizona fought back again, tying the set at 12 points each. There was another tie at 13. Then, UNC reached another match point at 14-13. An attack error by the Tar Heels gave Arizona one more lease on life at 14-all, but UNC won the final two points to take the match.

Stubbs and her players found positives in the second match even if they didn’t get the result they wanted.

“I think we played together really like as a one team,” Maldonado Diaz said.

The group definitely had more energy. There were more spectacular digs and more pursuit of the ball whereas they often seemed to give in and let the Aggies take the points easily in the early match.

“We relaxed more,” said setter Ana Heath. “Got it out of our system. We were more confident.”

The Wildcats will try to get their first win under Stubbs on Saturday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. MST when they face Pacific. The Tigers lost to UNC by the score of 3-2 early Friday afternoon.

“We have to be able to pass and decrease our number of errors,” Stubbs said. “In the first two sets, for sure, we would...score a point, give up three points. We’d score two points, give up five points. And we decreased that in sets three, four, and five...And part of that is youthfulness. Part of it is just not being in the right place at the right time. Tomorrow, we have to be better at that, because they’re very similar to Carolina.”

Arizona was just one of many teams that struggled on opening day. No. 1 Texas lost to Long Beach State, which will visit Tucson on Sept. 14 for the Wildcat Classic. No. 10 Kentucky lost to former Wildcat setter Emery Herman and the Colorado State Rams. The Pac-12, as a league, took several hits on the opening day of its final season.