Arizona volleyball has a lot of things to work on after its first weekend under new head coach Rita Stubbs. What the Wildcats know is that their depth at the pin positions will be key throughout the season. After two losses on Friday, they got the first win for their new coach on Saturday as they defeated Pacific 3-1 (25-19, 22-25, 25-23, 25-19). That depth was vital.
“I feel like the difference was just playing as a team and everyone coming off the bench doing their job,” senior outside hitter Jaelyn Hodge said. “I think just playing for each other and wanting that first win for Rita.”
On the sidelines, the coaches were putting the pieces together. On the court, the players were able to put the plan into practice.
“It’s always nice to win, let’s be honest,” Stubbs said. “But I thought today we did a good job of stepping in. [Sofia Maldonado Diaz] was struggling a little bit. We were able to move the lineup around. We did a SWOT analysis at the beginning of the season...and one of our strengths that we pulled out as a staff, as well as the players, was that we have a lot of bodies that can step in and play.”
It wasn’t just the pins that demonstrated that depth, though. Arizona also got help from its littles.
“It was really nice to be able to see that,” Stubbs said. “It was late in the game where Kenzie [Schoenhardt] went in and made a huge difference and was able to serve. And that’s what we want. So, I feel good about that.”
Arizona also did better with some aspects of serve receive. The Wildcats were aced 10 times by UC Davis and 13 times by North Carolina in the first two games. Against Pacific, that number was cut down to six.
On Friday, Stubbs went with a starting lineup that included Maldonado Diaz, Hodge, and Jordan Wilson. Hodge was steady throughout the day despite the team dropping matches against UC Davis and North Carolina. Maldonado Diaz was good in the second match after struggling in the first. Wilson was replaced in the second match by junior Puk Stubbe, who had a great day for Arizona.
That performance earned Stubbe the start on Saturday. She came out strong. She did not commit her first hitting error until the end of the second set. At that point, she had six kills.
Stubbe did not get another kill in the match, though. Her errors ballooned, too, as she ended with a .087 hitting percentage. She was still important to have on the floor as she led the team with 20 digs. She also had a perfect receiving percentage on 16 serve receptions.
As Stubbe’s offensive effectiveness started to wane, Hodge and Maldonado Diaz took on more of the load. Hodge had her third straight double-double, ending the match with 15 kills and 12 digs. She added one total block and an ace for a team-high 16.5 points.
Hodge remained relatively consistent. While her hitting percentage eventually dipped to .200, she did not run into the same hitting error issues as her fellow starters.
Maldonado Diaz was not as fortunate. She had her second match of the weekend with almost as many hitting errors as kills. Against UC Davis, she had 10 kills and nine errors. Against Pacific, it was six kills and five errors.
As Maldonado Diaz began to struggle more, Stubbs opted to use some of that depth. In the third set, Wilson came in. Maldonado Diaz spent the rest of the match on the bench wearing a brace on her right shoulder.
“Just a little fatigued,” Stubbs said about the brace. “She hit great numbers yesterday and took a lot of swings. And one of the things is because we played two matches yesterday and then coming in today we had a lot of prep time...it’s good that we had that. But she’s fine.”
Even if Maldonado Diaz wasn’t fatigued, it would have been difficult to take Wilson out. The sophomore had her best match as a Wildcat, scoring nine kills on 16 swings without a hitting error. She added one total block for 9.5 points. After her difficulties on Friday, it was a big deal.
“Sometimes what it takes is we need to take a step back and kind of look and see what’s going on,” Stubbs said. “So she had a lot of information that she was able to gather from being on the sideline. Plus, she’s a true competitor, so she wanted to be out there. And her name was called...and she stepped up. At any given time, I believe any of the players can do that.”
Both Wilson and Stubbe have shown that during the Wildcats’ first three games.
Arizona also continued to get offense from the middle. Nicole Briggs contributed five kills, albeit on a .182 hitting percentage. She also had three total blocks (one solo) to give her seven points.
Fellow junior middle blocker Alayna Johnson had an even better showing, and it wasn’t just on offense. Johnson had her best blocking performance of the young season with four blocks. She threw in six kills on .417 hitting. Johnson is also serving this season, becoming the first middle blocker to regularly serve for Arizona since Devyn Cross (2016-19).
The win gave Arizona a 1-2 record in the young season. UC Davis defeated North Carolina earlier in the day to become the only team to go undefeated at the Cactus Classic.