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Arizona volleyball looking to keep the middles involved

Arizona volleyball MB Alayna Johnson (32) and libero Joy Galles (12) at McKale Center on Aug. 26, 2023.
Photo by Marison Bilagody / Arizona Athletics

Last season, Arizona volleyball’s starting middle blockers had one of the most productive offensive years in recent history. Zyonna Fellows and Alayna Johnson accounted for almost 26 percent of the team’s kills, a number that is significantly higher than any other season in recent years. This season, it will be up to Johnson and new starter Nicole Briggs to keep those numbers up.

“I think that both came back this fall, ready to play and ready to compete and play a role in it,” said head coach Rita Stubbs. “I think that there was some motivation because I’m a former middle, [assistant coach] Deitre [Collins-Parker] is a middle, and so they know that our emphasis is being able to score in the middle. And we have to be able to score in the middle in order to be effective. I want to be a well-rounded team. You’ll know that we’re not well-rounded when we pass poorly, and the ball has to be chucked up in the air to one particular person. But...our setters are learning when is the right time to set the middle, and that’s the piece that not everyone understands. You have to set them at the right time which I believe a lot more is in transition than in serve receive.”

Fellows (198) and Johnson (187) both had well over 150 kills last year. The Wildcats hadn’t featured a pair of middle blockers who accomplished that since McKenzie Jacobson (204) and Devyn Cross (165) in 2016.

In the years between 2016 and 2021, Arizona middles have typically accounted for between 18 and 22 percent of the kills scored by the team. In the early going, Johnson and Briggs are hanging out in the middle of that range at just over 20 percent. Johnson is hungry for more.

“I love the feeling of being in the air and just seeing the court, seeing the space between the block, and being able to get up and just kill it in between,” Johnson said.

Johnson is definitely the more offensive-minded of the two starting middles this season. She has had at least six kills in the Wildcats’ three games this season, getting a season-high of nine against North Carolina. She is scoring 1.62 kills per set on a .333 hitting percentage. After hitting .158 in the season-opening loss to UC Davis, she has hit over .400 in the last two matches.

Briggs is making the adjustment to starting this year after two seasons as a reserve behind Johnson and Fellows. While her offensive game hasn’t been as strong as Johnson’s, she’s holding up the blocking end of the position for the Wildcats. Her 0.85 blocks per set lead the team, almost doubling the 0.46 per set of Johnson and outside hitter Jaelyn Hodge.

“I feel that I see the hitter pretty well,” Briggs said. “And it’s just something I’m good at because I get my hands over the net quicker.”

Stubbs is fine with the pair having different strengths. She has said repeatedly heading into the season that she wants her players to be different, and she also thinks that a focus on blocking over offense helps them feel like they’re contributing. She just doesn’t want to “lose” them by not paying attention to the middle in the offense.

“The key is to keep the middles motivated the entire time, and so I’ll say things like, ‘You’re losing your middle. You haven’t set her in a while,’” Stubbs said. “Former middle talking here. There’s only so many more times that I’m going to jump in the air and not have a reward at the end of it.”

Arizona (1-2, 0-0 Pac-12) vs Iowa State (2-0, 0-0 Big 12)

When: Friday, Sept. 1 at 4:30 p.m. MST

Where: GCU Arena in Phoenix, Ariz.

Viewing: ESPN+

Stats: Live Stats

History: Arizona and Iowa State will be meeting a lot in the future after the Wildcats join the Big 12 next year, but this will be the first contest between the two volleyball programs. The Cyclones beat South Dakota and DePaul in their home opener last week. They are coming off a season when they went 20-12, handed national champion Texas its only loss, and made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Arizona (1-2, 0-0 Pac-12) vs Long Island (0-3, 0-0 NEC)

When: Saturday, Sept. 2 at 4:30 p.m. MST

Where: GCU Arena in Phoenix, Ariz.

Viewing: ESPN+

Stats: Live Stats

History: The two teams met in Arizona’s opening tournament last season. The Wildcats took the matchup 3-0. LIU won just two sets in its three losses last weekend. It’s coming off a year with a 14-13 record when it lost in the opening round of the NEC Tournament.

Arizona (1-2, 0-0 Pac-12) @ Grand Canyon (2-1, 0-0 WAC)

When: Sunday, Sept. 3 at 2:00 p.m. MST

Where: GCU Arena in Phoenix, Ariz.

Viewing: ESPN+

Stats: Live Stats

History: Arizona and GCU have met just once. The Wildcats took a 3-0 victory in 2017. The Lopes lost on the road to Wake Forest in four sets last week. They went 18-11 last year and made it to the second round of the NIVC.

How to follow along

Follow us on X @AZDesertSwarm for all things Arizona Wildcats. For live posts of volleyball matches and news throughout the week, follow our deputy editor @KimDoss71.