Nothing comes easy for Arizona volleyball these days. On their way to a routine sweep of New Mexico State, the Wildcats found themselves fighting to keep from going to five in their second game at the Wildcat Classic. It was a close call, but UA ended its three-match losing streak during which it hadn’t won a set. A four-set (25-17, 27-25, 21-25, 25-23) victory over the Aggies on Friday evening did the trick.
“Always have to bring up the losses first,” Arizona head coach Rita Stubbs joked. “It feels good because of the things we’ve worked on. And the fact that we were down, and we actually came back and fought and competed, which is good because that’s something that we’ve been talking about a lot in our gym. And being ready for the moment and just coming together as a team, which is one of the things that we said in the locker room.”
Arizona started out hot on offense. The team had 15 kills on 30 swings, hitting .400 as a group during the opening set. Almost half of those kills were by Sofia Maldonado Diaz, who had seven kills with just one hitting error in the first frame.
Maldonado Diaz ended the night with 17 kills on .262 hitting. She also threw in two total blocks for 18 points. Her 11 digs gave her a double-double.
Sophomore Jordan Wilson had a very clean night on offense, as well. She had 11 kills with just one hitting error on 29 attempts, giving her a .345 hitting percentage. She added three total blocks for 12.5 points.
Jaelyn Hodge contributed 13 kills, but she struggled with efficiency. Her play illustrated Stubbs’ feelings about the match.
“We struggled blocking on both pins, but then the defenders were like, ‘Okay, let me go and I need to work it out,’” Stubbs said. “And then the pins finally got the message.”
Hodge had no blocks until the closing points of the final set. In her own words, she “didn’t play well.” But she persevered and made the changes she needed to.
“I think the problem was with me going straight up instead of pressing over, and sometimes letting them run past me,” Hodge said. “I fixed it finally towards the end by just really watching their approach...I finally got it.”
Hodge got it at a crucial time. With NMSU at 23-20 in the fourth set, Arizona was on the brink of having to play a fifth after going up 2-0 in the match. Hodge and sophomore middle blocker Alayna Johnson went up against Ryleigh Whitekettle and blocked her to keep the Aggies from getting a set point. On the next point, it was Hodge and Nicole Briggs against Whitekettle. Success again and the score was 23-22 in the Aggies’ favor.
A kill by Maldonado Diaz and an attack error by NMSU gave Arizona its first match point. Hodge put it away to end the Wildcats’ losing streak.
Although the pins struggled to block, Johnson came up big in the middle to help secure the win. In the previous two matches, she hit -.125 and .000. Johnson had five total blocks against Miami but just one against Long Beach State.
Johnson bounced back against NMSU. She had nine kills on 16 swings without an error for a .563 hitting percentage. She added seven total blocks and three digs. Fellow sophomore Briggs improved her hitting percentage after hitting .000 in both of her last two matches. She added four kills while hitting .308. She had just two total blocks but one kept NMSU from getting set point in the fourth.
Getting to the end required the whole team to work through the mistakes. The Wildcats won the first set in fairly easy fashion, but almost let the second set slip away. They led by as many as four points early in the set, but the Aggies tied it up at 13.
NMSU kept creeping closer, and then Arizona would briefly respond. Eventually, the response wasn’t as strong.
The Aggies took their first lead of the set at 23-22. Hodge’s service error gave the opponent a set point at 25-24, but Maldonado Diaz got the kill to erase that. Two points later, libero Giorgia Mandotti served one of Arizona’s seven aces to put the team within a set of the victory.
The minor collapse at the end of the second set became a more significant collapse in the third. Arizona let go of the rope.
“I’m going to have to go back and watch the film and kind of figure out why,” Stubbs said. “I mean, we made several boneheaded plays, and it’s because we stopped thinking.”
Despite an overall strong evening, even Maldonado Diaz fell into that trap. Hodge ran down a ball that could have been sent over as a free ball. Maldonado Diaz was the only one in the area, but she let the ball drop.
“No one called for it,” Stubbs said. “But the reality is that a competitor, the person who is the leader, that’s going to put the team on their back, should say, ‘You walked away. I’m gonna take it.’ But, of course, no one wants to make a mistake, so they end up making the mistake.”
While the final score of the third set appeared respectable, NMSU actually dominated the set. The Aggies were up 6-1 before the Wildcats knew what hit them. Arizona cut the lead to two points on several occasions, but NMSU responded and pushed the lead back out to 17-10.
At 21-14, it looked like the set was over. Arizona made one more push with a 6-2 run. That was as close as the Wildcats could get. They saved a set point at 24-20, but the second one didn’t go in their favor.
After the match, the Wildcats hosted an ice cream social at Creamery, which has an NIL deal with the team.
Arizona finishes up pre-conference play with a match against Alabama State on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. MST.