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Arizona freshmen get their time to shine in win over Alabama State

Arizona volleyball celebrates after defeating Alabama State 3-0
Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

When a struggling team goes into a match against an overmatched opponent, is it better to focus on the successes in what became easy victory or the mistakes that could be costly against a Pac-12 opponent? That was the question in Arizona volleyball’s 3-0 (25-12, 25-16, 25-18) victory over Alabama State.

The Wildcats had a few communication issues early in the first set. At the beginning of the second set, they allowed Alabama State to take a 7-4 lead and hang around until midway through the set. On the other hand, they won both of those sets handily and were able to get valuable experience for several young players. For Arizona head coach Rita Stubbs, it’s important to focus on both the successes and the mistakes.

“Every moment is a teaching moment,” Stubbs said.

Once Arizona was closing in on the first set, Stubbs was able to expand those teaching moments to players who don’t regularly get to play. One of them was freshman middle blocker Journey Tucker, who made her collegiate debut.

“Some people have family here,” Stubbs said. “First time being here and things like that. So, if the opportunity presents itself and it doesn’t risk us going negative, then I’m all open for that. But it’s always teaching the entire time.”

Tucker entered the match late in the first set for the first regular season action of her career. On the second point after she entered the match, she scored the kill to give the Wildcats set point. That was followed by Tucker and setter Ana Heath teaming up on the block to take the set. Tucker’s teammates cheered with extra enthusiasm and fellow freshman Sydnie Vanek ran to Tucker to congratulate her.

“I think the support from the coaches and my teammates helped me feel more confident stepping out on the floor, and kind of calmed my nerves,” Tucker said. “So, I could simply just focus on doing my job as a blocker, and just forgetting about the little mistakes because everyone makes mistakes. I just felt so welcomed.”

Tucker knew what her mistakes were.

“I felt that there were times of being a little bit late on those middle swings,” Tucker said. “I felt that I dropped my hands a little bit. Even though I was right in front of her, I felt that once I’m jumping, I kind of dropped my hand so she was able to get over me. But I just shut that off and just went over the next play and then I think that was the second set. In the third set, I just remembered what Rita told me, to keep my hands up. I was able to get blocks and touches on the middle swings there at the end.”

After entering in the first set, Tucker played the MB2 position for the rest of the match. She ended her first college match with four kills on .800 hitting and three total blocks. She had 5.5 points and committed no hitting errors in her five swings.

Arizona didn’t have anyone with double-digit kills, but all of the pins were efficient and got close to 10. Puk Stubbe led the team off the bench. She tied Sofia Maldonado Diaz with nine kills, but Stubbe did it without an error in 14 swings for a .643 hitting percentage. Maldonado Diaz had one error in her 14 swings for a .571 hitting percentage.

The duo was neck-and-neck in almost all of their stats. They each had two digs, two total blocks, and two aces (with one service error). They had an identical 11 points. Stubbe added two assists to her stat line.

Just behind them was Jordan Wilson with eight kills on .538 hitting. Wilson had eight points and four digs.

Jaelyn Hodge, who wore No. 19 in this match rather than her typical No. 11 jersey, had seven kills on 12 swings. Her two errors gave her a .417 hitting percentage. She also contributed a block assist for 7.5 points and three digs.

Arizona also got scoring from freshman outside hitter Vanek. She scored the first kill of her career in the third set and ended the day with two.

The Wildcats will now prepare to open Pac-12 play at Arizona State. The Sun Devils are off to a hot start at 12-0 but have played a rather weak schedule. They have just one opponent in the top 50 of the unofficial RPI. Five of their 12 opponents were from outside the top 200.

“They’ve been successful all preseason, and they’re playing at home,” Stubbs said. “So, the odds are in their favor in terms of where their mentality is. But all of that goes sideways when you’re playing your in-state rivals.”

The Wildcats will enter the contest at 4-6. Four of their losses came against teams in the top 50. A fifth was against No. 51 Long Beach State. They played just one team outside the Top 200. However, the loss to No. 190 UC Davis is hitting their RPI significantly.

Stubbs was not sorry about scheduling a lot of top 50 teams, including No. 1 Wisconsin, despite how it played out.

“I always want good competition,” she said. “I mean, that 11-0 helps us in terms of getting ready for the tournament, trying to have the right number of wins within the conference. I think that unless you test the waters—I mean, you don’t do it every week, every match type thing—but unless you test, you never know what your team is made of. And so being able to watch them play against Wisconsin gave us the true gauge of what we’re capable of doing, versus if we played a match against the team that we could just beat. That teaches us nothing and it doesn’t reinforce anything in their minds either. And for me, every opportunity that we step on the floor is a learning opportunity, whether it is how to compete to beat the team that you ‘should’ beat...that you should be able to handle and can you play consistently, or whether it’s how do you respond when you’re the underdog and you have to go out there and you have to compete and be able to perform to put on a good display.”