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No. 7 Washington State comes back to avoid upset by Arizona volleyball

Arizona volleyball huddles during a match against No. 7 Washington State on Sept. 24, 2023 at McKale Center.
Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

Arizona volleyball could have gone two ways. After a rough weekend when the Wildcats’ coach said they gave up against their rival and a starter quit the team, they could have given up before they started on Sunday. After all, they were facing the No. 7 team in the country.

On the other hand, they could have pulled together and risen to the occasion. In the end, they did some of each in a five-set (23-25, 27-25, 22-25, 25-18, 15-6) loss to Washington State.

“We’ve said that we’re going to put everything in, weren’t going to worry about the end result,” Arizona head coach Rita Stubbs said. “And that’s easier to do when things are going to your advantage. It’s easy for me to believe when the band is playing and everything, but as soon as I go on my own, get into my own little mind, and get on my own island, and I don’t allow anyone to penetrate what’s going on there to try to help you do that process, then you’re afraid. So, we started playing not to lose versus playing to win.”

She felt that her players were afraid to make a mistake instead of going all out.

“We took our foot off the gas pedal,” Stubbs said. “And we’re like, ‘Okay, I hope I don’t mess it up. Don’t give it to me.’ And then, technique went out the window.”

The team came out with a great deal of energy and fight in the first three sets, but the Cougars controlled the final two. Stubbs didn’t think there was a lot of difference in that regard between this match and the one in Tempe on Thursday. In both cases, Arizona played well for the first part of the match, but then let go late. The difference, in her opinion, was where the match was played.

“We started off fine at ASU, as well,” Stubbs said. “It’s like the same mistakes that we had at ASU were the same mistakes that we have here. The difference is we’re playing at home, and we had our crowd to kind of push us over the edge. It’s no different.”

While Stubbs may have been frustrated with the fact that her team fell into familiar patterns, there were positives for Arizona. UA had 64 kills to WSU’s 56. The Wildcats had 59 digs to 52 by the Cougars. They even held their own on serve, getting nine aces to the Cougars’ 11.

What was the major positive that came out of the match?

“We actually know how to play,” Stubbs said. “I was like, if we could somehow get it done in three sets it’d be different, but the longer the match, the more our brain goes someplace else.”

The statistical differences that stood out in Wazzu’s favor included service errors, where the home team had 10 and the visitors just six. The Cougars had 14.0 blocks to 8.0 for the Wildcats. After leading in hitting percentage for the first three sets, Arizona fell behind Washington State .277 to .212 by the end of the match.

Sophomore Jordan Wilson led Arizona with her best match as a Wildcat. She had 22 kills. She hit over .300 late into the match before ending with a .279 hitting percentage. She also had two total blocks to end with 23 points.

Sofia Maldonado Diaz was second on the team with 22 points. She got them via 18 kills, two aces, and two total blocks. She ended with a double-double, adding 12 digs to her 18 kills. She finished with a hitting percentage of .167.

Jaelyn Hodge had 12 kills. She also hit over .300 for most of the match before dropping a bit to .281. She barely missed a double with eight digs of her own.

“I think this was one of the first games where all three pins were doing good,” Hodge said. “We came together. I think everyone was doing their job and we broke down in moments.”

The Wildcats rushed out to an 8-4 lead in the opening set, but the Cougars pushed back. Wazzu built its own 15-11 lead. From there, UA went on an 11-3 run to go up 21-18. Arizona didn’t trail again.

Could the Wildcats keep up or would they go away after taking a set off a ranked team? The Cougars’ 15-9 lead made the latter look like the most likely outcome. Arizona didn’t go away, though. It whittled away at the lead until the two teams were tied at 21. Both teams had set points before WSU finally evened the match with a 27-25 win.

UA bounced back with a 10-3 lead to start the third set. From that point, the Wildcats went a prolonged period without being able to string two points together. When the Cougars finally took an 18-17 lead, Arizona had only scored more than one point in a row twice since the initial seven-point lead. The two teams stayed neck-and-neck until a 21-point tie. Arizona closed the set out with a 4-1 run to go up 2-1 in the match.

They only needed one more set to pull off the upset, but the Wildcats couldn’t get it. In Stubbs’ view, it’s a mental hurdle that’s difficult to address without some players taking it personally. Wilson agreed that it was mental, but she felt it was fixable.

“I think we just started to get a little bit more tense, just worried about making errors,” Wilson said. “I think that started to get a little bit more in our head, started becoming more of a mental game, which I think we can definitely work on. We can definitely fix it.”

What didn’t appear to be a distraction to the players during the match was the departure of junior Puk Stubbe after Thursday’s game. The sometime starter was dropped from the roster on Friday. Hodge said that it was “sad,” but she also felt it was an opportunity for others to step up and earn playing time.

“I thought they handled it well,” Stubbs said.

While Stubbs was understanding when a few players left the team before the season started, saying she appreciated that they told her before things got going, she was more upset with the timing of this departure. She spoke to what she felt was a lack of commitment and follow-through.

“She decided that what she wanted, I couldn’t give her,” Stubbs said. “And at the end of the day if I can’t give you what you need and you feel like it’s best for you to walk away, then that’s what you do. But the reality is on August 8, when we started, we said we were all in. It didn’t matter what was going on and what have you, and that piece fell apart. So that’s the part that’s more disappointing. Not necessarily that she did what was best for her, but the fact that we broke something that we said we weren’t going to break.”