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Arizona volleyball wins uneven 5-setter against GCU to improve to .500 on the season

Arizona volleyball’s Sofia Maldonado Diaz (2) goes for a kill against GCU on Sept. 3, 2023 at GCU Arena in Phoenix, Ariz.
Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

The play wasn’t even or consistent, but Arizona volleyball pulled itself to .500 on the season with a five-set (14-25, 25-14, 25-20, 20-25, 15-9) victory over Grand Canyon University on Sunday afternoon. Strong serving by setter Ana Heath and a few tweaks to the lineup helped the Wildcats hang on after a slow start.

Arizona didn’t come out of the gate well at all, but the Wildcats were able to flip the match with a strong second set and overcome a mid-set collapse in the fourth set. Part of the turnaround was getting senior hitter Jaelyn Hodge going.

“Jaelyn struggled a bit just across the board,” said Arizona head coach Rita Stubbs. “If she struggles, it takes a minute to readjust and think and kind of go on. So, it was a matter of us learning to be more mature in those situations. I think that our five-set match against Carolina came back in our heads. They didn’t say that, but to me, it looked like that was something that they were thinking about and a little bit more conscious about in terms of not letting a match slip away from us that we were in a position to do some great things with.”

Stubbs said this win was the one that pleased her the most in the young season because it felt like the players were doing it for each other. There was not the idea hanging over them of getting the first win of her Arizona tenure or the first win of the year.

“I actually told the team that this one feels better than our first win that we got against Pacific,” Stubbs said. “It just felt like we were working collectively as a unit and that we were truly all-in.”

Heath had a career-high five aces on the day with four of them coming in a crucial second set after Arizona had dropped the first set in a GCU runaway. The setter also contributed 54 assists, 11 digs, and two solo blocks in the winning effort.

“That definitely sparked us and gave us energy and another life,” Stubbs said. “It’s something that she knows she’s good at. So, in a lot of ways sometimes you just need to be able to do something that is yours. And she owned it. She completely changed the dynamics of the game with that topspin serve.”

The team, as a whole, served better than in some of its earlier matches. The Wildcats ended with 10 aces against 11 service errors. Half of the aces were Heath’s, but Sofia Maldonado Diaz, Puk Stubbe, Haven Wray, Ava Tortorello, and Giorgia Mandotti each threw in one, as well.

Sophomore outside hitter Jordan Wilson had her second straight strong showing for the Wildcats. She had 16 kills on 32 swings with only two hitting errors, ending with a .438 hitting percentage after hitting .370 with a team-high 13 kills on Saturday. Wilson also contributed a solo block for 17 points.

“She’s watched a lot of film, just seeing where she is in terms of making her approach and picking the right attack line,” Stubbs said. “It’s not always about going around the block because that’s really what the defense is designed to do. Be around the block. Sometimes you have to be able to attack the block. But the more she has the court in front of her, the easier it becomes for her to be athletic and do what she does best.”

Arizona was led in kills by Maldonado Diaz. The senior had a second straight double-double with 21 kills and 11 digs. She added an ace for a game-high 22 points but hit just .189.

It may have taken Hodge a while to get going, but she eventually found her groove. She ended with 18 kills including the match-winning putaway. She did it fairly efficiently on .271 hitting and added eight digs.

After letting GCU run away with the first set, Arizona had to make some changes. Stubbs opted to start defensive specialist Wray instead of a third pin beginning in the second set. It appeared to be a game-changer for the Wildcats.

“Haven is a great defender,” Stubbs said. “As I literally told her in the match, I need you to do what you do best. And that’s one of the things I’m talking about with Ana. You put them in a position where they can be successful. And so, we knew that she is fast and she doesn’t mind throwing her body on the floor at any point to play balls. And so, I flipped who was going in for whom on defense to play against the defender that needed someone to be a little bit more agile and go for balls. And the nice thing is she’s able to play defense in any position, so you never know whose name or number is going to be called to go out there. It’s going to really constantly be a full team effort.”

There was still a letdown in the fourth set when GCU came back to force the fifth. Arizona put it away fairly easily from midway through the final set, going 7-3 down the stretch to win the match.

The Wildcats next take a huge step up in competition to face No. 1 Wisconsin in Madison next week.