As Arizona volleyball prepared to head to Madison to take on No. 1 Wisconsin earlier this week, head coach Rita Stubbs said that her Wildcats had nothing to lose. The Badgers are a great team with a great fan base. Arizona needed to prove it could compete and prepare for Pac-12 play. The team, led by senior opposite Sofia Maldonado Diaz, accomplished that despite losing 3-0 (25-17, 25-21, 25-20).
“I feel pretty good,” Stubbs said. “I mean, other than our passing breaking down, I thought that we competed. It never felt like we gave up, which is one of our goals that we had was to compete the entire time. So, it made me happy to see that we competed the entire time.”
Maldonado Diaz committed just one hitting error in three sets, ending the match with 13 kills on .462 hitting. She added four total blocks for 15 points and had six digs.
“She carries us in a lot of ways,” Stubbs said. “She’s the one player that...based on numbers and competition-wise, who’s never afraid to go up and just go for it, not really thinking about who’s on the other side. I don’t know that others would necessarily think of it, but surely it looks like she’s not thinking about it.”
The efficiency of Maldonado Diaz helped buoy the entire team. After a first set during which they hit just .045, the Wildcats hit .303 and .417 in the final two sets. They ended the match with a team hitting percentage of .266. As a team, they had just nine hitting errors and six service errors.
There was an area that was more error-prone, though. The Wildcats had 11 errors on serve receive with four of those committed by libero Giorgia Mandotti. The tough-serving Badgers were led by Temi Thomas-Ailara with six aces.
Like Arizona, Wisconsin had just one player with double-digit kills. Sarah Franklin finished with 15 to lead the match. She hit an efficient .387 and had two total blocks to end with 16 points.
The difference for the Badgers was that they had two more players with nine kills apiece and both of them hit over .435. Wisconsin ended the evening with four players scoring double-digit points.
Despite Wisconsin featuring considerable size—including 6-foot-9 Anna Smrek—Arizona held its own on the block. The Wildcats had 5.5 total blocks to the Badgers’ seven. Right-side hitter Maldonado Diaz led the team with four total blocks. Middle blocker Nicole Briggs was just behind her with three total blocks. All were assisted.
As they have in several recent matches, Arizona got off to a slow start. UW built an eight-point lead at 11-3 and it looked like the Badgers would end the first set quickly. The slow starts are something that Stubbs said they need to get figured out.
The Wildcats didn’t give up. A 7-2 run closed the set to 13-10 in Wisconsin’s favor. The Badgers struck back to stretch the lead again, going ahead 22-12. Arizona won five of the final eight points, but the hole was too deep to climb out of.
The second set was an entirely different story. Arizona didn’t wait to make its move. Wisconsin’s biggest lead in the first half of the set was 13-10. There were seven ties up to the point of 15-15 in the set. The Badgers were able to string a few more points together down the stretch, but they never went up by more than the four points that were the final margin.
The final set appeared that it might go the way of the first one. UW opened a four-point lead at 6-2. UA responded with an 8-3 run that put it up by one point.
Great teams respond, and that’s what the Badgers did. They had their own 12-3 run during which Arizona could never win more than one point at a time. That put Wisconsin ahead 17-12. The teams traded points and mini-runs from that stage to end with the same five-point margin.
“What I wanted to see was our ability to compete and see how we matched up against a team that was big and physical,” Stubbs said. “And we didn’t shrink back on that. So now it’s like, how do you respond? That situation today is for nothing in terms of getting better if we come out on Saturday and we’re not ready to play. So that’s where we drill it into them even more. It’s just staying in focus and knowing that we need to play at this level. And a couple people said that in our locker room after we finished. It was like, ‘Wow, look what we can do.’”
Two years ago, the Wildcats played a strong match against No. 1 Texas in Austin, losing 3-1. They weren’t able to maintain that level of play throughout the season. How can it be different this time?
“It was one of those things where you just don’t have to pump people up for a team like that,” Stubbs said. “You have to pump them up with other teams. But if you want to be a good team, you have to be consistent across the board.”
The Wildcats get their first chance to maintain that consistency when they take on Miami on Saturday.