Arizona volleyball had come so close. The Wildcats were competitive in three-set games against some of the best in the Pac-12. They pushed others to five sentences. They just couldn’t win against the better teams in the league. In fact, they had never beaten anyone in the top 9 of the league standings and their only win against a team in the top 100 of the RPI came against No. 94 Wake Forest.
That run ended in an early game against the Washington Huskies on Friday afternoon. The Wildcats defeated the No. 20 in Washington for the first time since November 20, 2010. The five-set win (20-25, 25-18, 12-25, 25-19, 15-10) ended UW’s 22-game winning streak against UA that began on September 23, 2011.
“We’ve been knocking on the door for so long, and I’m really, really proud of the team that just sort of sticks with me, with the coaching staff, and just never lets go of the rope,” Arizona head coach David Rubio said. “And to believe in the process, even though it’s really hard to believe in the process and not be rewarded… with wins.” We’ve had enough success just being that close, no matter if it was [against] USC or Oregon, so we know we’re right there. And so today was really a nice reward for all the effort and all the sacrifices that everyone has made.”
Those sacrifices continued into this match. As in previous games, Rubio used substitutions and line-ups he hadn’t used earlier in the season.
student in the first year Lauren Rumel was the start opposite while the usual starter Sofia Maldonado Diaz came off the bench for Rumel as the younger player rotated to the back row. Dilara Gedikoglu and Jaelyn Hodge got the start on the left, sophomore Puk Stubbe not played at all. The middle blockers also pitched in Nicole Briggs Entering the starting lineup for fellow sophomores Alayna Johnson.
The lineups are the result of a field analysis system called the Competition Boiler. The cauldron essentially ranks players in different abilities against each other. Anyone who stands out in the witches’ cauldron gets a place in the starting line-up and in the rotation.
Maldonado Diaz is one of the players most affected by the game time change. The former Pac-12 Rookie of the Year has only started twice in the past five games. She was replaced by Rumel, although the newcomer generally gave way to her younger counterpart fairly early in the game.
This match was different for both players. Rumel and Maldonado Diaz rotated for much of the game. As Maldonado Diaz began carrying the team offensively on the right flank, Rumel began rotating with Gedikoglu on the left.
“Lauren started on the right,” Rubio said. “She played well in the first game and I just felt like it would be good for Lauren to get the opportunity to play on the left.”
Unlike previous games, Rumel was there in high leverage situations in the final set.
“I found the energy so incredible,” said Rumel. “I know my teammates have my back all the time. It was just a great feeling to be out there.”
The Tucson native is delighted with the support she receives while playing for her hometown team.
“It was just so rewarding,” said Rumel. “I’ve worked really hard in training and I feel like it’s paying off. And just going out there and knowing that I have support in the stands but also on the floor with my teammates is just such a special experience and something I’m grateful for.”
As for the junior, Maldonado Diaz has taken the changes well. When she first lost her starting spot, she said it upset her “but in a good way”. After Friday afternoon’s win, she said the only way she could regain her starting position was through harder training.
“Exactly right,” Rubio said. “It’s interesting, and I think it was difficult for everyone in the cauldron to come to terms with a protocol that nobody has really done before. It’s the first time I’ve done it. I’m not communicating well enough in terms of the criteria and so there’s some drama that comes with that… I’m also kind of working my way through. It’s a work in progress. But at the end of the day it will force everyone to get up and just play harder… We were just so good in practice. Practices are competitive. You’re done. It’s not just mediocre effort, lack of competitiveness, then the same people start. So someone like Lauren, the best player in the gym, as the attacker, then she wins and alerts everyone else. Either you get up or you don’t see the ground. The end justifies the means with something like this. And something like today certainly bears fruit.”
The Wildcats needed every bit of competitiveness they could muster. They lost the first set by five points. Maybe not coincidental, that was exactly the score they gave away for misses in the opening frame.
Rubio aims for an average of two serve errors per set by default. Arizona far exceeded that goal for much of the Pac-12 season.
The Wildcats regrouped in the second set. They improved their hit rate from .029 to .289. They also hit their target on misses, committing just two.
However, Washington came back with a vengeance in the third set. The Huskies dominated, hitting a whopping .917. They had 11 kills on 12 swings with no misses in the set.
Arizona could have walked away, but volleyball has the advantage that every set is brand new. Getting wiped out in a set simply means the score resets and you have to win three of the other four sets.
“I think we knew they would never let us win,” said Maldonado Diaz. “They showed what they’ve got… We changed the line-up [during the match], to. I think the coaches did a really good job. I have a feeling everyone was after it.”
Washington didn’t play nearly as well in the other four sets. The Huskies’ best batting average outside of the third set was .188 in the first. They scored .103 in second, .121 in fourth, and .000 in fifth. Overall, they hit .182 for the match compared to Arizona’s .216.
The Wildcats were led by Maldonado Diaz with 18 kills to .310 despite only playing part-time. She also had one assist, one ace, six digs, and three block assists. She led the match with 20.5 points and was the only wildcat with double-digit kills despite the match going over five sets.
The increase in her offense since she lost her regular starting spot has been constant. Maldonado Diaz had 17, 22, 13, 22, and 18 kills in those five games. She has hit over .300 in three of the five matches and hit under .265 only once.
setter Emery Herman also had a strong game. The junior had five kills on 10 clean swings, giving her a .500 batting average. She also had 45 assists, an ace, eight digs and six total blocks including a solo. Her six blocks led the Wildcats while her 9.5 points was third on the team.
It was a relief for a team and coaching staff who felt some discouragement and frustration at being so close. For the first time in conference play, they didn’t have to search for things to be happy with. The ‘W’ was all they needed.
“Hopefully there’s more,” Rubio said.