Last season was a struggle for the University of Arizona volleyball team. The Wildcats were breaking in a lot of youngsters.
That 2020 squad was one of the youngest in the country. But very talented.
This season, head coach Dave Rubio, who is back for his 30th season, will be able to benefit from bringing in that 2020 recruiting class that was ranked No. 7 in the nation. The talent was so good that the Cats’ starting lineup all season long included three freshmen.
That trio finished the season among the top four scorers on the team. The second-place spot went to graduating senior, Paige Whipple.
Rubio will actually have four of his top five scorers back this season, since middle blocker Merle Weidt, in fifth place on the scoring list, will be returning for her senior season.
Arizona lost its first four games on the 2020 schedule on the way to a final 10-11 record, but turned things around toward the close of the regular season by winning five of its last seven matches to give it some momentum going into the postseason. Unfortunately, the season was cancelled before postseason play could begin when the pandemic shut down the remainder of the season.
Sofia Maldonado Diaz turned out to be the crown jewel of last year’s recruiting class. The import from Guadalajara, Mexico, earned Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and Region FOY honors. She became the first Arizona player to win the award since Kim Glass was given the honor in 2002, the only two players to do so in program history, and also set a program record by winning the Pac-12 Freshman of the Week award three times last season.
As just the fifth player in program history to win a conference yearly award, it appears that the 6’0″ outside hitter (photo above) is fast becoming the face of the program and a leader for its future. She posted double-digit kills in 16 of last season’s 21 matches and finished the regular season as the top freshman in the conference in both kills/set and aces/set.
Oh yeah, she is also a major contributor on defense, averaging 1.41 digs and 0.36 blocks per set.
The remainder of the freshman trio that played such a vital role last season includes outside hitter Jaelyn Hodge, who finished second on the team in points (195.5), behind Diaz (316). Hodge was a standout at Basha High School in Chandler. The other, 6’0″ setter Emery Herman, was fifth on the list of top scorers with 99 points.
Merle Weidt, who entered the starting line-up in the final 11 matches of last season, will be returning as a senior. The 6’1″ middle blocker from Germany was fourth on the list of scorers last season with 108.5 points.
This year’s squad hopes to pick up where they left off last season when they knocked off No. 15 Washington in the regular season finale. They finished sixth in the Pac-12, which was well above the 10th-place prediction in the preseason coaches’ poll.
Now that the young’uns have had a year of seasoning, even bigger things will be expected of them in 2021.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)