Jaelyn Hodge saw action last season as a freshman, finishing second on the team in kills.
This season, however, the Arizona Wildcats sophomore is a more complete player. Hodge is playing all six rotations and has been carrying the offensive load for the UA volleyball team through the first month of play.
“Right now, she’s certainly our No. 1 offensive player,” UA coach Dave Rubio said.
Hodge enters this weekend’s home matches against UC Riverside, San Diego State and Texas Southern having recorded double-digit kills in each of the Wildcats’ first eight matches, including a 30-kill performance against New Mexico State on Sept. 3 and 16 kills against No. 1 Texas last weekend.
“I just feel like, in practice and in training, we work really hard to hit high off the block and just to use the block,” Hodge said. “I think that’s been helping me a lot during the games.”
Rubio says Hodge, a Queen Creek native, is the offensive engine on a team that has won five of its first eight matches.
“Without her, we don’t have any offense,” Rubio said. “Especially under the circumstances, you think about how many swings she took in the UTEP match and she comes right back and was able to answer the bell in the New Mexico State game.”
Hodge saw limited playing time in her freshman season, but still finished third on the team in blocks with 38 and second on the team in kills with 176. Rubio says Hodge’s increase in workload has been “as big a difference I’ve ever had in any player.” That growth in usability also comes with a large increase in leadership, something that Hodge is still adjusting to in her second season.
“Being one of the leaders on the court with how I play, I feel like that changed a lot,” Hodge said.
Rubio said Hodge has a relentless work ethic. She the entire offseason improving her game.
“She didn’t want to just be a three-rotation player,” Rubio said. “She wanted to be able to pass and play defense and never be taken out and I told her … ‘You’re gonna have to earn the right to be able to stay back there and play defense and pass, you’re gonna have to work on it in the summer.’”
“So every day, she was out there. I know that she was out there. Club coaches were calling me saying that (Hodge) is out there playing and practicing as often as they can during the club season, during the summer. So that really showed when she came (back) here.”
Hodge arrived in college as the No. 20 overall recruit in the country and as Arizona’s top prospect since Whitney Dosty in 2006. Hodge was also a three-time all-conference performer in high school and was named the Arizona Gatorade Player of the Year in 2019.
Any player with that kind of high school résumé would expect to be one of the team’s cornerstone players right away. Not Hodge.
“I guess I wouldn’t expect it but I worked very hard to be in the position I am, to be able to start and play a lot my freshman and sophomore year,” she said.
Cats tumble in Texas
Arizona lost both of the matches it played last weekend in Austin. Rubio was less upset about the hard-fought defeat against No. 1 Texas than the upset loss to Notre Dame, saying the weekend scheduling played a significant role.
“The scheduling part of this was not very conducive for us with Notre Dame not having to play on Friday night,” Rubio said. “They had six days to prepare; we had one hour to prepare.”
Rubio blamed himself for putting the team in that situation after plans to play Texas State that same weekend fell through. Desperate for an extra match and a potential statement win, Rubio acted fast and scheduled the team to play No. 1 Texas in place of Texas State.
“I didn’t look at who we were playing first and then who we were playing second,” Rubio said. “So normally, I would have said, ‘Look, I’m not playing Texas first and then Notre Dame without Notre Dame playing a match the same day that we are.’ That would level the playing field a little bit more, but it was completely unlevel. I mean, it was just a significant advantage that Notre Dame had over us on Saturday. I mean, not a little bit, it was a big advantage.”
Rubio hoped to enter conference play with just two losses. Last weekend’s defeats to Notre Dame and No. 1 Texas marked the Wildcats’ second and third losses of the season, moving their record to 5-3 with three non-conference matches to play.
“I don’t think the expectations are any different,” Rubio said. “Obviously the best case scenario is we’re going to finish 8-3. That puts more pressure on us to be able to win matches in the conference.”
Rubio designed Arizona’s slate of mtaches with one thing in mind; the NCAA Tournament.
“When you make your scheduling, you look at your team and the team that’s coming back, and you say ‘How many matches can we win in the conference?’” he said. “You’ve got to meet the first criteria to be selected in this .500 rule. You got to be .500 or better. Those are the things that I think about when I developed a non-conference schedule and then the RPI is also very important. So the Texas match, and typically the Notre Dame match, were good RPI teams.”
The Wildcats host UC Riverside on Friday at 10 a.m. and San Diego State at 6:30 p.m. before facing off against Texas Southern on Saturday at 1:30 p.m.