(Photo: Christian Coates/WCSN)
The Arizona State Sun Devils are coming off a straight-sets upset victory over a top program and find themselves in the top 20 volleyball teams in the country.
Last season, the Sun Devils shot up the polls to No. 15 in the country after victories over then-No. 24 Wichita State and then-No. 2 Texas. However, that would be the peak of the season for ASU, as they went on to lose seven straight matches in October, falling completely out of the national polls and had to scramble at the end of the season for a tournament bid.
“We had a little bit of success last year, and we just had never had that level of success – with a win over Texas – that we just couldn’t handle it,” ASU head coach Jason Watson said. “The athletes couldn’t handle it. The staff couldn’t handle it. That’s the lesson we learned from ‘13, and I hope that we learned this lesson.”
In part, the distraction of rankings and numbers stems from the inexperience of last year’s starting lineup across the board. Despite having seniors Caitlyn Francis, Jenny Teslevich and Stephanie Preach rotating in the back row, youth and unfamiliarity were exposed once Pac-12 conference play was in full swing.
A lot of the struggles seemed to come down to the team not responding to adversity in a positive, productive way.
“Last year, we worried about a lot of things that we couldn’t control – rankings, and all of those kinds of things,” Watson said. “And so this year, we just have to be better at our process.”
However, with six returning starters and that roller-coaster season under their proverbial belt, the Sun Devils are approaching this season much differently than in 2013.
“We are definitely trying to focus on this idea of direction, so it’s not just making noise and being loud,” junior setter Bianca Arellano said. “We have to be direct with each other and we have to communicate well.”
Despite the lone senior on the roster being setter/defensive specialist Shannan McCready, the team seems to carry the sense of urgency to do something big in the Pac-12. After finishing through conference play 9-11 and 8-12 in 2012 and 2013 respectively as well as two consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, a culture change seems to be swirling around the program.
“Credit goes to the athletes, not me. I figure out a way to not screw it up, but it’s been phenomenal,” Watson said. “It’s been amazing – to be quite honest – to watch it happen.”
Not only did ASU appear in the AVCA preseason rankings for the first time since 1996, the Pac-12 preseason poll has them finishing 4th in the conference, their highest predicted finish since 1999 in spite of their ninth place finish last season.
In their first weekend of play in Hawaii, ASU came out with three wins, most notably against then-No. 17 Hawaii in a straight-sets sweep.
“I think (last weekend) kind of just validates the work that they have put in,” Watson said. “This is a pretty composed group, a pretty mature group now – a little seasoned.”
In some aspects, the lofty rankings may seem out of place, but considering ASU lost no players from last year in point-scoring positions (hitters, blockers, setter), one could understand that a lot of it has to do with banking on improvement at all positions after a summer’s work.
Common sense says that junior outside hitter Macey Gardner will explode this season, junior setter Bianca Arellano has a better understanding of Watson’s offense and so on and so forth, but the biggest jump to be expected is that of sophomore right-side hitter BreElle Bailey.
Last season, Bailey spent time hitting on both the left and right sides of the net and racked up 357 kills and 65 blocks. With a full-season of high-level play, the former middle blocker opened some eyes, and those eyes saw potential pouring out of her long, 6’4” frame.
“When you think about it, we recruited her, and she was a middle, then she got to be a right side and then she got to be a left side, and now she’s back on the right side,” Watson said. “Now she’s playing all six rotations and serving. It’s a really big transition in two years, and she’s doing a remarkable job.”
If Bailey has a breakout sophomore year, it will in turn open up the entire Sun Devil offense as well as take the opposing focus off of Gardner.
Nonetheless, as much as the expectations make sense considering all the firepower ASU has, the Pac-12 is still the Pac-12. There is a reason sophomore outside hitter Kizzy Willey deemed the conference a “bloodbath.”
After the first weekend of play, five Pac-12 teams were ranked in the national polls (Stanford, USC, Washington, Arizona and ASU). California also received votes in the AVCA poll, so to say the conference is deep is an obvious statement.
In several conversations with various players, a team-wide theme appears to be ignoring the polls, numbers and outward buzz, something that they admittedly paid a too much attention to last season.
“We’ve been working on this whole idea of process rather than outcome. That’s been helping us a lot,” Arellano said.
Part of that process is finding a team identity. Last season, players like Preach fed off of the home crowd and the emotional waves of each match, but with Preach gone, a new identity is slowly being discovered.
“This isn’t an outwardly, celebratory team. They enjoy competition, but they’re not at all loud,” Watson said. “You know, I thought our team last year was really loud and energetic and those types of things.”
Not only was Preach an emotional catalyst, she was seen consistently chatting to her teammates on the court, something that also needs to be replaced.
With a renewed mentality and focus, the Sun Devils will once again try to break through the conference as well as advance past the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1995. That same season, they finished tied for fourth in the Pac-10.
“We never talk outcome now. We never talk polls. We never talked outcome, we’ve talked process,” Watson said. “If we can be consistent about that as a staff, then I really like our chances.”
You can reach Zac Pacleb on Twitter @ZacPacleb or via email at email@example.com.