(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
This wasn’t just another win.
It was a statement.
For the first time since 1995, the No. 17 Arizona State Sun Devils traveled to Los Angeles, Calif., and came away with a victory over then-No. 9 Southern California. The win was also the 12th victory over a ranked team in head coach Jason Watson’s eight-year tenure.
Coming off of a five-set loss to No. 14 Arizona to open up conference play, ASU headed to USC as a hefty underdog opposite the classical powerhouse that are the Women of Troy.
“I thought it was this nice opportunity to rebound after a pretty disappointing Wednesday at Arizona, so the history and all that stuff – I think means more that USC has been really, really good,” Watson said. “USC’s really good, and it’s tough to win on the road in this conference, and to get one (win), almost have a chance to get two, it says – I think – that we’re right where we need to be.”
Despite having one less win through fourteen games than last season, ASU potentially established something that was in doubt all last season: they can slug it out with the top of the Pac-12. In 2013, the only ranked team they beat in conference play was Oregon near the back end of the season.
However, let’s keep this in perspective. Despite being picked to finish second in the conference, USC has been struggling. They’ve now lost five of their last six matches with four of the five losses coming in the Galen Center. To USC’s credit, all of those losses have come against ranked teams, but the Women of Troy clearly aren’t performing up to their potential.
A major part of USC’s struggles is the lack of production from sophomore opposite hitter Ebony Nwanebu. She burst onto the scene in 2013 en route to winning AVCA National Freshman of the Year honors as well as being named to the AVCA All-America First Team, but a summer back injury has caused a slow start for Nwanebu in 2014.
Last season, Nwanebu averaged 3.47 kills per set to add to USC junior outside hitter Samantha Bricio’s (All-America Second Team herself) 3.46 kills per set to create one of the most dangerous attacking duos in the country. Twelve matches into the 2014 season, Nwanebu’s numbers have declined to 2.81 kills per set and a .265 hitting percentage.
All that being said, the Sun Devils played good enough volleyball to win against most teams in the country that night. They were efficient at the net, posting a .318 hitting percentage in the match against USC as well as committing just three service errors.
“To just kind of take care of stuff on our side of the net, stay composed and compete like crazy, and on Friday night, we did much better at that sort of stuff,” Watson said.
A large part of ASU’s success that night had to do with the outstanding play of junior outside hitter Macey Gardner. Between the two matches last week, Gardner racked up 57 kills with a career-high 30 coming in their loss to Arizona.
“57 kills, yeah that’s really cool, but I think it just goes to show how well all the other girls are doing,” Gardner said.
With 1,292 career kills, Gardner already sits at No. 10 on ASU’s all-time kills list. Assuming she continues to play with the form she has had her entire career, Christine Garner’s school record of 1,871 career kills is well within striking distance for the junior.
“Macey is a remarkable athlete, and one of the best that’s probably ever played here, and it’s nights like those that make you appreciate just, wow, just how special she is,” Watson said. “Whatever happens moving forward, you can’t take that away from her, but I don’t know what to expect moving forward.”
Part of moving forward for ASU includes the uncertainty of when junior middle blocker Whitney Follette will be inserted back in the lineup. Follette has missed the last five matches following emergency abdominal surgery, and the Sun Devils have gone 3-2 in those matches. Replacing Follette for the majority of that time has been junior Andi Lowrance.
“We miss Whitney, but I also think that Andi is doing a great job stepping in and just being a great contributor on the court,” Gardner said. “She has a high hitting efficiency, she’s putting a great block up for us and I think just she shows that even though we have kind of a small team, we still have depth.”
Although Lowrance is currently listed as an outside hitter on the ASU roster, the junior had just barely made the transition to the pin over the course of this past offseason after spending much of her prep career and the first two years of collegiate ball as a middle blocker.
“The tempo of the sets from the middle are a lot different than the outside, so just getting back into doing that tempo,” Lowrance said. “But I was a middle for a really long time, so it’s just like riding a bike.”
Of the three matches Lowrance has started at middle blocker, she has posted 19 kills, but the more impressive number is the .376 hitting percentage she attained in those three matches.
“You look at Andi and you look at her stat line, you don’t see that many opportunities to score points, but the opportunities she does get, she scores points, and so you’ve got to make the most of your opportunities when you get them, and Andi certainly clearly is doing that, and that’s credit to her,” Watson said. “She has come in and has played well and has helped us and will continue to do it.”
Maintaining the momentum that stems from a potentially signature win is as key as the win itself in many cases, and that calls for consistency around the court for ASU. The catalyst for the miniscule drop in the level of play for the Sun Devils hasn’t been only Macey Gardner, but it is also due to the high-level performances from junior setter Bianca Arellano.
Arellano, in her own right, had a stellar start to open conference play as well. The 5’8” setter dished out a career-high 61 assists against Arizona and followed that with 55 assists, 10 digs and three blocks against USC.
Even without the services of Follette in the middle, Arellano has kept the offensive flow consistent throughout the season by utilizing an array of tempos and speeds within Watson’s offense in addition to putting ASU’s talented attackers in positive situations.
“Bianca is a great setter and just put me in a fantastic spot. Our passers did so well that we were able to be in system,” Gardner said. “Just allowed seams and did a good job of creating open spots.”
Throughout the 2013 conference season, the Sun Devils never seemed to find a stride or an identity on the court against the country’s best teams. Now, a year later, it seems like ASU has grown from their experiences and are a step or two away from being a consistent presence in the Pac-12, something Watson feels is only a matter of time.
“I think we still have more to give, but in terms of where we were two weeks ago, we’re much, much better. We’re digging more balls, we’re being really aggressive. We’re not just making one move, we’re making two moves at the ball. We’re just really trying to work hard to get an extra dig.
“We may not always get it, but at least we’re making that effort and for me, I think the long-term is that hey, if we keep making some good effort, then two weeks from now, we’re going to see a much better defensive team than we saw four weeks ago. I like where we’re heading. I don’t know if we’re where we want to be, but we’re making some significant progress,” Watson said.
ASU has three matches (at Colorado, at Utah, vs. California) before they play a ranked opponent. In that stretch the Sun Devils will have to continue to improve before they take on No. 1 Stanford and No. 4 Washington in back-to-back matches. Those two teams, in addition to USC, were predicted to finish 1-2-3 in the conference (Stanford-USC-Washington) in the preseason, but with USC struggling, that third spot is up for grabs.
In no way is anybody assuming ASU will grab that third place finish with ease. No. 11 Oregon exists, and to almost everybody’s surprise, No. 14 Arizona has splashed onto the scene as a real threat after being picked to finish ninth in the conference.
However, ASU has shown that they have the talent, skill-level and mental toughness to give themselves more than a fair shot at a high-seed when the NCAA Tournament begins on December 5.
“I don’t know how (rankings) work, I don’t vote on those things, I have no idea at all. All I know is that in this conference, if they’re ranked or not is irrelevant,” Watson said. “They’re really, really talented teams (in the Pac-12), and I think it’s another opportunity for us to go be better.”
You can reach Zac Pacleb on Twitter @ZacPacleb or via email at email@example.com