(Photo: Courtney Pedroza/WCSN)
Senior Day is traditionally emotional enough as it is, but when the senior class is responsible for the incredible turnaround of a program, it makes it that much more special.
When head coach Jason Watson took over the Arizona State volleyball program in 2008, he inherited a team that hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament in a couple years with little reason for optimism.
For Watson, his philosophy on how he was going to build a better program was clear.
“When I first got here, we (the coaching staff) knew that if we could get good volleyball players that were also these wonderful people, then it would become this easier process.” Watson said.
The transition did not come quickly for Watson and his staff. The Sun Devils finished under .500 in each of his first four years at the helm especially struggling in the gauntlet that is Pac-12 volleyball.
In 2011 the Sun Devils finished a measly 9-22, good for 10th in the Pac-12, and the program was in the midst of a five year NCAA tournament drought. That season would bring Watson’s record in Tempe to a mere 48-75.
Enter the 2012 recruiting class.
The first three
Macey Gardner, Mercedes Binns, and Whitney Follette came in and immediately changed the culture on and off the court for ASU Volleyball (setter Allison Palmer also had a big impact in 2012 before transferring to Illinois in 2013).
For a program that desperately needed something to rally around, these players sure provided that.
As they began life on campus, they instantly bonded and provided some comfort in their day-to-day lives. However, how the three got to campus were quite different stories.
Mercedes Binns arrived to ASU early because of her accelerated academic plan as she had plans to, and has succeeded in, graduating early with a master’s degree.
Whitney Follette was a highly touted player out of St Alberta, Canada and as she got older, she eyed playing in the United States.
“As soon I knew that I could get scholarships, I knew that I wanted to go the States.” Follette said. “Especially, Pac-12 because, from what I heard, that it was the best conference to play in.
For Follette, the transition proved to be difficult. Considering all the steps that needed to be taken logistically along with simply the prospect of living in a different country, there was a lot to handle.
However Follette took it all in stride and credits Gardner and her family for helping her adjust to life in Tempe.
“I know the first week was kind of hard.” Follette said about the move to Arizona. “Holli, Macey’s mom, came over one day in the dorm and just gave me a hug, and it just felt good.”
It was clear a bond was forming that would lead to a great friendship off the court and great success on it.
Gardner was the local product. Hailing from Gilbert, Arizona, Gardner was an Under Armour All-American to go along with the Under Armour Hardest Hitter award.
“She could’ve gone anywhere that she wanted, and she chose Arizona State, and we were pretty excited.” Watson said. “Now we look back on it, and that decision is the catalyst behind where this program is, where this program is going.”
For Gardner, that decision to come to ASU wasn’t complicated. There was one thing that was certain, she wanted to play where Watson was coaching.
“I committed really early, and it was the best decision I could’ve ever made.” Gardner said. “You don’t find college coaches like this.”
The impact of these three was seen immediately. The Sun Devils finished 19-14 in 2012 and made the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006 and the first time in Watsons coaching era.
Although the Sun Devils were shown an early exit at the hands of the Oklahoma Sooners, but it was clear that this was a much different program, and it was headed in the right direction.
The 2012 class, which had so much talent and success already, was supplemented in 2013. Two Arizona natives, Bianca Arellano and Andi Lowrance, decided to transfer back to the desert from Tennessee and Seattle, respectively.
Arellano and Lowrance had been club teammates with Gardner throughout high school, and due to that connection, both of them had ASU on their radar
“I knew I wanted to come back somewhere close to home,” Arellano said. “What was drawn to my attention was I’m familiar with Arizona State.”
That familiarity is due in part to her days spent with her club team, Club Red, which was coached by Watson.
There was one interesting caveat about Arellano transferring.
“When she decided to transfer back, she did so without a scholarship,” Watson said. “I think that was significant. I think what she wanted to do was be about something to create something.”
Arellano’s sacrifice and decision embodied a trait found in nearly every player in the senior class. There was a concept forming that centered around people buying into the team mentality and setting personal agendas aside.
If there was ever a person who exemplified putting personal agendas aside, it is Andi Lowrance.
Lowrance was thrown into the fire at middle blocker after Follette missed significant time in 2014 due to appendicitis.
Lowrance saw herself in a similar situation this year. After injuries to Gardner and junior opposite Kizzy Ricedorff, the Sun Devils saw a multitude of lineup shifts. One of those switches was moving Follette from the middle to the right side, thus leaving a void in the lineup, a void with which Lowrance was tasked with filling.
In addition to having the proverbial “next girl up” mentality, Lowrance’s presence is felt by her teammates and coaching staff alike in practice and just off the court in general.
“If she doesn’t get one ounce of playing time, she’s going to be supportive.” Arellano, who has known Lowrance since kindergarten, added. “She’s going to the person that’s killing us in practice trying to get better, and I’m so proud of her.”
Lowrance says the support system she has at ASU is key to her success.
“When you have a support system like you do with this team, my teammates are great my coaches are great so it’s pretty helpful,” she said.
A record-breaking group
Statistically, the 2012 class is one of the most decorated in ASU history with the their names riddled throughout top-10 career and single-season marks.
For starters, in just three years on campus, Arellano has become one of the most successful setters in ASU history.
Arellano has already amassed over 3,000 assists to and could potentially become the first ASU setter to tally 3,000 assists and 1,000 digs in her career
On the court, the work that Arellano has put in is evident and is something Watson admires.
“What stands about Bianca to me is just her passion for the game and her love of just getting in and working hard,” Watson said. “She certainly is a student of the game, more than any setter I’ve had the privilege of coaching.”
Part of that work ethic manifests in Arellano’s leadership and own personal decision making on the court, which she credits Watson, a setter during his playing career at BYU, for helping her with.
“What I like as a setter is that it’s all strategy,” Arellano said. “It’s all about the decision making and the strategy and leadership that you bring. He’s (Watson) always helping me with my decisions.”
On the end of many of her assists is Follette, who has found quite a bit of success defensively as well. She is currently third all-time in block assists and top-10 in total blocks at ASU. Those numbers would be significantly higher had she not missed six weeks of her junior season with appendicitis. Even with that hindrance, she still became the fourth Sun Devil to eclipse 400 career blocks earlier in the season.
Also a force offensively, Follette sits third on the team in kills this season at 207 and well over 600 for her career.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Follette is her selflessness. Amidst everything that happened this season, one thing that stabilized lineups and the overall morale of the team was Follette switching from middle blocker to opposite.
“She’s going to do everything she can for the betterment of this team, and she’s never going to complain,” Watson said. “She’s never made it about herself, and that trait lends itself to this phenomenal culture that we have.”
Follette added that her ability to adapt throughout a season is something that she prides herself on and actually appreciates doing. She’s had experience switching positions, as she did so her last year of club when she was a pin hitter as well.
And while Lowrance hasn’t had the statistical success that her or her coaching staff would’ve liked to see during her time in Tempe, her contributions to the team have been invaluable.
“Andi has been this conscious for me, and because of that it’s made me a much better coach,” Watson said. “Andi’s contribution in creating the culture is remarkable.”
Binns most recently saw her name enter the ASU record books as she moved into 10th all time in career block assists.
Between her sophomore and junior seasons, Binns played with the United States Collegiate National Team, which traveled to Minneapolis to compete. Binns was able to carry that momentum into a strong junior season where she tallied 278 kills and also led the team with 93 block assists.
Binns is playing some of the best volleyball of her career this season. She has become a force both offensively and defensively in the midst of an emotional season for all involved.
“She’s (Binns) always demanding of the ball, which I like,” Arellano said. “As a setter, you want someone on the court that’s like ‘Give me the ball. I want to put it away.’”
Binns has a quiet, yet fiery persona while on the court. While she’s never super demonstrative, the passion with which she plays can definitely be seen while she mans the middle of the front row.
Yet, in the middle of this catalyst of a senior class is Gardner.
Gardner’s attacking prowess and overall play was uniquely intense and something Arellano had the opportunity to be around since their days on Club Red.
“If I had to describe her (Gardner) in one word I would say: relentless,” Arellano said. “Any time I set her, I know it’s in good hands.”
Gardner is ASU all-time leading killer tallying 1,882 for her illustrious career. She’s the 10th Sun Devil to have 1,000 kills and 1,000 digs in her career, and holds the freshman record for kills at ASU with 577, and kills per set at 4.40.
Her accomplishments don’t end there. As a junior, she recorded the second-most kills in a single season with 594. She holds four of the top-10 marks in points in a match including the top mark of 33 from a match against Washington State in 2014. She has been named to the All Pac-12 team three times and earned AVCA All-Pacific South her junior year. She also garnered AVCA third-team All America honors, which was ASU’s first national honor since the year 2000.
This class has laid the foundation of success for years to come, and the long term effects of this class will be felt for years.
This senior class exemplifies the recruiting philosophy that Watson has preached since the beginning of his tenure, and while junior outside hitter Cassidy Pickrell has only been with the program for a short while, she has picked up on what makes the 2012 class specifically special.
“They’re all great leaders, all five of them,” Pickrell said. “They all bring something different to the table whether it be on the court, off the court, in the locker room, as a teammate as a friend, as a student-athlete. They all have there for me personally and (for) the rest of the girls.”
It’s important for a program to have seniors that the other members of the team can look up to, but it’s an added bonus when the seniors look up to and are inspired by each other.
“I haven’t told them yet, but Macey and Whitney have really influenced me a lot,” Binns said. “They’ve helped me be a better person and a better teammate.”
This class is the first group of ASU seniors to beat the 11 other Pac-12 schools during their time in Tempe, and in doing so, they have made three straight NCAA tournament appearances. A fourth consecutive appearance is still on the horizon as well.
“We want to finish the season out strong for them because they mean so much to this program,” Junior opposite BreElle Bailey said. “They’re the ones that started the uprising of ASU volleyball. They’re the base, the foundation, and it all started with this senior class. They’re the ones that built up this whole program.”
They’ve undoubtedly turned around the culture of ASU volleyball in addition to the win-loss records.
“It’s definitely been a roller coaster, but I think we’re finishing better than we started,” Arellano said. “That’s a theme that have here. Take a team, develop it and if you have a measurable goal you want to be better than you began.”
A roller coaster is a good way to describe what this class has gone through in the four years. They’ve dealt with dismal stretches of volleyball and devastating injuries – particularly Gardner’s season-ending knee injury this season. They’ve also had the highs of making tournaments, winning 20 games in a season and the magical 15-0 start to this season that included wins over Illinois and Stanford.
But for Watson, this group of seniors means more to the program and to him than just the results they have produced on the court.
“I’m going to miss them not just because of their ability to play the game, but I genuinely like hanging out with them,” Watson said.
The rest of the team will miss them just as much. In one way or another, each senior has influenced this team and left their individual stamp on this program, and the long-term impact this class will have moving forward will be recognizable clear in the years to follow.
“They are a group of girls that people should really look up to because they have got it figured out, they do, they really do,” Pickrell said. “They are the best group of seniors I’ve played with.”