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ASU Volleyball: In rebuilding year, coaches empower players to establish culture

(Photo: Marie Obsuna/WCSN)

In a year full of new faces and new challenges, the coaching staff of Arizona State volleyball is trying to focus on developing a culture, one defined by the players.

With the season beginning Friday, the program has already been hard at work on that project. The team has defined five values for itself, which by chance, spelled F.I.G.H.T. Family, integrity, gratitude, humility and training culture are the five things the Sun Devils’ team wants to be known for.

While a relatively new piece of branding for the team, it already feels central to their identity. First-year head coach Sanja Tomasevic said the slogan is already lining the locker room and the Devils’ jerseys. She also mentioned the players, not the coaches, were the ones placing emphasis on those values.

“When I go back and look at the teams I played for, the most successful ones were the ones that culture was driven from within,” Tomasevic said. “It was us players deciding what we want to be known for. We told our players that they’re a big part of it and they get to decide what is important to them.”

Tomasevic, a two-time All-American as a player and Hall of Famer at the University of Washington, was an assistant coach during the 2016 season. On Dec. 21, ASU promoted her to the head coaching position vacated by Stevie Mussie.

The new coach has a challenge ahead. The team had only eight players training in the spring before adding 10 new recruits, several of them transfers. On top of that, the Pac-12 is arguably the best volleyball conference in the country, with reigning national champion Stanford and five other teams ranked in the top 25.

Tomasevic is realistic in her outlook of the landscape, saying it is “absolutely” a rebuilding year for ASU.

“We have to be patient, including myself,” Tomasevic said. “As a coach, you always want to win, win, win, win, win, and when things don’t go your way, you tend to change things and panic. I just have to stay true to myself, my staff, my team and what we believe in.”

The Devils not only have a new head coach and 10 new players, but a totally revamped staff. Assistant coach Carlos Moreno joined the team in February. Moreno was a national champion in 2004 and a two-time All-American at BYU prior to working at Southern Miss.

Moreno has a positive outlook on the upcoming season, which will be a learning experience for him just as it will be for the roster.

“Either we win or we learn,” Moreno said. “Not only do I have this mindset, but the whole team too. When we learn from our mistakes, we’re going to be really good.”

The second new voice on the staff is one fans of ASU volleyball know very well. Macey Gardner, who played for ASU from 2012-2015, returned to the team she called home for four years in May. Gardner is the program’s all-time leader in kills, but a torn ACL in 2015 cut her playing career short.

Gardner, who is now coaching a couple of players she played with in her time, hopes she can use her experience as a player to teach and relate to the team.

“Being a player, I’ve been through it,” Gardner said. “I’ve lost. I’ve won. I’ve completely destroyed a match. I’ve been taken out. I’ve been on both spectrums. I think that in general kind of helps the kids.”

Both Moreno and Gardner echoed Tomasevic’s sentiments about culture. They also praised veteran players like Blair Roblain and Halle Harker for their role in instilling the family feeling.

“The older girls are the ones that have the biggest impact, because they have been through so many changes in the coaching staff,” Moreno said. “They bought in to the culture we want to have.”

The veteran players on the team have had a rocky road. After leading the Devils to the NCAA tournament four straight times, Jason Watson left for a job at Arkansas in January 2016. Under Mussie, the team faced a string of problems and cratered to a 12-20 record, their first losing season since 2011.

“Whatever happened last season will never come back, and we don’t want to think about it,” Moreno said. “We want our girls to focus on the present, on every play, every day. We don’t even talk about last season anymore. “

After last year, ASU comes into the season doubted, projected to finish last in the Pac-12. Gardner said that while the expectation is just to get better every day, the goal is to finish top six in the Pac. If they do that in such a well-respected conference, it opens the door for an NCAA tournament spot.

Tomasevic and Co. will start that journey Friday in the Sun Devil Volleyball Classic, with games against Weber State and North Dakota State. Last season, the team played its first 15 games on the road and did not see Wells Fargo Arena until Sept. 30. Gardner thinks starting at home will be a good boost for the team.

“Most of our kids have not experienced a home game at a place like Wells Fargo,” Gardner said. “That alone is going to be exciting. They’ll always have that to cling to when we’re traveling.”

Despite the extensive turnover, it seems like the coaching staff has already defined what this era of ASU volleyball will look like. For Tomasevic, the line is simple: players preach culture, coaches preach system.

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