(Photo by: Alli Cline/WCSN)
After its biggest win of the 2015 season, Arizona State gets right back to work as it starts conference play September 24 against in-state rival No. 14 Arizona.
The Pac-12 has been known for being one of the deepest conferences in the NCAA, and this season is no different. Seven Pac-12 teams are in the top-25 of the AVCA poll, and two of them are ranked higher than the No. 7 Sun Devils: No. 6 Washington and No. 3 USC.
However, the Sun Devils are off to their second best start since 1976 and are tied for their highest ranking since 1986 heading into Pac-12 play. Most recently, ASU took down then-No. 6 Illinois in a five-set match in Wells Fargo Arena.
“Every match is like the Illinois match,” ASU head coach Jason Watson said. “You can’t just get up for one, every match from here on in is huge.”
What is different this year?
At the end of the 2014 season, the Sun Devils lost four players on their roster, but none of them were starters. During the offseason, Watson brought in the No. 20 freshmen class and one transfer. Two of those players, freshman setter Kylie Pickrell and her sister junior outside hitter Cassidy Pickrell, have been starters from the beginning and have been a big reason to ASU’s historic start.
With both of the sisters starting, this gave Watson more depth than in years past, and he made the switch from running a 5-1 with just senior setter Bianca Arellano, to the 6-2 giving ASU more firepower at the net.
This will be the first time the sisters will go into Pac-12 play where nearly every match is against a ranked opponent. Playing better teams over and over again will be one of the biggest challenges for this team, but there is more than just difficult opponents that Pickrells will have to get used to in conference play.
“We’ve been telling them to be prepared for a lot of delays, with the Pac-12 Network’s TV timeouts,” Ricedorff said. “It’s hard because volleyball is such a momentum game, and the teams who are able to keep the momentum alive are the most successful.”
After UC Irvine in kills her sophomore year, Cassidy Pickrell has filled the role of OH2, moving junior Kizzy Ricedorff to opposite who has totaled 57 kills and 26 blocks.
“At first, it was awkward playing another position,” Ricedorff added. “On the right-side you get more blocking reps and I love blocking so I can steal a hitter’s thunder.”
Over the seven years that Watson has been at Arizona State, he has said that he wanted to establish his team as a blocking force. His wish was finally granted this year by putting junior BreElle Bailey and Ricedorff on the right side along right by senior middle blockers Whitney Follette and Mercedes Binns. With so much talent and so much height, ASU averages 3.13 blocks per set, which is good for sixth best in the nation.
“We have this laundry list of things that we want to get better at all year long,” Watson said. “And we have a list of things that we want to get better at this week, and I think because of that, we are dialed in on what we are doing.”
This is the first time Watson has used the 6-2 in his career, but his team has already beaten two top-10 opponents heading into Pac-12 play, so it’s needless to say that it is working.
What to expect
Expect another trip to the NCAA tournament for the Sun Devils.
Even though Pac-12 play is as rigorous of a conference as any in the country, ASU has made to the national tournament for the past three years. For the 2015 season, the Sun Devils were projected to land second in conference play behind No. 8 Stanford. The last three years, the Sun Devils have not finished higher than sixth in the conference.
With so many talented teams to go against in the next two months, it is unrealistic to think that the Sun Devils will stay undefeated, but they should end conference season with another NCAA Tournament bid and a top-3 finish in the Pac-12.
When it comes down to the national tournament, don’t be surprised if ASU makes it further than they have recently.
“We are excited and ready to go,” junior opposite BreElle Bailey said.