(Photo: Ava Montoya/WCSN)
Much has been made of the absence of junior middle blocker Whitney Follette for the No. 18 Arizona State Sun Devils in lieu of her emergency abdominal surgery following the team’s tournament in Morehead, Kent., in mid-September.
In their seven matches without Follette, ASU has gone 4-3, highlighted by a road win over then-No. 9 USC, and much of that was due to the effective offensive play by the Sun Devils despite being without their most efficient hitter in Follette.
While junior Andi Lowrance has been the one to emerge into the second starting middle position, junior middle blocker Mercedes Binns has been somewhat overlooked.
Binns was asked to step into the M1 position, which calls for the middle blocker to be in the front row along with junior setter Bianca Arellano. Being up front with the setter translates to a list of much more offensive responsibilities because of the lack of a third attacker on the right pin.
“It’s a different spot being over there in the M1 in terms of what types of sets you have to run,” Arellano said. “She has to go behind me a little bit more.”
In the last seven matches, Binns has averaged 2.03 kills per set while hitting .286. She also leads the team on the season in total blocks (54) as well as a team-high 12 solo blocks which is a single-season high for Binns.
“From where she started to where she is right now, it’s a pretty big, pretty impressive performance by her,” head coach Jason Watson said. “So I’m extremely proud of the work that she’s done.”
Last season, Binns saw a much more muted offensive role. Despite starting every match in 2013, she only broke double-digit kills once, in a 10-kill effort against Oregon State.
“Since this year, I definitely feel like I have been given a bigger role in my position as a middle,” Binns said.
Part of the growth in her role on both sides of the net stems from more familiarity with Arellano. In 2013, it was no secret that the Sun Devil offense was heavily reliant on junior outside hitter Macey Gardner, but the year of experience has aided the connection between Arellano and Binns immensely.
“I think in the transition game, like spark of the moment – let’s say I’m getting pushed off (the net) somewhere, (Binns) knows what she has to do,” Arellano said. “She knows if she has to go behind me really quick or something, so audibling for sure. She’s definitely improved on that, and I’m really proud.”
The 2014 season has proven to be a bit of a breakout season for Binns. Although her number’s aren’t eye-popping, her presence is much more evident than in her first two seasons in Tempe.
Over the summer, Binns was selected to the USA Volleyball Collegiate National Team Roster following her participation in the 2014 Women’s National Volleyball Open Tryouts in Colorado.
“I definitely think that playing for the USA (Collegiate National) team helped me to become a more available hitter on the court,” Binns said over the summer. “I think this experience helped me realize just how useful I can be on the court for my team.”
Playing with some of the best college players in the nation, including sophomore outside hitter Kizzy Willey, Binns and Watson both felt that she became a much more well-rounded player.
“I think ownership of her performance; I think ownership of the position that she’s in, I think that she’s approaching the game a little bit better prepared than she has been in terms of getting dialed in on people’s tendencies and giving direction, and just an overall sense of maturity and responsibility,” Watson said.
Having a healthy team is always the best-case scenario, but Follette’s injury might turn out to be a blessing in disguise. With Binns being the primary offensive middle, that only increases the offensive diversity once Follette returns to the court and therefore increases the amount of options Arellano is comfortable with in difficult situations.
All things considered, their 2-2 conference record may not seem all too impressive, but the level of sustained quality of play is much more consistent than previous seasons, and in many ways, Binns is a microcosm of that trait.
With Pac-12 play in full swing, Watson and his Sun Devils will continue to look for Binns to be a force in the middle while they wait for Follette to return. She’ll have to take an even bigger step this weekend, as ASU plays California and the undefeated No. 1 Stanford Cardinal in their first two home conference matches.
You can reach Zac Pacleb on Twitter @ZacPacleb or via email at email@example.com