(Photo: Noah Findling/WCSN)
It may be mid-October, but the Arizona State Sun Devils are definitely feeling the heat.
After a blazing 13-1 start, the Sun Devils found themselves ranked for the first time in over a decade. Wins over defending champion Texas, then-ranked Wichita State, and a controversial five-set loss to then-No. 14 Illinois put ASU as high as No. 15 in the national rankings.
However, October has been a rough month for the Sun Devils. They have lost five of their six matches this month, with their only win coming against the Oregon State Beavers (who are winless in the Pac-12 this year) and they were the only team to drop out of the top 25 this week.
“I think we’ve lacked that [competitive intensity] in practice and certainly it’s showing in matches where we’ve had some chances late in games and we haven’t been able to close them out,” head coach Jason Watson said. “We can be good one day, you can be good one match, but you’ve gotta be good every single day.”
As an attempt to remedy this current losing streak, Watson has been experimenting with a few line-up changes, including the move of freshman right-side hitter BreElle Bailey to the outside hitter position, in place of fellow freshman McKenzie Willey.
“I love playing on the left side and I really like playing on the right side, so it’s just good to be able to play both so we could just put me where ever we need help,” Bailey said. “It creates something different because with our record right now, we just kind of needed a change.”
Bailey has been productive in her first collegiate season, putting down the second-most kills on the team (176), but Watson expressed his desire to get the 6’4” freshman the ball more and more throughout the season.
The move would leave an opening on the right-side, likely to be filled by Willey or junior outside hitter Nora Tuioti-Mariner. Both have had time at the position in practice, but Watson did mention some doubt about making that change for this weekend’s upcoming matches at Colorado and Utah.
Altering the lineup could help the Sun Devils’ passing woes in a few rotations, and it could also help sophomore outside hitter Macey Gardner get loose. After being in the top five in the nation in kills per set, Gardner has fallen out of the top fifteen with 4.51 kills per set.
“I think it’s going to help us even out some distribution,” sophomore setter Bianca Arellano said. “Offensive strategy-wise, it’s going to help us.”
Not only will that adjustment be beneficial to Gardner, but the move also opens up options for Arellano whose 10.6 assists per set has her out of the top fifty in the country. However, assists can be a clouded stat because of the reliance on the hitters to put the ball down in order for a set to be considered an assist. Nonetheless, Bailey moving to the left will force Arellano to adjust her decisions.
“Change is good. Little minor tweaks are gonna make big changes,” Arellano said. “She’s going to have a good chance to put the ball down with a high ball.”
With all the moving pieces, Arellano mentioned that she will be looking to force the middle blockers to attack at a higher rate to spread the offense out and take pressure off of the pin hitters. Sophomore middle blockers Whitney Follette and Mercedes Binns have a combined 431 attack attempts on the season, more than 200 behind Gardner who leads the team with 698 attempts.
Beyond the X’s and O’s, the Sun Devils are still optimistic and understanding of where they are as a team. Through twenty games last season, ASU held a 13-7 record. Twenty games into this season, they hold the exact same record.
“There’s a lot of volleyball left to play and so we’re just in the gym practicing, getting one rep, one match, one game at a time, and so we’re just focusing right now,” Gardner said.
“In the beginning of the year, we talked about out ‘team-ing’ teams,” Arellano said. “We kind of went away from it, we’re separating on the court and stuff so I think it’s that fact of unity.”
The Sun Devils will be looking to right the ship with road matches against Utah and Colorado this weekend. Colorado has yet to drop a game at home this season, and they recently picked up their first-ever conference road victory since joining the Pac-12.
“You’re going to see lots of teams with a sub-.500 record in this conference go into the tournament,” Watson said. “It wouldn’t surprise me once they get into the NCAA tournament they go a long ways: second round, third round kind of stuff. It’s that fun.”
You can reach Zac Pacleb on Twitter @ZacPacleb or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.