Coming off its first 20-win season since 1993 and first NCAA Tournament in six years, with record-breaking freshmen returning as sophomores and a heralded recruiting class, there is much excitement surrounding the Arizona State volleyball team.
The Sun Devils are ranked sixth in the Pacific-12 preseason poll, which was their final position in last season’s standings, trailing Stanford, USC, Washington, Oregon, and UCLA.
“It tells us more than ever before, there’s a level of expectation upon us,” sixth-year head coach Jason Watson said. “We’ve never entered a season coming off an NCAA Tournament with 20 wins, so that’s a new challenge for us, I think we’re up for it, I’m excited to get going.”
After finishing 9-22 in 2011, last season ASU improved to 20-14 (9-11 in the Pac-12) and suffered a heart-breaking five-set loss to Oklahoma, that came down to 15-13, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at Provo, Utah. Freshman outside hitter Macey Gardner became the first Sun Devil named first-team all-conference since Juliana Escobar in 2002, and her 577 kills were 22 shy of Amanda Burbridge’s program record from 2000. In addition, Allison Palmer broke the school’s single-season assist record, with 1,482, en route to joining Gardner on the league’s All-Freshman team.
“They understand more what it takes,” Watson said. “Macey, getting to go play in China was good for her, to play with the Pac-12 team, Allison Palmer was with the junior national team and got to go to the World Championships (at Brno, Czech Republic), and Whitney Follette (6-foot-2, soph. OH) was up in Canada and played all summer. They played in structured environments, so we picked up right where we left off.”
Gardner, from Gilbert, just toured China with the conference All-Stars in June and will be a candidate for the league Player of the Year.
“It’s all in part due to the hard work the seniors did last year,” Gardner said. “Now, going in ranked in the Pac-12, we have our work cut out for us, but we’re more than ready to go out there and compete. Personally, I want to improve my hitting percentage and pulling out some shots that maybe I hadn’t been able to do before. As far as offense, putting the ball in places and putting the ball in play, being that player that is able to terminate when needed. As far as a team, staying positive throughout the whole game. There are going to be ups and downs, obviously, but our team gels really well together. When we’re on the court, it’s just a matter of positioning well at the same time.”
The incoming freshman class, which is ranked No. 13 in the nation, consists of 6-foot-4 outside hitter BreElle Bailey, 6-foot-1 outside hitter McKenzie Willey, 6-foot-4 outside hitter Kywn Johnson of Kalispell, Mont., and 5-foot-10 Gevevieve Pirotte of Cave Creek and Notre Dame Prep. Bailey, who is the daughter of retired NBA player Thurl Bailey, and Willey are both from Highland, Utah. Johnson is a two-time Montana state triple jump champion and record holder.
“McKenzie Willey and Bre Bailey were here in January,” Watson said, “so they were here for the spring, and Genevieve and Kwyn came in August. I think they’re a really good class, we expect a lot out of them. We have a nice core group returning, but we feel like we need to get a lot out of them.”
Stephanie Preach leads the senior quartet of Jenny Teslevich, Bethany Jorgensen and Caitlyn Francis. The libero from Phoenix is fourth in school history with 1, 460 digs.
“It’s definitely exciting, I haven’t been this excited for a season yet,” Preach said. “The group of girls we have coming in are amazing, and this is one of the strongest teams we’ve had, a good way to start my senior year.”
Preach graduated with her undergrad in communications this spring and is now beginning her master’s program in the business management program.
“Keeping my composure on the court, I don’t get as stressed out, I don’t worry about small things, I take each play as its own play, and I’ve really matured as a leader in its own sense where I can just move on from past plays and focus on the present,” said Preach in regards to her improvements this season. “If a play goes wrong or the game isn’t going the way I want it to, that used to rattle me, and I used to get really antsy, and now I’m keeping calm, cool and collected. My main focus is having a great senior season and taking my team as far as I we can in the NCAA Tournament.”
She is enthusiastic over the incoming freshmen, as well.
“They’re amazing, they scare me in the gym, just in the improvements they’ve made in the short time we’ve been together, they’re so great,” Preach said.
The Sun Devils also return juniors Shannan McCready at setter and 6-foot-1 outside hitter Nora Tuioti-Mariner, who had 242 kills in 2012.
Coach Watson mentioned departed senior Erica Wilson is close to signing a pro contract and spent time with the national team training. She was second on the team with 522 kills last season.
ASU opens its season Aug. 30 in Orem, Utah, versus Utah Valley. Its first home game is Friday, Sept. 20 at 7 p.m. against Cal Poly. Its non-conference schedule includes defending national champion Texas on Sept. 13 in Champaign, Ill.