ASU volleyball coach Jason Watson has talked up previous opponents, as coaches often do, making them seem more capable than they probably were.
The Sun Devils have coasted to a 6-0 start against those same opponents, having still not lost a set.
This week, Watson doesn’t have to exaggerate.
ASU faces two of the best volleyball programs in the country this weekend at the Illini Classic in No. 14 Illinois and reigning national champion No. 2 Texas.
“We get to go play two wonderful volleyball programs that have history,” Watson said. “We’re excited for the challenge.”
The Longhorns, who swept Oregon in the 2012 national title game, defeated then-No. 1 Penn State and then-No. 2 Stanford last weekend in the Nike Volleyball Big Four Classic. Texas (4-1) jumped from six to two in the weekly American Volleyball Coaches Association’s rankings.
“They’re clearly the most physical team in the country,” Watson said. “They’re physical, and they’re experienced, and the combination of both of those things is a challenge for us.”
Sophomore outside hitter Macey Gardner admitted the Sun Devils are a little nervous as the weekend approaches.
“We’re a little on edge,” Gardner said. “We’ve put a lot of hard work into these past two weeks, and we hope to carry that through this third weekend.”
Texas represents the largest but not the only hurdle in this weekend’s tournament. Friday morning, the Sun Devils face off against No. 14 Illinois, who has defeated three ranked teams in 2013, including a sweep of then-No. 11 Iowa State Sunday.
“Illinois has played what has to be the most tough schedule of anyone in the country,” Watson said. “They’ve played all these ranked teams, and they’re not afraid to do that.”
In addition to experience against ranked teams, the Fighting Illini (3-2) also have superior physicality.
“Their outside hitters are really physical,” Watson said. “They are going to pose some problems for us, because they’re so physical from the left side.”
Watson still believes his fast-paced offense can overcome Illinois’s physicality.
“Their tempo of offense is a little bit slower than us so hopefully our speed gives them some trouble,” Watson said. “We have to control the ball well to be able to do that.”
Gardner said Youngstown State shouldn’t be overlooked in the midst of facing two ranked opponents.
“Texas isn’t our first match there this weekend, so we’re looking at Youngstown (State),” Gardner said.
This weekend also represents a historical milestone for the ASU volleyball program.
If the Sun Devils sweep Youngstown State on Thursday night, it would be the longest set streak to begin a season since the inaugural year of ASU volleyball in 1973.
That team, built by head coach Mary Littlewood, swept the first 12 opponents it faced en route to a 21-0 season and AIAW championship.
The tournament begins Thursday at 6 p.m. against Youngstown State. On Friday, the Sun Devils face Illinois at 10 a.m. and Texas at 5 p.m.
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