The ASU volleyball team was 6-0 heading into the Illini Classic. In addition to defeating a ranked team, the Sun Devils had still not lost a set. Just one thing was missing.
A marquee victory; a win over a top-tier volleyball program.
Defending national champion and No. 2 Texas provided that opportunity Friday night.
The Sun Devils grabbed it by the horns, sweeping the Longhorns and improving to 8-1, the program’s best start since 1997.
We might still be talking about an undefeated team if a call had gone the Sun Devils’ way in the closing moments of ASU’s five-set loss to Illinois Friday morning.
Nevertheless, the Sun Devils are off to a historic start, for a multitude of reasons.
Sophomore outside hitter Macey Gardner is a force. She overpowers opponents with spikes destined to touch down for a point. Just last weekend at the Gonzaga Invitational, she compiled 63 kills and earned herself Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week Honors. She’s the real deal.
This weekend, however, her raw statistics weren’t nearly as impressive. She failed to record 20 kills in a match, something she did in all three games at the Gonzaga Invitational.
Don’t be fooled by her numbers though: When Gardner’s offensive stats decrease, overall team production increases.
Freshman outside hitter Kizzy Willey posted a career-best 11 kills against No. 14 Illinois. Willey’s freshman counterpart, BreElle Bailey, recorded double-digit kills totals against both Illinois and Youngstown State. Junior outside hitter Nora Tuioti-Mariner had 10 kills against Illinois, her season-best. Even sophomore middle blocker Whitney Follette added 10 kills against No. 14 Illinois, also a season-high.
Simply put, when sophomore setter Bianca Arellano distributes to more players, she creates a more dynamic offense that can score from anywhere on the court. Teams who prepare for the Macey Gardner show might not be as ready for this offense. When Gardner is well defended, the ASU volleyball team can still thrive offensively, like in the Illini Classic.
The Sun Devils were improved defensively as well, recording 29 total team blocks in the Illini Classic, 17 of which came in the five-set match against No. 14 Illinois. Blocking not only puts pressure on the opponent, it also creates offense, something the Sun Devils executed well in Illinois.
Head coach Jason Watson was impressed by his team’s ability to quiet opposing offenses.
“(Friday) especially, we blocked particularly well,” Watson said. “If you’re going to block well, I think it’s a function of creating those opportunities to block with your serve.”
The Sun Devils overcame a short week of practice and showed massive improvements from the service line, totaling 18 aces this weekend.
The Sun Devils host the ASU Marriott Invitational in Tempe this weekend. ASU faces Cal Poly on Friday night in the home opener at 7:00 p.m. and Alabama State and Louisiana-Monroe on Saturday.
Other tournament notes
– Senior outside hitter Bethany Jorgensen played in her third match Thursday against Youngstown State, recording her first kill of the 2013 season.
– Willey did not play Thursday night against Youngstown State.
– Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly posted his 100th victory at Illinois with the win over ASU Saturday.
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