Something special is brewing in Tempe.
Far from a random assembly of talented players, the ASU volleyball team is unified by years of pre-collegiate experience, and it’s making all the difference.
The recruiting efforts of head coach Jason Watson and his staff have finally come to fruition, resulting in one of the deepest and most cohesive Sun Devil volleyball teams ever assembled.
Vocal leader Stephanie Preach, in her final year as a Sun Devil, said this year’s squad is the deepest she has seen at ASU.
“We have so much depth, and that’s never been the case here,” Preach said. “I trust anyone on the court. Whatever our lineup is, I believe in every single person on our team.”
Three current Sun Devils played together on Club Red, one of the nation’s best club volleyball programs at the time, with Watson as their head coach. Three more Sun Devils played together at the Valley’s Xavier College Preparatory, an athletic powerhouse.
It all started in 2006, when high school freshmen Stephanie Preach and Jenny Teslevich joined an already stacked Xavier Gators volleyball program. Preach’s older sister was the starting setter, so Preach played her freshman year as an outside hitter before transitioning to setting. Bianca Arellano entered the picture in 2008, when Preach and Teslevich were juniors.
“When I came to high school, you have high-class Stephanie Preach setting, so I changed to outside (hitter),” Arellano said.
Xavier’s head coach at the time was Tim McHale, who led the Gators to six state championships in his 23-year Xavier coaching career, including 12 years as head coach.
McHale said the group’s versatility was truly special, a major factor in winning four straight state titles from 2007 to 2010.
“You put Bianca (Arellano) on a basketball court, (and) she’s going to figure it out,” McHale said. “You put Stephanie (Preach) in swimming or Jenny (Teslevich) on a soccer field, they’re going to find a way to compete, and they’re going to find a way to win.”
McHale coached Teslevich’s and Preach’s older sisters and therefore knew the girls since second grade. Early on, McHale said he knew Preach would excel at the collegiate level.
“Stephanie had an unbelievable career, one of the most decorated in Arizona high school history for volleyball,” McHale said. “We knew that she was going to go on and do something great.”
Preach, who served as the Gators’ captain for two years, was named Gatorade Player of the Year in 2008 and 2009 and named to the All-Arizona team from sophomore year on. She was named first-team All-State in those final three years and once was an Under Armour All-American.
With Preach leading the defensive side of things, the Gators could not lose: They won state championships in Arellano’s freshman and sophomore years. When Preach and Teslevich graduated in 2010, Arellano transitioned to setting, and then won another state title her junior year.
McHale said the squad that carried all three current Sun Devils was one of, if not the best team he has ever coached. He said their will to win, which continues today, was what distinguished them from other teams.
“I think it’s hardwired in them,” McHale said. “They’re just competitors to the bone. There was just this innate drive to overcome obstacles together.”
During the high school offseason, Arellano played on Club Red with current Sun Devils Macey Gardner and Andi Lowrance. The trio played together for four straight years and Watson coached them in their senior years.
James Felton, director of the now-defunct Club Red at the time, said it was uncommon for a group to play together for so long.
“One of the nice things was that the core group got together as freshmen and stayed together, which is really kind of rare in club volleyball,” Felton said. “It was a group that wanted to be good as a team.”
Felton, who joined Watson’s staff this season as a volunteer assistant coach, said the group didn’t care about personal achievements, a trend that persists today at ASU.
“No one really wanted the spotlight. They wanted to succeed with a group of other players,” Felton said. “There wasn’t really an issue of playing time. There wasn’t an issue of who was getting more accolades. It was a group that came together, because they knew that they would be a special group together.”
The group was indeed special: Club Red placed third at the USA Volleyball Junior Olympics.
Gardner committed to ASU her sophomore year, knowing full-well Watson would be her coach. Arellano and Lowrance played their freshman year at Tennessee and Seattle, respectively, before transferring back to ASU for their sophomore year.
Sun Devil pride
Fast-forward to 2013. Preach and Teslevich have played together for eight years. Gardner, Arellano and Lowrance, all sophomores, are now in their fifth year together.
“You never thought in club, in high school, that you’d be able to play with these players again on the same team in college,” Gardner said.
Having coached several of these girls in the past, Watson has had a unique perspective on their development as volleyball players.
“There are things that they could get away with in club and win lots of volleyball matches that perhaps they just can’t do in college,” Watson said. “It’s been fun to see them kind of be mindful, maybe even humbled.”
Gardner has increasingly varied her attack over the years in order to become a more effective and dynamic outside hitter. Her attack percentage has skyrocketed to .296 in 2013, despite hitting just .189 during her freshman campaign.
“For someone like Mace(y) (Gardner), you can’t just go hit it hard the whole time,” Watson said. “You just can’t blast your way through some things. You’ve got to go hit some different shots.”
Watson said he thinks, among other things, that prior playing experience has helped ASU volleyball off to such a quick start.
“What makes it a little easier (playing collegiate volleyball) probably is to be surrounded by people that you know and that you have a relationship (with),” Watson said. “Certainly that helps.”
Arellano already knows the tendencies of the person from whom she often receives the first pass, Preach, and the person to whom she often sends her sets, Gardner. The setter orchestrates the offense in volleyball, and Arellano has already meshed with her teammates in part because of prior experience together.
“Our personalities work so well together,” Preach said.
There’s no denying that since he took over the program, Watson has created a new culture for volleyball at ASU.
Felton said that while this culture is attractive for most, it isn’t the ideal environment for every player.
“I think that’s probably why you’ve got some people transferring out and you’ve got some people transferring in, because not everybody can be in this environment,” Felton said.
This culture involves individual sacrifice for the betterment of the team, even if it means less playing time or learning a new position, Felton said.
“Some of them have had their roles change and maybe playing time has changed,” Felton said. “I think it really speaks to the culture and the belief that these girls have that they’ll do whatever it takes to help this team succeed.”
The new environment is also marked by deep knowledge of the game and an innate competitive drive that results in learning new positions with ease.
These players didn’t just learn new positions, though; they excelled at them because of their competitiveness and deep knowledge of the game, McHale said.
“Their volleyball IQ is off the charts,” McHale said. “I think that’s kind of a byproduct of their competitive nature.”
But the culture extends beyond players that have competed together in the past. Junior Shannan McCready has shifted from a setter to a defensive specialist, junior outside hitter Nora Tuioti-Mariner has developed into a jack-of-all-trades and freshman BreElle Bailey, who was a middle blocker in high school, has become a right-side hitter.
All for the betterment of the team.
It has manifested itself in the complete integration of this year’s incoming class of freshmen and transfers, who have played just 14 games of collegiate volleyball together.
“Each of the players refer to each other as ‘sister’ or they call each other ‘sis,’” Felton said. “You see different people hanging out on the bus when we’re traveling somewhere. You see different people sitting with each other at lunch or when we’re in meetings. This group is really cohesive.”
The evidence of change is both intangible and tangible. Under Watson, the ASU volleyball team has improved its hitting percentage, aces per set and blocks per set in each of the last three years.
The now-ranked Sun Devils are 12-2, tied for the program’s best start since 1992. That ranking is due in large part to the straight-sets victory over reigning-national champion and then-No. 2 Texas.
The buzz has been felt around the Valley in the past several weeks as ASU has jumped to No. 15 in the nation.
This year’s squad is one of the most unified and complete teams in the program’s young history. Watson’s preseason goal was an NCAA Sweet 16 appearance, one that seems within reach given ASU’s early success.
“It’s scary. It’s awesome. It’s amazing. I love it,” Preach said.
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