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Volleyball ready for Pac-10 play

Sophomore outside hitter Sofie Schlagintweit serves the ball during a game earlier this season at Wells Fargo Arena.(Matt Pavelek | The State Press)

The rebuilding process for the ASU volleyball team was supposed to take a couple of years or longer.

While it is too early to say the team has rebuilt successfully in less than two years, it’s hard not to take note of the fact that ASU is off to its best start since 1993, with a record of 10-2 heading into conference play this weekend.

That season, the Sun Devils tied for second in the conference and made the NCAA Tournament.

While this year’s team may not finish quite as high, the excitement building from the fast start is palpable.

“We have a lot more talent than we’ve had in past seasons,” senior middle blocker Paige Mittelstaedt said. “We’ve had people who, of course, were great athletes, but collectively, we have a much more rounded team this year.”

Mittelstaedt is one of only two seniors on the team and was a part of the last ASU team to make the NCAA tournament in 2006. However, she said this year’s squad tops the 2006 version.

“I’d say it’s the best [team I’ve been on],” Mittelstaedt said without reservation. “It has the most chemistry so far of the three teams I’ve been on. This is a much more cohesive team — we get along pretty well.”

Junior libero Sarah Johnson, who has been the vocal leader of the team so far this year, said she senses the excitement as conference play begins this weekend against No. 14 UCLA on Friday and No. 13 USC on Saturday.

“It’s an extra level of excitement, because this is what matters,” Johnson said. “This is the best conference in the country, and finally I feel like this year we’ll be able to be in the top rankings.”

The Pac-10 currently has seven teams in the national top 25, with two other teams in the “others receiving votes” category.

The only team in neither category is ASU, but it will have its chance to upset some teams early.

“The Pac-10 is really tough, and there is an enormous amount of parity throughout the conference, and probably even better athletes,” ASU head coach Jason Watson said. “That poses a great, but a difficult, blend in which to compete in. I like where we’re at, and I’m intrigued to see how we shape up.”

UCLA (10-3) is a team that prides itself on offensive speed and strength in the middle, Watson said.

“UCLA is very good in the middle, and they have a wonderful freshman setter in Lauren Cook, who is making that offense run and making it run very fast,” Watson said. “They are really very quick right now, so that’s going to pose some trouble to us. They’re fast to the antennas and they have very physical middles.”

Cook was a high school All-American and one of the most decorated setters in the country coming out of Pius X High School in Lincoln, Neb.

She currently has 424 assists at a clip of 9.86 assists per set, which is good for seventh in the conference.

Sophomore outside hitter Amanda Gil has 100 kills for UCLA and is 19th in the country in hitting percentage (.405). She was the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year last season and an All-Pac-10 Honorable Mention selection.

USC (11-1) poses a different challenge on Saturday night.

“They’re offensively not as quick, but very physical at the antennas and in the middle,” Watson said. “They’re a little more balanced offensively.”

Sophomore outside hitter Alex Jupiter leads the Trojans offensively with 153 kills and 16 service aces.

Sophomore middle blocker Lauren Williams, an All-Pac-10 Honorable Mention selection last year, has 86 kills and is eighth in the country in hitting percentage at .441.

The Trojan defense is led by senior libero Alli Hillgren, who has 3.73 digs per set, which is good for fourth in the conference.

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