After opening the season with the best record since 1992, the ASU volleyball team was riding sky high.
A convincing victory over then-No. 14 UCLA to open Pac-10 play seemed at the time to be an indication that ASU had completed its rebuilding process early and was a force to be reckoned with.
Only three weeks after that opening night victory, ASU is playing for its season this Friday night at home against No.18 UA.
The Sun Devils have dropped five straight matches since their opening night win, including two matches when they had a 2-1 lead.
The team is currently in last place in the Pac-10 and its hated, and ranked, rival is coming to town.
ASU can ill afford to lose any more home games this season, as winning on the road is a considerable challenge, particularly in the Pac-10 where eight of the 10 teams are ranked in the top 25.
“UCLA was a really good win for us, but it’s not good enough,” junior libero Sarah Johnson said. “Coming off of that win, we were on a really big high and we thought that we would be able to take down some of these teams. I think that we realized that we have to work so much harder than we usually do in order to start winning some of these.”
Though only in his second year at ASU, head coach Jason Watson has been a part of many heated rivalries in his coaching career.
He was an assistant coach at Kansas State as part of a heated Kansas State-Nebraska rivalry and the head coach at BYU, when his Cougars annually took on hated rival Utah.
The key, he said, is not letting emotions get in the way of being efficient.
“Rivalries are what make college athletics special,” Watson said. “It takes an emotional toll on the athletes because it means so much to each of them, so there’s all of these emotions that go through. I think the team that can manage all of that is the team that’s going to come out and play well.”
Junior outside hitter Sarah Reaves knows the balance between keeping your emotions in check and playing with passion is a fine line.
“We have to approach it as any other game because we don’t want to get too crazy,” Reaves said. “But at the same time, every player on the court is going to have that extra something because its UA and because its always there, that rivalry.”
UA (14-3, 3-3 Pac-10) is 4-1 against common opponents that ASU has a 1-4 record against. However, ASU has not lost to UA in Tempe since 2005.
“I think system-wise they run some things a little bit slower to the antennas, they do that because of their athleticism at the antennas, and they have a nice libero who keeps the systems running offensively, so they’re a physical Pac-10 team,” Watson said. “In order for us to compete with them, we have to stay very system-orientated, stay within our system and make our opponent play volleyball for a long period of time.”
The Wildcats are led by junior outside hitter Tiffany Owens, who averages 3.82 kills per set and also leads the team with 3.02 digs per set. The libbero Watson referred to is senior Alanna Resch, who currently averages 2.87 digs per set and is a former outside hitter who brings size into the equation.
Despite solid dig numbers from Owens and Resch, the Wildcats’ defense can be a struggle. In the Pac-10, UA ranks last in opponents hitting percentage, last in blocks per set and eighth in digs per set.
The ASU offense also ranks low in many categories. The Sun Devils are ranked ninth in hitting percentage, tenth in assists per set and tenth in kills per set. Essentially, the key matchup will be the lowly-ranked ASU offense and the struggling UA defense.
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org