The scene has become familiar this year.
Junior libero Sarah Johnson receives a serve and pushes the ball over to sophomore setter Cat Highmark, who subsequently delivers a quick serve to senior middle blocker Paige Mittelstaedt.
Mittelstaedt swings for the kill and as soon as the ball hits the floor, she violently raises her right arm with a balled fist in celebration, and the signature wide smile spreads across her face as her teammates move to congratulate her.
This scene has played itself out 134 times this year and will continue to play out. After all she’s been through, who can blame her for being excited?
Mittelstaedt came to ASU as an outside hitter in 2006 after an outstanding prep career at Xavier College Preparatory in Phoenix. She earned High School All-American honors and was named one of the top-50 high school players in the country by Volleyball Magazine.
On a local level, she was named the Phoenix Women’s Sports Association’s Female Athlete of the Year, earned All-Arizona honors twice and three times was named to the All-Region team.
Despite all of the accolades, Mittelstaedt started only 13 matches in her first two seasons at ASU and played in 44 total matches out of a possible 63.
In the playing time she did receive, she produced. She was tied for fourth on the team in kills and was third on the team in blocks her sophomore year.
“I played every weekend so I got a lot of time, probably not as much as I’d wanted or I’d hoped for,” Mittelstaedt said. “I guess it was frustrating, but it wasn’t that huge of a deal to me because I kind of expected it going in. It was definitely a humbling experience for sure.”
Mittelstaedt was expecting to explode her junior year, but during a tournament in Michigan her foot began to hurt badly. An MRI was ordered, and it was revealed she had a stress fracture in her right foot.
She ended up playing in only 15 matches, including just three conference contests.
“It was really hard to watch practice and not be able to play,” Mittelstaedt said. “It kind of made me hungry to get better faster, and once I got better, I started really competing to get my spot back. It just made me want to play harder for my team.”
The transfer of last year’s starting middle blocker Sara Todorovich left ASU with only one returner at the position, so the coaches asked Mittelstaedt, who had played middle blocker for three years in high school, to move to the middle.
It was her first time in the middle in four years, but a combination of coaching and inner drive made it work seamlessly.
“I definitely needed to get back into timing and footwork. It’s a completely different attack than an outside would be doing so it definitely was a lot of coaching and a lot of effort,” Mittelstaedt said. “It also had a lot to do with it being my senior year, and I wanted to do anything that was possible to help our team, and if it meant me playing in the middle then that’s what I was going to do.”
The results have supported the work ethic. Along with her 134 kills, Mittelstaedt is fifth in the Pac-10 and 45th in the nation in blocks per set with 1.19. She is also sixth in the conference and 53rd in the nation in hitting percentage at .354.
Assistant coach Brent Aldridge, who specializes in coaching middle blockers, is grateful for Mittelstaedt.
“We’re just very fortunate Paige had played some of that position and was willing to do it,” he said. “She can go off one foot, she can come and go, and she’s come in and just embraced that as a senior being moved around.
“You’re taking a kid who hasn’t played middle and is doing a really nice job for us, and we’re really glad that Paige is here and has embraced that role.”
In addition to her success on the court, Mittelstaedt has been the vocal leader of the team, along with Johnson, and provided a positive personality on the court.
“Since last season we’ve needed someone to kind of be the bubbly personality on the floor because we’ve got the leaders and the collected personalities,” Mittelstaedt said. “We kind of needed some fire so I know [Johnson] and I have been kind of the bubbly crazy people. It’s just fun; it makes it more exciting.”
As her ASU career begins to wind down, Mittelstaedt has been through everything. She’s played two positions, missed most of a season due to injury, gone through a coaching change and become a leader.
If everything continues the way it has, she should be able to add two more career descriptions — team MVP and All-Pac-10 selection.
Reach the reporter at email@example.com.