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Volleyball embarks on key stretch

Sophomore Cat Highmark sets the ball during a game against Washington at Wells Fargo Arena.(Matt Pavelek | The State Press)

The ASU volleyball team begins a brutal stretch to close out the season this weekend, with the team needing three wins in its final seven contests in order to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.

Five of the next seven games will be played on the road, where ASU has yet to record a conference win, and six of the remaining seven teams are ranked in the top 18 nationally.

The Sun Devils (12-11, 2-9 Pac-10) open up this stretch at Oregon State on Friday evening before heading to Eugene to take on No. 15 Oregon. ASU lost to both teams at home earlier this season.

Even with this tough stretch coming up, the Sun Devils have a renewed sense of confidence following their strong victory last weekend over then-No. 21 Washington State. The victory ended an eight-match losing streak and provided a combination of relief and excitement.

“It actually felt really good, because it was like all the work we put into practice finally paid off,” said junior libero Sarah Johnson. “We know we’re a good team, and when we play together and we have fun, we know we can take down these big teams.

“WSU has always been this bottom-of-the-barrel team, and this year, they were the top dogs. We knew that we were going have to come out and play hard, because it was really devastating losing to them in five [sets] at their place.”

ASU is also careful not to get overconfident, however. Earlier this year, the Sun Devils stunned now-No. 7 UCLA in a dominating sweep, only to lose the next eight matches.

“It feels really good [ending the losing streak],” said ASU coach Jason Watson. “But the first half of conference [schedule], we did the same thing. We opened the first half with a win and then had to grind out some things. Hopefully we’ve learned from it. We talk about we have to end better than we start, so let’s go see if we can do that.”

ASU lost a five-set heartbreaker to OSU (11-11, 2-8 Pac-10) at home earlier this year that saw the Sun Devils blow a 2-1 lead. ASU swept OSU in Corvallis last year.

The last time the Sun Devils faced the Beavers, they had a miserable time stopping outside hitters Jill Sawatzky (junior) and Rachel Rourke (senior). Sawatzky recorded 25 kills, while Rourke, a returning All-American, had 23 kills.

“I guess I just have to muscle up and dig a lot of balls, because Rourke is a really big girl who can bring it,” Johnson said. “Hopefully, we’ll get help from the front line blocking-wise and hopefully get the softer-driven stuff in the back row. We’re just going have to muscle up and take some shots off the face or chest and whatever it takes.”

ASU finishes up the weekend against No. 15 Oregon (15-5, 5-5 Pac-10). The Ducks stomped the Sun Devils earlier this year, hitting .260 while holding ASU to a .069 hitting percentage during a 3-0 sweep.

The Sun Devils last defeated UO in Eugene in 2007.

The Ducks’ offense has been great this year, as the team ranks first in the Pac-10 in service aces (1.7 per set) and second in kills (14.6 per set), hitting percentage (.279) and assists (13.66 per set).

Senior outside hitter Sonja Newcombe (4.96) and junior outside hitter Heather Meyers (4.07) are fifth and eighth in the conference in points per set, respectively, while middle blocker senior Neticia Enesi is second in the conference in hitting percentage (.409).

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