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Volleyball hopes to upset Bay Area powers

The ASU volleyball team closes out its home schedule this weekend against two teams in the top 11 while trying to keep its NCAA Tournament hopes alive.

The Sun Devils (13-13, 3-11 Pac-10) take on No. 11 Cal on Friday night and No. 6 Stanford on Saturday night while trying to stay at or above .500.

ASU has not been under .500 this season since being 0-1 after losing its first match. Additionally, the Sun Devils have not finished .500 or better since 2006, and only once in the past five seasons.

“It’s been a long time since this program has been at .500, and that’s certainly an obtainable thing for us,” ASU head coach Jason Watson said. “I don’t know what the results are going to be, but we don’t get caught up in that. We’re process-driven, and I like our process. I’ve liked our chances so many times this year, and I think that’s a positive sign.”

With four matches left in the season, all against teams ranked in the top 15, ASU needs to pull off some upsets in order to finish at .500, and that task begins this weekend.

ASU kicks off the weekend against the Cal Golden Bears (17-8, 10-5 Pac-10), a team that swept ASU earlier this year in Berkeley in a lopsided match.

The Golden Bears are led by senior outside hitter Hana Cutura, a two-time All-American who Watson identified as the best player in the Pac-10. When asked how to stop her, Watson laughed.

“That’s a question that’s been asked by probably every coach but Coach [Rich] Feller at Cal,” Watson said. “I don’t know yet. I felt last time we played her, we certainly were on her main tendencies, but she just has an enormous amount of range on the left side.”

To further illustrate her dominance, Watson said he felt ASU did a pretty solid job defending her last time they played. Cutura had 21 kills and recorded a .562 hitting percentage in that match.

Cutura leads the Pac-10 and is third in the nation in kills per set with 5.14. She also leads the conference and is fourth in the nation in points per set with 5.64.

“What I think we’re going to try and do is force her to carry a bigger load, see if we can get a matchup that doesn’t stop her, but slows her down, and see if we can turn some stuff in transition,” Watson said.

Middle blocker Mindi Wiley is fifth in the conference in hitting percentage at .353 and is sixth in blocks per set with 1.08.

On Saturday, ASU takes on Stanford, which is tied for first place in the Pac-10 and has made the national title game each of the past three years.

The Cardinal (18-7, 11-4 Pac-10) swept ASU in Palo Alto earlier this year, although it was an extremely close match. There were 29 tie scores and 17 lead changes, including an epic first set that saw Stanford win 33-31.

While Cal is led almost exclusively by Cutura, Stanford is extremely diverse.

“Stanford poses a completely different set of problems for us, because they’re so balanced and they’re very, very low error,” Watson said. “They’re just unbelievably patient. What we have to do is be equally as patient and see if we can play a long period of time with them.”

The Cardinal are led by senior middle blocker Janet Okogbaa, who is second in the conference in both hitting percentage (.383) and blocks per set (1.29).

On the outside, the Cardinal have a two-time All-American in junior Alix Klineman, leading the way with 4.07 kills per set, good for sixth in the conference.

Junior libero Gabi Ailes leads the conference with 5.44 digs per set.

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