The No.18 Sun Devils have spent the entirety of this year building up one of their most reliable weapons, their killer offense. Under newly crowned Pac-12 Coach of the Year JJ Van Niel, the Sun Devils have become one of the best-hitting teams in the Nation.
Before the season started, the team and Van Niel worked together to develop the most necessary changes to become a more powerful team. One of the most requested and worked-on techniques eventually became the scary offense that’s been a key component to their success all season.
“We have made it faster,” senior outside hitter Marta Levinska said. “The middle is quicker and just all around better at isolating and overloading people. Lots of practice went into that offensive power.”
All the hours spent over the offseason on hitting drills during double-day practices have paid off, as the team reached their target on both consistency and speediness, as well as the NCAA tournament. ASU currently ranks ninth in hitting efficiency in the nation with a .289 percentage and 1458 kills in the regular season. This makes them one of the most dangerous teams in the tournament. The team is also third in the country in aces per set.
“I think about how one would have an objective like in a classroom,” Van Niel said. “We set up our practices and goals on offense, team drills, and as individual players. If we focus each time to achieve those goals, we’ll play better.”
While the team is one unstoppable force, one player holds the torch as the most dominant offensive player. Levinska holds her own on the outside of the court, being a very dependent player when she gets into a rhythm. She's ranked eighth in the nation for most kills per set with 4.86 and has 520 kills this season.
“I have worked a lot on my shot collection, my range, and taking risks on multiple shots I may not be comfortable with,” Levinska said. “It’s really important to just be able to do the shot and recognize the other side of the court, being mindful of their defense. If I make a mistake, I try to stay calm and consistent about it, knowing that they will happen and I work on how I respond.”
She also won Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week four times and is the third Sun Devil to earn a postseason Pac-12 honor in each of her four seasons. This season was the first time she made the All-Pac-12 team in her career.
“Marta is hard not to notice as she’s a very terminal player,” Van Niel said. “(She's) having one of the best years of her career ,and one reason is because of how well the team does in passing. By improving our passing, the better chances we give an offensive player like her something to bounce off of.”
They depend not only on their passing skill, but also on each other regarding a quick coverage defense. ASU's most offensive players put a lot of the credit on their more defensive teammates to keep the ball in play and give them more chances to score on their opponents. Van Niel said that comes from a culture that is "heavy about being patient."
“When you’re defending well, you get more shots,” Van Niel said. “If we keep the ball in play, you can miss one opportunity but get another. Having that confidence that your defense can stop the other team is important to getting another shot.”
With both components working, the Sun Devils have made this season their most successful one in quite some time. The team finished with their best conference finish since 1993 with a 14-6 Pac-12 record and a 26-6 overall regular season record.
“It is really hard to defend a fast offensive,” senior middle blocker Claire Jeter said. “Especially as a middle, it is so hard to be in a read of the setter. When our pass is on, and we have all options set for us, it’s really hard to stop us.”
Jeter, one of the team's most energetic members, sees many of their achievements coming from their skill and grit but also from her team’s dynamic and energy, which brings such a strong performance onto the court.
“I’ve always played the energetic role of being the loud person that I am,” Jeter said. “Having that energy during games helps us lock in and focus on the good points when playing. Learning from the bad mistakes after we have time to reflect.”
She and the rest of her teammates hope to bring this same spirit as they head to face Georgia on Friday in Provo, Utah, as the number five seed. To win in such high stakes, ASU will have to bring all they have to the big stage with commanding arms and dominant defense.
Edited by Vinny DeAngelis, Walker Smith and Shane Brennan.