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The overlooked Sand Devils have become Pac-12 dark horses

First-year ASU coach Kristen Rohr led Sun Devils to the second-best win total in program history with a 18-6 record at the halfway mark


ASU sophomore Adriana Nieves Papaleo (31) and freshman Ava Haughy (15) during match against GCU at GCU Beach Volleyball Stadium on Saturday, March 30, 2024, in Phoenix. ASU won 4-1.

The No. 12 ASU beach volleyball squad has reached the halfway point of the season with an 18-6 record overall and a 9-6 record against ranked teams in the top 20.

The 15 games against ranked opponents are the most ASU has ever faced in one season, making those nine games their largest number of victories against a ranked competitor in a single season.

The Sun Devil's most impactful win was against No. 2 Stanford. ASU took them down 3-2, making it one of the biggest wins in program history.

The Sun Devils see this as their best game so far and a prime example of how they should always compete, because it was the most free they've played this year. Going against the Cardinals with such confidence and a "nothing to lose" mentality were the key factors in a game where no one saw them coming out victorious. 

"Playing as a ranked team and facing a team that's also ranked higher than you, you play more loose," senior Taryn Ames said. "The amount of fun that we had was exciting because we worked so hard as a team to show that we can beat anyone."

Carrying all that success, the Sun Devils pride themselves on their ability to adapt quickly to the changes they faced in the beginning after getting used to all the new faces that were added to the program in the offseason.

The team had each player practice with different pairs, mixing and matching to help the team steer away from forming cliques and to avoid a shock factor if someone has to switch out midway through a game. When everyone is familiar with their teammates' gameplay, it keeps them prepared for when they have to play with someone "new," making them a more accommodating team.

Despite all the new players, the team quickly created a strong bond between themselves, focusing on building a sister-like connection through team-building exercises such as mindful breathing and meditation, grateful circles or even braiding each other's hair before games.

In doing that, this team quickly created a strong bond between themselves, learning more about each other on a deeper level and every teammate's walk of life. 

"This team is close, and we all want what is best for each other," sophomore Arden Besecker said. "We know we have each other's backs supporting one other when we’re on the sand, which builds our confidence. We're super gritty as a team, and we work hard against each other in training, which prepares us for a real meet."

Many of ASU's young players have never played on a competitive level before. Approaching the court with enthusiasm and the objective of learning from each match-up has helped this team overcome one of its biggest weaknesses: its inexperience.

"We have a lot of moments where we don't execute," head coach Kristen Rohr said. "Bettering the ball and playing aggressively with no fear or timidness in pressure moments is something they still need to work on. Even our losses show we’re not far from that highly ranked level."

One way that Rohr prepares her team for games that run heavy on pressure is by preparing through strength and conditioning to help the team last in a back-and-forth battle. Rohr enforces multiple practices a week in the weight room to make the girls fit and powerful enough to out-battle teams in big rallies at their full capacity. 

While ASU's inexperience is seen as a setback, the only real way to get better is to continue to play and learn. 

Veterans like Ames and graduate senior Lexi Sweeney are two players who’ve been in this program long enough to know exactly what these young players need to learn and have the ability to lead by example. Both have reached 57 individual career wins as Sun Devils, tying for fifth for the most solo career wins.

"One thing we like to teach is that the game is never over till it’s over," Sweeney said. "We would have been in many deficits this season but managed to come back by giving it our all, so putting in the work and giving it everything you've got every time is so important for them to learn."

Besecker and freshman Ava Williamson are two examples of how young talent can grow from challenging competition. The two are currently tied for the third-highest winning streak with 9 games as a pair and are the first two Sun Devils to reach 20 individual wins since 2019. 

As two underclassmen who face upperclassmen the majority of the time, these two never go in with high expectations to win, but they never give up. They play to enjoy the competition and to learn from Besecker and Williamson’s smart techniques playing off the net. 

This makes them both big contributors to the success of the team.

Despite its already-earned success, ASU believes there's still much more to expect. Every ranked win improves the Sun Devils' image as a real threat. The squad wants to show other schools they still have much to prove and instill fear in their opponents.

"From the beginning, I knew this team had a lot of potential to show this year," Rohr said. "The university's goal was to be in the top 20 or 15, but I knew we could be better. We just need to continue to focus on our game and not the jersey across from us."

Edited by Vinny DeAngelis, Sadie Buggle and Caera Learmonth.

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