UA brings high-flying ASU volleyball down with 3-1 defeat

That loud ‘pop’ you heard coming out of McKale Center was the University of Arizona volleyball team applying the pin to Arizona State‘s over-inflated balloon.

The Sun Devils had run up an 11-2 record going into the match with their rival in Tucson, including a five-match win streak, and had high hopes for returning to post-season play for the first time in five years.

A nationally-ranked recruiting class had boosted the optimism for this season’s success.

But the Wildcats, 8-3 going into the meeting, delighted in throwing some cold water on that euphoria by beating the Sun Devils, 3-1, in the televised conference opener for both teams.

And it was a kid from Sunnyslope High School – in ASU’s back yard – that led the way for Arizona.  Madi Kingdon, a 6’1″ sophomore outside hitter, recorded 20 kills and 11 digs – and then added four blocks to the effort.  The double-double was her fifth of the season.

The Cats fell behind in the opening set, eventually tying it at 12-12, and then went on to win, 25-20.  They took the second set as well, jumping out to a 6-1 lead and then rolled to a 25-16 victory.

After intermission, the Sun Devils regained their composure and took a turn at the early lead, jumping out to a 15-10 advantage and then holding the lead the rest of the way to a 25-20 win.

But Kingdon asserted herself again to lead the fourth-set 25-21 win to clinch the match for the Wildcats, racking up eight kills and five digs.  Kingdon was in third place in the Pac-12 in kills, with 4.49 per game, entering the ASU match.

Halli Amaro, a freshman middle blocker from California, also put up double-digit numbers as she posted 11 kills and added four blocks.

Arizona State was led by Erica Wilson, a 6’0″ senior outside hitter from California, who recorded 18 kills, and Macey Gardner‘s 15 kills.  Wilson just made the move from middle blocker to playing outside – and it seems to be paying off for fifth-year head coach, Jason Watson.

Gardner, the jewel of that high-profile recruiting class, was named the Arizona Player of the Year by both The Republic and Tribune last year at Gilbert High School.  After the Devils went undefeated through the Sheraton Invitational at ASU last weekend and beat Gonzaga in the final match, Gilbert was named the Pac-12 Freshman of the Week.

ASU is trying to recover from one of its worst seasons in the past decade, finishing 9-22 overall and 5-17 in conference play last year.  Its .290 winning percentage was reportedly the lowest in the program’s history.

As each year goes by, the task of climbing to the upper echelon of the conference seems to get more difficult.  The Pac-12 is one of the strongest in the country.  Last year, six of the 12 teams were ranked in the nation’s top 25 all season long, and this year there are currently five Pac-12 teams in the top 25.

The good news is that the 11-2 start this season is a huge improvement over the 2011 non-conference mark of 4-5.  The not-so-good news is that this year’s non-conference schedule is pretty weak.

The other not-so-good news is that an 11-2 start doesn’t necessarily equate to season success.  When it happened in 2009, ASU took a nosedive into a 13-17 finish, winning just two games the rest of the way.

And the really bad news for the Devils is that Arizona isn’t even one of the five other conference teams ranked in the AVCA coaches’ top 25. They still have those schools yet to come.

That thought, combined with memories of the 2009 collapse, should bring a shudder of cold reality to Wells Fargo Arena as ASU gets ready to host Washington State Friday night.

Arizona will also be at home, trying to build on a winning start to conference play, as they host Washington on Saturday.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)