ASU volleyball earns NCAA berth for first time in six years

A big upset win over No. 5 Washington, followed by a Territorial Cup win against Arizona to close out the regular season, apparently was impressive enough to  earn the Arizona State volleyball team a berth in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in six years.

The Sun Devils, who were picked to finish eighth in the Pac-12 this season, racked up 20 wins for the first time under head coach Jason Watson who arrived from BYU in 2008 to take over the program.

ASU (20-13, 9-11) has been to the tournament 15 times, but the last time was 2006 when it was coached by Brad Saindon.  It’s also the first time since 1993 that it has recorded 20 wins; Patti Snyder-Park led the program to a 20-8 record that year, and then posted a 9-9 conference mark in 2000 – the most conference wins until this season tied the mark.

The team gathered yesterday afternoon in Wells Fargo Arena to watch the NCAA Tournament Selection Show to find out they had made the field and would be traveling to Provo, Utah, to meet up with Oklahoma (20-10, 9-6) from the Big 12.

If the Sun Devils are successful in Utah, they will advance to one of the four regional tournaments that will be held Dec. 7-8.  Those winners move on to the big stage, with the semi-finals being held in Kentucky on Dec. 13 and the finals Dec. 15.

ASU plays in what is generally considered the top conference in the nation for women’s volleyball.  In running through their Pac-12 schedule this season, they had to meet then-No. 2 Stanford, No. 4 Oregon, No. 5 UCLA, and Washington and USC when they were ranked No. 5.

For the most part, they struggled against ranked opponents, but did beat Washington and USC when it was ranked No. 6.  In addition to Washington, which was a pre-season pick to finish fifth in the conference, they knocked off California twice, a team projected just above them in sixth place pre-season, and Arizona, a seventh-place projection.

That would indicate they should be competitive in the opening rounds, but will likely have a tough time getting past the top-ranked teams.  However, they have a full head of steam going into the post-season by virtue of the wins in their final two games.

And it was a couple of local recruits who stepped up to lead in the 3-1 victory over Washington and a 3-1 win over Arizona.  The win against the Wildcats split the Territorial Cup points this season, since Arizona won a Sept. 18 match-up by a similar 3-1 score.

Macey Gardner, a 6’0″ freshman outside hitter from Gilbert High School, recorded 19 kills against the Huskies, which topped both squads, and then posted 14 kills to go with Erica Wilson‘s team-high 17 in the Arizona win.

Stephanie Preach, the junior libero from Xavier Prep in Phoenix, contributed 17 digs in the season finale.  She is fifth on the ASU all-time career list with 1,456 and sixth on the single-season list with 598.

Allison Palmer, a freshman setter from California, contributed 46 assists against Washington and 50 against Arizona.

This team will be playing for the first time in an NCAA Tournament, but its coach has been there before.  Watson made three appearances with his BYU teams.

That experience just might give the 2012 squad a chance to get as far as ASU’s last 20-win team.  Those players, under Snyder-Park, made it to the second round of the 1993 tournament.

(Photo: ASU Athletics)