Back in mid-September, when the Arizona State women’s volleyball team pulled off a stunning upset of then-No. 2 Texas, the players had no idea just how important that win would be.
The Sun Devils (19-13, 8-12) were a team on the bubble after the regular season ended, hoping to get an at-large invitation to the NCAA Tournament. Fortunately, that 3-0 sweep of the defending national champions may have provided the credibility boost the program needed and today they find themselves matched against BYU (22-6, 15-3) in the first round of the tourney.
It undoubtedly helped that the still-No. 2 Longhorns have been impressive enough throughout the rest of the season, losing just one other game besides the ASU loss, to earn the No. 1 seed in the tournament. And six wins out of the final 10 games for the Devils no doubt also helped sway the selection committee.
The NCAA invitation marks the first time the Sun Devils have received back-to-back bids to the tournament since the 1999-2000 season.
Despite being picked in the pre-season to finish eighth in the Pac-12, ASU began the season with big expectations since it was coming off a 20-win season and was putting a recruiting class on the floor that was ranked 13th in the nation.
They appeared to be living up to those expectations as the season began, sweeping each of their first seven opponents. The 7-0 start was the program’s best since a similar beginning in 1997 and the winning continued as the Devils collected 10 wins in the first 12 games. But an Oct. 6 loss to Oregon started a seven-game losing skid and destroyed the momentum built up in the first part of the season.
A 2-1 loss to rival University of Arizona in the final match of the regular season was another momentum breaker, but at a more critical time, when the team was making its bid for a tourney invite. That win over ASU gave the Wildcats their 20th win and helped them also make into the post-season. They will play New Mexico State today in the first round of the tournament.
Arizona will play its first round in San Diego, but ASU probably got the better deal because the Devils will enjoy a trip to Hawaii for their opening game at that site, where the field also includes the University of Hawaii and Idaho State. The Cats and Devils are just two of the nine Pac-12 teams that made it into the tournament this year; that number is the most from any conference this season.
ASU last played BYU in 1999, when the Cougars rolled into Tempe and left with a 3-1 win. The last time the Sun Devils beat BYU was back in 1988.
And BYU holds another distinction in this meeting. ASU head coach Jason Watson held the same position at BYU before being hired in 2008 to coach in Tempe. He had a .802 winning percentage with the Cougars and took them to three straight NCAA Tournament appearances.
Watson struggled for the first few years and didn’t have a break-out season until 2012, when a 25th-ranked recruiting class helped him compile 20 wins and get into the post-season. Along the way, however, his teams snagged 10 wins against ranked teams.
Today, his latest edition will be led by Stephanie Preach, the senior libero who needs just 15 digs to become just the second player in ASU program history to record 2,000 digs. The Xavier Prep graduate, a two-time Gatorade Arizona Player of the Year and three-time selection to the All-Arizona Team, toiled in the setter position during her freshman year at ASU, so the majority of her impressive accumulation of digs has been accomplished in just three years as starting libero.
Preach will be working with a couple of other local athletes as they try to get the Devils past the first round of the tournament, which is where their quest last season ended. Macey Gardner and Bianca Arellano are up-and-coming sophomores who have made big impacts this year.
Arellano, a setter who is sixth in the conference with 12 double-doubles this season, is another Xavier Prep grad. Gardner, a 6’0″ outside hitter who set a couple of ASU freshman records last year, was a prep standout at Gilbert High School. She has recorded 55 assists against three different opponents this season and is second in the league in kills per set at 4.52, and fourth in points per set.
Gardner and freshman BreElle Bailey were named this week to the All- Pac 12 Team. Bailey, a 6’4″ outside hitter from Utah who has 342 kills on the season, also earned All-Freshman honors.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)