Break-through season for #16 ASU volleyball starts 3-0

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                </div>  A 3-0 sweep of Air Force at the Falcon Classic on Saturday gave the Arizona State women’s volleyball team a 3-0 start to the season, the fourth straight year […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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A 3-0 sweep of Air Force at the Falcon Classic on Saturday gave the Arizona State women’s volleyball team a 3-0 start to the season, the fourth straight year they have made that happen.

But this year may be different.  This could be the year the Sun Devils not only get into the NCAA Tournament at the end of the season, but also avoid the early exits that have plagued them in recent years.

For the first time since 1994, ASU was picked in the pre-season coaches poll to finish second in the Pac-12.

The only team ahead of them was national power Stanford, the No. 2-ranked team in the country.  The Cardinal, the reigning Pac-12 champion, picked up 121 first-place votes, with ASU close behind with 99.

And that says something, to be ranked at the top of the Pac-12 teams.  Nine of the teams in the Pac-12 Conference were ranked in the Top 25 when the season got underway.

ASU’s journey through the 2015 schedule will be challenging; 10 opponents were ranked in the national pre-season poll.

But the Devils are hitting the courts with a roster that includes five seniors to provide both experience and leadership, and an incoming class of six talented freshmen that head coach Jason Watson says gives this year’s team more depth than any other he has had since taking over in Tempe in 2008.

It’s a local athlete, a former prep star at Gilbert High School, that will be in the spotlight as the Sun Devils try to live up to expectations this year.  Senior Macey Gardner started each set and each match last season as she continued her assault on school records.

The 6-foot outside hitter posted 500-plus kills in each of her first three seasons and is currently just 167 away from breaking the ASU program record of 1,871.  Her 577 kills as a sophomore and 594 last season were single-season kill records.  She also owns the school record for points in a single match with 33.

Another 295 kills will enable her to reach the 2,000 milestone, making her just the seventh Pac-12 player to achieve that distinction.

The AVCA All-American collected 10 kills on .300 hitting to help put away Air Force, just two kills behind team leader Cassidy Pickrell, the junior outside hitter who transferred into the program this season from UC Irvine.

ASU also returns its sophomore libero Halle Harker, who logged 521 digs last season to set a freshman record and put her at No. 10 on the school’s single-season list.  Setter Bianca Arellano, another local prep star from Xavier Prep in Phoenix, is also back for her senior season after recording 1,417 assists last year and leading the team in service aces with 28.

The Sun Devils are loaded and have built momentum by making it into the post-season the last three years.  They concluded last season ranked No. 22 nationally and started this year in the No. 16 spot.

They suffered first-round exits the first two times, but advanced to the second round last year before being eliminated by No. 3 Texas.  If they make it past the second round, it will be the first time in program history a team has made it that far.

And a validation that Watson has turned this Sun Devil program into a consistent presence at the national level.

(Photo: ASU Athletics)