It’s unlikely that Jason Watson has any thoughts yet about his Arizona State volleyball team replacing the school record of 21 straight wins to start a season.
The eighth-year head coach would have to win 10 more straight matches to accomplish that. That record of 21-0 was set 42 years ago by Mary Littlewood when the Sun Devils were still competing in the old Intermountain Conference.
However, he is within one win from taking sole possession of second place on that list. Right now he is tied with Littlewood, who also set the 11-0 mark back in 1976, three years after establishing the top record.
And that provides another story line for tonight’s meeting with ASU’s hated rivals to the south, the University of Arizona Wildcats. The Cats are standing directly in the path of Watson’s claim to the school’s second-best start.
Tonight’s match marks the beginning of Pac-12 Conference play for both teams. And also presents a battle between two teams that are highly-ranked at this point in the season.
ASU enters with a No. 7 ranking, up from No. 10 thanks to an upset victory over No. 6 Illinois last week, and the Wildcats are ranked at No. 14 after a 10-2 non-conference record and a near upset in a five-set match against No. 2 Texas last weekend.
There’s more on the line tonight than in-state bragging rights. The winner moves up on the national stage.
In many ways, this will come down to Arizona’s staunch defense vs. Arizona State’s potent offense.
The Wildcats are holding their opponents to a .142 cumulative hitting percentage, which ranks fourth-best in the Pac-12 and 21st nationally. They are leading the conference with 16.79 digs per set.
That defense will have to contain the Sun Devils’ leading attackers, senior outside hitter Macey Gardner and junior outside hitter Cassidy Pickrell. Gardner, a local product from Gilbert High School, needs just 69 more kills to tie the school record of 1,871 and is on track to reach the 2,000 mark. She needs 198 to get there; she recorded 125 during the non-conference portion of the schedule.
The Cats will counter with some power at the net as well that includes a couple of talented freshmen. Leading the way is 6’3″ Nikki Attea, a senior transfer from West Virginia, who is averaging 2.74 kills per set on .260 hitting. The freshmen outside hitters, both from California, are Tyler Spriggs (2.79 digs/set) and Kendra Dahlke (2.03).
Arizona also has one of the best setters in the conference. Junior Penina Snuka is averaging 11.05 assists per set, which ranks second in the Pac-12 in that category.
The Sun Devils have also used a solid defense to become one of the country’s five undefeated teams this season. They are one of just two teams in the Pac-12 that are holding opponents to under .100 in opponent attack percentage; they lead the conference at .094.
The No. 7 national ranking is the highest any ASU team has ever achieved in the AVCA Poll. A solid win tonight, followed by a good showing against unranked Oregon State on Sunday, could move the Sun Devils even higher.
But they have a formidable job in getting the first part of that mission done tonight against a Wildcat team that won both Territorial Cup meetings last year in the intra-state rivalry. The only losses on the Arizona record so far this season were both to top-15 teams.
The 7 p.m. contest will be at Wells Fargo Arena, and that home-court advantage might be just enough to tip this one in favor of the Devils – and give their coach his very own place in the record books.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)