Jason Watson leaves, ASU volleyball takes a double hit

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                </div>  Just two weeks ago, Arizona State announced that the associate head coach for its volleyball program, Linda Hampton-Keith, would be leaving to take a head-coaching position at NC State. […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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Just two weeks ago, Arizona State announced that the associate head coach for its volleyball program, Linda Hampton-Keith, would be leaving to take a head-coaching position at NC State.

And now it appears her boss has followed her out the door.

The University of Arkansas put a full-court press on ASU head coach Jason Watson that took less than a week from first contact to an offer.  In a phone interview for the school newspaper he made it clear that money was a major factor in his decision.

Watson, who posted a 126-129 record at ASU, has spent the last eight years in Tempe trying to build the Sun Devil program into a national contender.  It has been a long dry spell since the 1992 team advanced to a program-best Sweet Sixteen appearance.

Together, Watson and Hampton-Keith led the program to its first NCAA Tournament appearance in six years by posting a 20-win season in 2012, and then returning to the post-season each of the last four years.

This year’s team opened the season with 15 straight wins, the second longest win streak in the history of the program.

Watson’s 20 wins, which he accomplished twice, were the most in any one season in the history of the program, but it has been a struggle to achieve the kind of consistent success he enjoyed during his three years at BYU prior to coming to ASU.  He had 24 or more wins each season in Provo, took the program to three straight NCAA Tournament appearances, and was named the Mountain West Conference Coach of the Year.

The challenge that awaited at ASU was going to take a little longer.  Watson could get to just 13 wins during each of his first three seasons, and then fell off to nine wins in 2011.

But 2012 marked the start of the upswing when Watson went 20-14, followed by seasons of 19-14, 20-14, and 19-13. Those teams all got NCAA post-season bids, but got out of the first round only once when they advanced to the second round in 2014 before being eliminated by No. 3 Texas.  This year was another trip that fell short when the Devils lost to Florida State in the opening round.

Watson got the Sun Devils back into the national discussion.  Last year’s team finished the season ranked No. 22 and this year’s squad began the 2015 campaign ranked No. 16 and climbed to as high as No. 5 early in the season – the highest ranking ever achieved by the coaches who had gone before.

So maybe the native of Australia figured he had hit a ceiling at ASU.  He also lost his associate head coach, who was the foundation of his recruiting success during the five years she was on staff, bringing in nationally-ranked recruiting classes in four of those years.  The 2013 class was ranked No. 13 in the nation.

And the three-time Pac-12 All-Conference player that has fueled his offense the past four years is graduating.

Macey Gardner tore an ACL in her left knee in the second set of just the fifth conference game of the season, against the Washington Huskies.  But despite the final year of her career being cut short, the local favorite from Gilbert High School broke a 20-year-old school record for most career kills, finishing with 1,882.

The 6-foot-tall outside hitter set three new freshman kills records and, in her junior year, she tied a school record with 30 kills against rival Arizona and set another record with 33 points against Washington State.

The Devils were undefeated before the Washington game and that Oct. 9 loss ended their 15-game win streak. And without Gardner in the line-up, they lost four straight and seven out of the next nine.

Watson juggled his roster, creating new offensive line-ups to compensate for the huge void left by Gardner, but a team that had been picked to finish second in the Pac-12 struggled the rest of the way.  That had to be one of the toughest coaching challenges that Watson faced in his eight years on the ASU sidelines.

Now he has a new set of challenges awaiting at Arkansas, where the volleyball program won just seven conference games this season and has made just two NCAA Tournament appearances in the last eight years under Robert Pulliza, who resigned in mid-December.

And ASU has an even bigger job ahead, trying to find someone to pick up where Watson left off and get the program past that ceiling it seems to have hit.

But Watson had also been accomplishing something else lately.  ASU fans have been increasing in their support of the program; this season’s match with rival Arizona drew 5,152 fans and set a new student attendance record of 2,011.

It will be interesting to see if they’re back in the stands when a new coach takes the floor in the fall.

(Photo: ASU Athletics)