Tomorrow, the Arizona State volleyball team will hold its annual Maroon & Gold scrimmage, which will give fans an up-close look at the players before the 2018 season begins.
But it’s not so much the play on the court that is going to make the biggest difference this season. It will be a transition off the court, away from what head coach Sanja Tomasevic calls “fake harmony” that took its toll on the program last year when the Sun Devils failed for the first time to win a single conference match.
“Last year, I feel as if we lived in a state of fake harmony, whereas now we, as a team, are learning that conflict is okay and a crucial part of team growth,” the second-year coach explained in a spring interview. “We are learning to hold each other accountable on the basis of standards we have set forth as a program.
“I truly think the biggest place for growth for us this spring was moving from the state of fake harmony to healthy conflict.”
The spring program went well for the Sun Devils. They put together straight-set victories over San Diego State, New Mexico State, and in-state competitor, Grand Canyon University. They claimed 15 wins out of the 18 sets played.
But Tomasevic wasn’t going to leave anything to chance. She took the unusual step of bringing in a consultant from the corporate world to help her program sort through the issues and help her staff deal with the personal dynamics that come with trying to lead young athletes to success at the highest college level.
For Tomasevic, the normal challenges of a first-year head coach were magnified because her predecessor, Stevie Mussie, was let go after just one season and that resulted in some player unrest and distrust going foward. The school announced her departure in a single sentence on the ASU website on the day after the final match of the season. It read: “Sun Devil volleyball coach Stevie Mussie is no longer with the program.” That’s it. No further explanation.
So Tomasevic was elevated to head coach from her position as an assistant on Mussie’s staff, left to initiate damage control while starting to recruit for the next season. The 2016 squad under Mussie finished 12-20.
It was Tomasevic’s assistant coach and former ASU player, Macey Gardner, that suggested hiring a company called the Table Group after last year’s disastrous 10-22 season to begin the process of calming the unrest among players and getting everyone working together as a productive unit. That enabled the coaches to spend more time working on the players’ physical development and the on-court preparation for this season.
“Sanya inherited a talented team that had some trust issues from the season before,” said Table Group’s James Felton in an interview for The Arizona Republic last month. “She’s got to address those. A lot of times that’s easier to do with somebody who is outside of the organization and can push conversations and challenge people on both sides of an issue. I applaud Sanja for having the humility to reach out to somebody else and seek some support.”
Tomasevic feels that, based on what the coaches saw in the spring session, this year’s team is well ahead of where the 2017 squad was at this point.
“The team has really taken a step forward in terms of buying into the process of growth and development,” she pointed out after evaluating spring ball. “Despite the struggles we faced this past season, we returned a substantial portion of our roster. Everyone who was eligible to return did so.”
While the Maroon & Gold scrimmage offers a peek at what’s ahead this season, it won’t be until the next weekend that the rubber hits the road. The Sun Devils open the schedule Aug. 24-25 with non-conference matches against Texas Arlington, New Mexico State, and University of the Pacific.
ASU’s volleyball program doesn’t have a tradition of long-tenured coaches. Only one of its past seven coaches lasted more than 10 years, and that was Patty Snyder-Park, who left the program 16 years ago.
Tomasevic has just one year under her belt as head coach, but she inherited a really difficult situation.
Maybe this year, then, should be looked at as a do-over.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)