Is ASU volleyball ready to break UA’s rivalry dominance?


It’s been a month since Arizona State fans got a sneak peek at their women’s volleyball team.  Tonight, for the first time since the team held its annual preseason Maroon & Gold scrimmage on Aug. 24, the Sun Devils will get a chance to show fans what kind of team they’ve become after four consecutive road trips that took them through Texas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Nevada.

During that string of four straight tournaments on the road they compiled an 8-3 record.

Tonight they will host rival University of Arizona as both teams open Pac-12 play.  The Sun Devils will face a 10-2 team that comes into tonight’s 7 p.m. contest in Wells Fargo Arena following eight straight match wins, the longest winning streak coming into conference play since 2009, when the conference was still the Pac-10.

(*Update: The Arizona win streak is no longer.  ASU hit .330 with just 11 hitting errors to post its first win in three years over Arizona, sweeping the Wildcats in three straight sets (25-20, 25-16, 25-21).  The last time that happened was back in 2013.  Outside hitter Claire Kovensky led the Sun Devils’ offense with 14 kills while hitting .393.)

During the current win streak, the Cats dropped just two sets, and one of their two losses on the season was to Nebraska, which was the No. 2 team in the nation at the time.

ASU’s job tonight will center on slowing down a potent Arizona offense that is third in the Pac-12 in hitting percentage (.286) and features two of the top-ranked players in the country.  Senior middle blocker Devyn Cross ranks second in the NCAA with a .511 hitting percentage, and 6’2″ junior outside hitter Elizabeth Shelton is hitting .329 with 106 kills, second-best in the conference.  And libero Kamaile Hiapo, from Skyline High School in Mesa, is the top freshman in the Pac-12 this season, averaging 3.39 digs per set.

The Sun Devils just might be up to the task.  Their defense is one of the best in the conference, holding opponents to a .156 hitting percentage and anchored by senior libero, Courtney Leffel.  The Flagstaff High School graduate leads the conference with 5.11 digs per set and the Cats are best in the Pac-12 with 16.4 digs/set.

Tonight’s biggest challenge for the Devils is scoring against a team that has held 10 of their 12 opponents to under .220 hitting.  Their best weapon so far has been their 6’1″ junior outside hitter Andrea Mitrovic, a transfer from Buffalo who is leading the team with 160.5 points.  But this year’s team is also unusually deep at the hitting positions.

“We are excited to get into Pac-12 play and see what this team can do,” said ASU coach, Sanja Tomasevic.  The third-year head coach has reason to be anxious about starting conference play since she is trying to continue building on the momentum from last year.  Her first season was a disaster, ending without a single conference win (0-20) and 10-22 overall, but last year the team rebounded to a 14-18 record with five conference victories.

“This year we have a good mix of returning and new players and a good mix of experience and inexperience,” she explained when the season first got underway.  “We have 12 players who already understand our system and expectations since they have already either trained or competed for us.”

That means those players also understand how difficult it has been trying to recover from that unbelievable 2017 season that set a new program record for worst conference record.

But there’s plenty of motivation for every player on the roster.  They all know how long it has been since they’ve broken out against their hated rival in Tucson.  The last ASU win in the rivaly was three years ago when the Devils won a five-match contest in 2016.

Arizona has won the last four meetings and six of the last seven.  But this is beginning to look like a good opportunity for an ASU breakthrough.

(Photo: ASU Athletics)