2002 ASU Volleyball Outlook
Aug. 21, 2002
After a tough 2001 season that ended with a seventh place finish in the Pac-10, the Arizona State Volleyball team spent the offseason waiting for another chance to prove they can succeed in the toughest volleyball conference in the nation.
And somewhere between all the grueling workouts, the tough spring tournaments facing top 25 schools and countless hours thinking about the upcoming season, something was rediscovered... confidence.
Just one year after going 10-16 with a 5-13 mark in league play, a veteran core of players return to the court looking to make the 2002 season a memorable one.
With 10 letterwinners returning, including six regular starters from 2001, the Sun Devils are poised to make a return trip to the NCAA Tournament and in doing so hope to send 13-year head coach Patti Snyder-Park out in fashion. Snyder-Park, who took over the program in 1989, decided that the 2002 season will be her 14th and final season at the helm of the program.
'This is it for me and I couldn't be more anxious to get things going,' said Snyder-Park. 'We have all the pieces of the puzzle in place and I would like nothing more to go out with a successful run in the NCAA Tournament.'
Citing that the balance between family and coaching was her main reason for ending her career, Snyder-Park views her decision as one that is only fair to the program and to the great student-athletes.
'It was getting to be just to much after my third child and I really want to spend more time with my family,' said Snyder-Park. 'But, it's not over yet. I am real excited about this year. The toughest part will be leaving the friends and all the great relationships this university and the sport have brought me.'
While 2002 marks the end of the Snyder-Park era, it features the return of former Sun Devil All-Pac-10 standout Terri Cox (1993-96) to the coaching staff. Cox joins third-year assistant coach Christine Garner, pairing two of ASU's best outside hitters in school history on the same coaching staff.
'Having Terri and Christine together out there coaching our team is like the ASU Volleyball Hall of Fame walking around,' said Snyder-Park.
The only senior the squad lost from last year was outside hitter Jami Coughlin who was a four-year starter for ASU. While her stellar defense and solid outside hitter skills will be missed, the Devils have replaced her with the 2001 AVCA Junior College Player of the year, Juliana Escobar.
'You don't replace a player like Jami Coughlin, but you just try to move on,' said Snyder-Park about Coughlin, who is now the manager for the team. 'Her leadership and ability to compete at the highest level were very special.'
With a team made up of three seniors, six juniors, two sophomores and two freshmen, the Sun Devil head coach figures the newfound confidence and the familiar trademark of ASU Volleyball, defense, will be the key to success this year.
'We have a lot of talent coming back from last year and the players that were starting as freshmen two years ago are now veterans and our team leaders. The last couple of years we were young and inexperienced. This year we are deep at every position and have a lot of options,' added Snyder-Park. 'They played great during the spring, really came together as a team and found some confidence.'
While defeating several top teams in spring competition can not be found in any record book or move any team into a top 25 poll, it did show the group of players that winning is contagious.
'You go into every season being optimistic about where your team will end up and you always have goals,' said Snyder-Park. 'This year we not only have those goals, but really have our minds set on this is what we are going to do. We realized that we were just a big hitter away from making an impact last year and this year we have all that we need in order to make that next step.'
While it is a lot of pressure to put on a newcomer, Escobar will be looked upon as a team leader and a potent weapon on the court.
'She was an impact player the moment we signed her,' said Snyder-Park. 'She is athletic, plays good defense and brings an attitude to the court that will really help our team.'
Escobar was the 2001 AVCA Player of the Year at Barton County CC, set several school records in her two-year stat on the junior college circuit. In 2000 she averaged 6.52 kills per game and backed that up with a 5.66 per game average in 2001, both earning her league MVP honors and All-American status.
'She is the complete package, there is no doubt about it,' said Snyder-Park.
Joining Escobar as impact players for the 2002 season is senior middle blocker and team captain Julia Leddy. Providing additional senior leadership is a pair of two-year Devils who transferred in from junior colleges last year, Brittany Arnett (DS/LI) and Fernanda Habiger (S).
'We have some good senior leadership this year with Julia,' commented Snyder-Park on her senior captain. 'Her work ethic alone makes her a team leader.'
A group of six juniors make up the core of the team for 2002. Cheryl Anglin returns to lead the offense as a third-year starter at setter and continues to eye the ASU career assist record. Middle blockers Mandy Stephens and Jodi Smith are in their fourth year in the program as redshirt seniors, while outside hitter Kim Mehlhorn, defensive specialist Courtney Blocher and Escobar make up the rest of the junior class.
'It is amazing to think that the group of players that came in here out of Valley Christian (Blocher, Natalie Harris, Anglin, Mehlhorn) are already juniors,' said Snyder-Park. 'They are experienced beyond their years because they were thrown right into the fire as freshmen.'
Harris is expected to contribute at outside hitter, but is coming off shoulder surgery last fall. Middle Blocker/Opposite hitter Alicia Akporiaye is coming off a solid freshman year and will be challenged at the opposite hitter position by junior Mandy Stephens, who is looking to have a breakout year.
The freshman class may be small with only Sarah Watkins and Nora Pirzynski joining the team, but the duo will add tremendous depth. Watkins, the Indiana state player of the year in 2001, can play outside hitter and even has the ability to be a future setter for the Sun Devils. Pirzynski is a solid defensive player who can fill in at the libero position or defensive specialist.
The Outside Hitters:
The Devils have plenty of talent and athleticism... and a new weapon at the outside hitter position. Mehlhorn and Escobar are expected to be the starters, while Harris and Watkins will add depth.
'With Juliana, we have a player that can really put the ball down and make that position a dynamic force on the court,' said Snyder-Park. 'Last year we were one swinger away and now with Mehlhorn a junior and comfortable and Escobar out there, the sky is the limit. Natalie (Harris) is also going to play a lot and has tons of ability, but we will have to see how her shoulder is after sitting out last season. We are definitely going to be strong at this position and I look for out outside hitters to have a great year.'
Mehlhorn is coming off a solid sophomore campaign in which she averaged 3.42 kills and 2.76 digs per game. She recorded 19 matches with 10 or more kills and 13 double-doubles. Escobar is as highly touted as they come out of the junior college circuit, averaging 6.17 kills per game in her two years at Barton County CC.
The opposite hitter position could feature any number of players in 2002, but most likely will feature returning starter Akporiaye or Stephens.
'We are extremely flexible this year with our opposite hitters and have a number of players that are not limited to just one position,' said Snyder-Park. 'You will see a rotation at this position with a number of players filling the void.'
Akporiaye was named honorable mention freshman all-Pac-10 while averaging 1.64 kills and team third best 0.64 blocks per game.
In the Middle:
An important part to the success of any team is having solid middles.
Commented Snyder-Park, 'when you have solid middles, your whole team is able to perform to their full abilities on the court. The girls we have playing in the middle for us right now are as solid as a crew as ASU has ever had.'
Leddy was ASU's leading hitter at .352 last year and finished second with 0.75 blocks per game. Smith, who is also a high jumper on the ASU Track & Field team, led the team with 0.86 blocks per game. Stephens, ASU's tallest player at 6-3, had a flurry of good matches toward the end of 2001 and has as good of an offseason as any player on the squad.
On the Setter Position:
Just two years removed from breaking the school record for assists in a season, junior Cheryl Anglin returns for her third year as the starting setter and inches closer to the school assist record. Anglin averaged 11.37 assists per game last year and has 2,566 career assists heading into the season.
'Cheryl is so smart out there and has really taken the team by the reigns as a leader,' said Snyder-Park. 'She is a smart setter and can place the ball to any corner of the court. When it is all said and done, Cheryl Anglin will be one of the best setters to ever wear the Maroon and Gold.'
Backing up Anglin and expected to see a lot of playing time as a front-row setter is senior Fernanda Habiger. A transfer from Barton County CC, Habiger has spent the last year getting comfortable with ASU's offensive scheme and had a tremendous offseason.
The Libero/Defensive Specialist:
A trademark of the Patti Snyder-Park system is a tough defensive team. The Devils have led the Pac-10 in digs per game the last two years and use their strong defensive prowess as the cornerstone of their makeup.
'We can create rallies with our defense and really frustrate teams by getting to balls that they thought would end in points,' said Snyder-Park, who was a standout defensive player at Portland State. 'You can never be too good at defense. We pride ourselves on being the best in the conference year in and year out.'
After last year's major rule changes (games now go to 30), the NCAA rules committee instituted another change for college women's volleyball in 2002, adding the libero position to the mix. The libero (pronounced LEE-bah-ro) rule, which is currently used in international competition, allows coaches to better utilize a defensive specialist.
At the top of the ASU's list of liberos is junior Courtney Blocher, who has played a major role as a defensive specialist and outside hitter. Blocher, who has a dangerous jump serve that will be lost if she is designated the libero, has averaged 2.82 digs per game in her ASU career.
'Courtney has gone on record saying she wants that position... and how could you argue with her,' said Snyder-Park. 'When you have a player like that who wants to continuously be out on the court, then, you put her on the court. She is what makes our team click. When she is not out there, we are not the same.'
Senior Brittany Arnett will likely fill it at libero and as the starting defensive specialist. Arnett, who transferred in from Ricks College and averaged 2.19 digs per game, also was second on the team with 23 service aces.
On 2002 Schedule:
Just as in any year that the Devils have competed in the Pac-10, the road to the NCAA Tournament will have to go through the toughest conference in the nation. ASU is scheduled to play nine matches against top 25 opponents, including two each against league foes Stanford (No. 1), USC (No. 3), Arizona (No. 6) and UCLA (No. 11). The Devils will also face No. 12 Pacific in their second match and several other top-notch programs dot the ASU schedule in 2002.
'We have our hands full with a number of good teams, but I truly believe we will compete in the top half of the conference. You have to play against the best to be your best, and simply stated, the Pac-10 is the best this year.'
Notes on ASU Volleyball: The Sun Devils officially kick of the 30th year of ASU Volleyball with the Carolina Classic in Columbia, S.C. The Devils will play matches against preseason No. 12 Pacific, South Carolina and Creighton. ASU's first home match will be Sept. 20 vs. Pac-10 rival USC (7 p.m.). The annual alumni match will be held Aug. 30 at 7 p.m. at Wells Fargo Arena.