Tough Road Ahead For ASU Volleyball

By Brian Gomez
TheSunDevils.com

Faced with the prospect of playing three top 10 teams in the next eight days,Arizona State's volleyball team doesn't have much time to think about whatcould have been Thursday night at Wells Fargo Arena.

On Friday, the Sun Devils will try to shrug off a 3-0 loss to No. 4-rankedStanford when they host No. 9 California, which is unbeaten through its first 12games this season and has been pushed to four sets only three times.

The arduous road doesn't stop there, though.

ASU travels to Los Angeles next weekend for matches against top-rankedSouthern California and No. 8 UCLA. Dating back to last season, the Trojans (12-0,3-0 Pac-10) have won 24 straight matches. The Bruins (10-2, 2-1) have beenvirtually unstoppable this fall, losing only to USC and No. 2 Hawaii.

The three-match stretch looks quite intimidating to outsiders, but the SunDevils are ready to handle the pressure from within.

'Every night we've got to tee it up and we've got to be good,' ASU head coachBrad Saindon said. 'The players like it. They've played volleyball theirwhole life to be able to do this, to be able to play matches like this.'

Executing better serves and passes and making fewer unforced errors will befocal points for ASU (6-7, 1-3) against an explosive California team (12-0,4-0) that has made a habit of putting opponents away early behind junior outsidehitter Mia Jerkov.

Sun Devil senior middle blocker Mandy Stephens will attempt to slow Jerkov,while also trying to assume a more active role in the offense. She'll be backedby freshman Tierra Burnley and freshman Katie Wilson, who returned topractice this week from a sprained ankle.

The Sun Devils received increased production Thursday from junior outsidehitter Natalie Harris, especially during a 30-24 loss in the opening game. Harrisfinished with 16 kills, nine digs and two blocks on a .333 hitting percentage.

'I'm to the point where if I'm over, I'm just going to swing every singletime,' said Harris, who ranks first on the team in kills (194) and service aces(23) and third in digs (120). 'That's going to be my game plan from now on --to go down swinging.'

Senior middle blocker Kim Mehlhorn also shined in the first game, rattlingoff three unanswered points to trim Stanford's lead to 21-15. In the secondgame, senior outside hitter Juliana Escobar provided some energy in part of aseven-kill performance.

Having already played then-No. 14 Washington and then-No. 22 Arizona lastmonth, ASU will have faced all six of the Pac-10's top 25 teams by the time itreturns from Los Angeles next week. California, USC and UCLA pose some of themore daunting challenges, given the fact that they're 34-2 overall and 9-1 inPac-10 play.

'Any time you're in the Pac-10, you're in for an upset,' Harris said.'Stanford was very beatable tonight, and we could have beaten them if we would haveplayed our game. For Cal, it's the same thing. If we come out and play ourgame, we can beat Cal.'

Reach the reporter at brian.gomez@asu.edu.

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