'Spike Night' women's volleyball preview: No. 18 Washington State at Arizona State

WSUCougars.com, TheSunDevils.com

Who: No. 18 Washington State at Arizona State in Pac-12 women’s volleyball action

When: Wednesday, Oct. 19 at 7 p.m. PT/8 p.m. MT on Pac-12 Networks, with Daron Sutton and Amy Gant on the call.

This week’s Spike Night takes us to Tempe, where a youthful Arizona State team looks to get one over on a slumping Cougar side.

The Story so Far: No. 18 Washington State (15-5 Overall, 5-3 Pac-12)

There’s absolutely no reason to hit the panic button in Pullman with the season the Cougars have had so far, but after being the last undefeated team in Pac-12 play, Washington State now has the second-longest losing streak going in the conference at three. Despite the skid, the Cougs are right in the thick of a crowded conference race (more on that later), making a road split in the state of Arizona the bare-minimum goal for Wazzu. Seeing as Arizona State is 1-7 in league play and Arizona is 5-3, Wednesday night would be the one to really get.

After a 10-2 mark in the non-league slate that didn’t feature a whole lot of dangerous teams, the Cougars exploded on to the Pac-12 team by racking up three wins against top-10 teams to start conference play, two of which came on the road. Buoyed by their first win in Seattle in 15 years, the Cougs raced out to a 5-0 start and a first place in the Pac-12 heading into their match at then-No. 20 Oregon. For a team that was picked to finish ninth in the Pac-12 Coaches Preseason Poll, this was something. This wasn’t the result of an easy schedule; the Cougs were going toe-to-toe and besting national powers Washington, Stanford and UCLA.

But the Ducks made quick work of Wazzu, sweeping the Cougs and holding them to just 10 points in the second set and 14 in the third. Head coach Jen Greeny’s bunch then returned home and dropped two five-setters to dangerous Utah and Colorado squads, blowing a 2-1 lead to the Utes and dropping the fifth set 15-13 to the Buffs.

Are the Cougs regressing to the mean? Maybe, but they’ve still shown plenty of fight in their last two losses and are still very much a player for the Pac-12 title as we near the mid-point of conference play.

Since we Last Spoke: Arizona State (8-12 Overall, 1-7 Pac-12)

As The Rock would say, finally… the Sun Devils… HAVE COME BACK… to Tempe. Arizona State has played exactly two of their first 20 matches of the 2016 season at home, having to travel more than 10,000 miles this season already to get to their 18 matches away from Wells Fargo Arena. This almost certainly didn’t help the fact that while Washington State was the last team to lose a Pac-12 match, Arizona State was the last to win a Pac-12 match with its four-set win at Cal on Friday.

It’s been a year of change and transition for the Sun Devils. As if losing Macey Gardner (ASU’s all-time kills leader), another top attacker and its top two blockers from 2015 wasn’t enough, head coach Jason Watson left for Arkansas. As if that wasn’t enough, BreElle Bailey, one of the top returners for 2016, announced she was leaving the program days before the Sun Devils’ first match of the season.

So first-year head coach Stevie Mussie, who is in her first head coaching job, has had her hands full. With a bunch of transfers and freshmen and sophomores, Mussie currently has just one upperclassman who started her collegiate career at Arizona State (more on her later) who sees significant court time. The results might not be there yet, but her Sun Devils play with a lot of fight as they try to get accustomed to Mussie’s new system. Arizona State looked impressive in its win at Cal with very strong serving and play at the net, attacking and blocking-wise. The Sun Devils were clearly overmatched at Stanford, but having broadcast that match on Stanford’s webstream, it was apparent that the team came into the match loose and with confidence, and the 25-13, 25-17, 25-19 loss to the Card will not rattle this bunch as it gets ready for Wednesday night.

Three Players to Watch: Washington State

  • #22 Kyra Holt (6’1 Outside Hitter, Senior)- You can pretty much bet your lucky stars that the third ball will be going to No. 22, as Holt has 170 more attacks than the next most frequent hitter for Wazzu. The 2015 First-Team All-Pac-12er picked up Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week and espnW national player of the week honors for racking up 39 kills and 11 digs in victories over U-Dub and UCLA to begin Pac-12 play. For the season, Holt leads the team with 3.68 kills per set and 20 aces.
  • #12 Claire Martin (6’4 Middle Blocker, Sophomore)- The Cougs can block with the best of ‘em, so it’s only right to shine some light on the two super sophomores who clog up the middle for opposing attackers. Martin leads the Pac-12 with 1.58 blocks per set (fourth in the nation), and racked up 10 net rejections in the loss to the Buffs and nine (three solo) in the defeat at the hands of Utah. When Holt was named Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week, Martin was named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week.
  • #10 Taylor Mims (6’3 Middle Blocker, Sophomore)- Having played more sets than Martin, Mims actually leads the Cougs in total blocks this year with 111. She’s also a very effective attacker, as her 149 kills and 1.99 kills per set are both third on the team.

Three Players to Watch: Arizona State

  • #18 Oluoma Okaro (6’1 Middle Blocker, Junior)- Some will tell you that the best strategy for underdogs in volleyball is to bomb your serves to try to rack up aces and get the other team out of system. Okaro fills this role for Arizona State, leading the team with 30 service aces and 53 service errors, and her 0.38 service aces per set rank second in the conference. It’s really boom-or-bust for Okaro from behind the service line, and she’ll need to be on against Wazzu for the Sun Devils to get another W.
  • #13 Halle Harker (5’5 Libero, Junior)- The only upperclassman at ASU who started her collegiate career in Tempe, Harker recently moved into 10th place on Arizona State’s all-time digs list with eight against Stanford on Saturday night (she now has 1,223 for her career). With respect to 2016, she leads the team with 3.58 digs per set.
  • #22 Cassidy Pickrell (6’0 Outside Hitter, Senior)- One of the Sun Devils’ top attackers, the UC Irvine transfer leads the team with 212 kills and is second on the squad with 2.72 kills per set. She’s also a riddle master, so let’s check her latest riddle of the day:

Three Notes to Know

1.The Pac-12 is wide, wide open- So Washington is in first place at 6-2 in league, but Washington State is right behind the Dawgs at 5-3… as is UCLA, and Oregon, and Stanford… and USC… and Utah… and Arizona. In all, seven teams are tied for second at 5-3. This race is gonna come down to the last weekend, or so it appears.

2.Washington State gets defensive (in a good way)- If it wasn’t for Stanford’s NBA-ish size of a front row, the Cougs would be the blocking queens of the Pac-12. Wazzu is second in the nation in blocks per set at 3.35 and ninth in the country (and first in the Pac-12) in opponent hitting percentage (.148).

3.Stevie Mussie is no stranger to the Pac-12- Sure, she might have spent the past two years at Penn State and worked her way across the ACC, but Mussie’s true home is the Conference of Champions. As a player, she won a national title at Washington in 2005 before winning a national title as an assistant in Happy Valley, making her one of two coaches at ASU to win a natty as a player and a coach.

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