2004 Arizona State Volleyball Outlook

Aug. 27, 2004

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    Arizona State second-year head volleyball coach Brad Saindon knew the rebuilding process would not be easy. He just didn't know it would be this challenging.

    A year after going 9-18 and finishing ninth in the competitive Pac-10 Conference, Saindon has his hands full in 2004 with seven freshman and eight total newcomers on his roster.

    Despite the departure of six seniors that all played big roles in the program, Saindon brought in arguably the best recruiting class in program history. Seven talented freshman, all of which Saindon thinks will see playing time this season, form the No. 12 recruiting class in the nation as ranked by prepvolleyball.com.

    'We knew we had to go out and recruit hard with six seniors leaving and we had to address some immediate concerns,' said Saindon. 'This is a dynamic recruiting class that is very talented and very raw. They are ranked 12th, but I really think they are better than that. I can't wait to see them get out on the court and start competing together. In four years we could be looking at a very, very special group of players that we will be praising for putting ASU Volleyball back on the map.'

    Saindon and his all-ASU coaching staff of Terri Cox-Spann (3rd year) and Jami Coughlin (2nd year) will have their hands full with the large rookie class.

    The 2004 Sun Devils feature six returning players, but also have to cope with the temporary loss of senior outside hitter Natalie Harris. Harris, who ranked fifth in the Pac-10 last year with 3.95 kills per game, tore her ACL in the first spring practice and it is unknown when she will return to the court.

    'It is going to be a challenge to have this many new players to the program and have only three weeks with them before heading right into the season,' added Saindon. 'We have some veterans on this team that will have to really help with the learning curve and make them learn the system as the season goes on.'

    Saindon cites the loss of Harris as one of the pitfalls that this team will have to deal with.

    'She was our best returning player and someone you can build a team around,' said Saindon. 'We are going to have to have some players really step up to fill in for her and it is going to be a challenge since she is such a great player.'

    Saindon, who coached at Colorado and with USA Volleyball and Team Australia at the international level before coming back to his alma mater last season, thinks that while this team will be young, it has the makings to be very special.

    'Sure we are going to be young and take some lumps, but that is what most teams go through when you are trying to rebuild,' said Saindon. 'This group is really talented and really raw and I think they have the ability to turn into one of the best group of freshman in the country.'

    While the rookies form the biggest group of the team, the Sun Devils will still have some experience and depth to form around. Junior outside hitter Sarah Watkins is coming off a solid 2003 season and senior libero Stephanie Kohner and setter Giovana Melo are great team leaders that provide depth at two important positions.

    'Everyone knows that on paper we have a lot of new faces, but we do have some quality players coming back that will really help this program,' said Saindon. 'Our six returning players all learned a lot last year and will help bridge the gap for the freshman when they are trying to adapt to the new system. They all bring a lot to the court in terms of attitude, experience and also have a lot of talent.'

    Saindon continues to advertise his exciting brand of volleyball that brings a touch of men's volleyball into the women's game.

    'The brand of volleyball I bring to this program is unique and something that remains to be an experiment,' said Saindon. 'It is a quick brand of volleyball that is exciting to watch and is really fast.'

    Saindon's unique techniques include most players using a jump serve, swing blocking at the net and a quick brand of volleyball that will feature a team flying all over the court. He also says that he will use more players on the court this season.

    'I think the idea of six volleyball players playing all the way around the court are coming to an end. The game is becoming more and more specialized. We've decided to have big people in the front row and small quick people in the back row. It makes sense with our personnel and also creates an exciting brand of volleyball,' added Saindon. 'Definitely one of the hallmarks of our team is our speed and we are going to be just as fast as we were last year, only difference is that we will also be bigger. The combination of being bigger without slowing down is going to make this team a lot better. Speed and size creates winning volleyball.'

    With a talented young team, the Sun Devils will have their hands full heading into the 32nd year in program history. Despite the youth, ASU has its eyes locked on a goal to make a return trip to the NCAA Tournament and finish in the top six of the Pac-10.

    'Like every program, we go into the season with goals of making the NCAA tournament,' said Saindon. 'We want to finish in the top half of the Pac-10 and make it to the NCAA Tournament. They are pretty lofty goals, but you have to aim high. I think we can obtain them, but we are young and there will be times when we will struggle.'

    Heading into the season, Saindon knows forming a starting lineup will be one of the most challenging tasks. Experience may be one of the key factors in developing the team into a competitive group this season, but Saindon also feels that talent will rise to the top when it is all said and done.

    'I've told the team that I am going to start the best players on the court,' said Saindon. 'All seven of the freshmen have come in and have a shot at starting. My guess is that many members of this freshman class will come in and contribute right away. A lot of them will be overwhelmed at first, but I think they are raw and athletic enough to step right in and make a difference.'

    'Like every program, we go into the season with goals of making the NCAA tournament,' said Saindon. 'We want to finish in the top half of the Pac-10 and make it to the NCAA Tournament. They are pretty lofty goals, but you have to aim high. I think we can obtain them, but we are young and there will be times when we will struggle.'
    Head Coach Brad Saindon

    While forming a starting lineup will be a challenge in its own right, Saindon admits that the real challenge will be trying to get this group ready for the season and the rigors of the Pac-10 season.

    'As a coaching staff, we have a lot of teaching and a lot of coaching to do because we are so young. A lot of these young ladies have never been away from home and now they are in the middle of big-time college athletics. The learning curve is pretty steep and I am hoping to help them make that transition go pretty smoothly,' offered Saindon about the coaching challenge he and his staff has ahead of them. 'I hope to get them indoctrinated into the ASU Volleyball system and start developing this team that is going to be around for the next couple of years. I would like to be able to mix in some of the new players and some of the old players and come up with something that equals winning volleyball. It is going to be an exciting and unique and potentially great opportunity and that is what coaching is all about.'

    What Returns from 2003:
    Senior night at Wells Fargo Arena in 2002 was a bit different from 2003. While last year's team had to deal with the loss of only one player to graduation, the 2004 squad will have to deal with the loss of what seemed like the entire team. Six seniors, including five starters, are now departed. Gone are middle blockers Mandy Stephens and Jodi Smith, outside hitters Kim Mehlhorn and Juliana Escobar, setter Cheryl Anglin and libero Courtney Blocher.

    'The group of players that graduated last year were pretty special,' said Saindon. 'They were in the NCAA Tournament twice and were great team leaders. I know they had a tough final year adapting to the new style of play, but they were tough and left a good mark on ASU Volleyball.'

    Outside hitters Natalie Harris (RS-Sr., Tempe, Ariz.), Sarah Watkins (Jr., Mishawaka, Ind.) and Nicole Morton (So., Bonsall, Calif.), setter Giovana Melo (Sr., Ribeirao Preto, Brazil), middle blocker Tierra Burnley (So., Santa Clarita, Calif.) and libero Stephanie Kohner (Sr., Anthem, Ariz.) form the group of returning letterwinners.

    'Our experienced players are still new to the system, so there remains some growing pains,' said Saindon. 'They are coming off a solid spring season and I think are growing a lot more comfortable together on the court.'

    Saindon also knows that he'll have to make some difficult decisions this season when it comes to playing time for some of the returning players.

    'There are going to be some battles for playing time between some of the returning players and the newcomers,' admitted Saindon. 'It is never easy when you have to make those decisions, but I am going to put the best players on the court. Regardless, a team cannot operate with a supporting cast of players and in order to be successful we have to have everyone understanding their role on this team.'

    The Newcomers:
    Seven freshmen and a sophomore transfer form what is already considered the best recruiting class in Arizona State Volleyball history.

    The freshmen include setter Rachel Mittelstaedt (Phoenix, Ariz.), defensive specialists Sydney Donahue (Manhattan Beach, Calif.) and Alison Lund (Bowie, Md.) and middle blockers Staci Smith (Gresham, Ore.), Colette Meek (Sherwood Park, Alberta, Canada), Kristin Trayser (Crystal Lake, Ill.) and Danielle Fernandes (Santa Monica, Calif.). Redshirt sophomore outside hitter Nina Reeves, a Gilbert native, transferred in the spring from UTEP.

    'As the freshman grow and gain experience, I really think that they are going to be a special group and make Arizona State Volleyball very exciting. They have the potential to be the building blocks of a very strong program. They are extremely raw, but they have some amazing volleyball skills and I am excited to see them grow together on the court.'

    The Outside Hitters:
    A year ago the outside hitter position was ASU's most experienced position, but with the knee injury to senior Natalie Harris, it becomes the biggest unknown for the Sun Devils heading into the season.

    Harris' knee injury leaves a big hole at the biggest offensive position on the court. After battling through injuries the first three years of her college career, Harris had a breakthrough season in 2003. She was named honorable mention All-Pac-10 while ranking in the top five in the conference in kills per game.

    'There is no question that Natalie was our best player last year and our focal point for the team this year,' said Saindon. 'When she is healthy she has the ability to be one of the dominant outside hitters in the country.'

    Senior outside hitter Natalie Harris may miss the whole season after tearing her ACL in the spring.

    Harris also recorded double-digits in kills in 21 of 27 matches last season and had nine double-doubles. Almost six months removed from her knee surgery when the season begins in Sept., Saindon expects Harris to possibly be ready for action sometime in October. If Harris is not ready by October, Saindon says they will look into getting her a medical hardship and apply for a sixth year of eligibility.

    'We don't know when we are going to get her back as different athletes rebound differently from these type of injuries,' said Saindon. 'Regardless, losing your best player for the early part of the season is not going to be easy and someone is going to have to step up to fill that void.'

    Up to the tall task of filling in for Harris will be a pair of returning players and possibly a couple of converted middle blockers. Sophomore Nicole Morton and junior Sarah Watkins have the potential to jump right in and start at the outside position.

    Watkins (Mishawaka, Ind.) started all 27 matches and played in all 98 games last season while finishing fourth on the team with 2.26 kills per game and 0.31 service aces per game.

    'Sarah is one of our team leaders in many ways,' commented Saindon. 'We count on Sarah to set the bar in many different areas with her work ethic, her academics and her citizenship on the team. She is also a utility player who can play a number of positions. She is one of our most experienced returning players and will be looked upon to help in a number of different areas.'

    Morton (Bonsall, Calif.) played in only 14 matches last season, making three starts, and averaging 1.28 kills per game. A solid spring season and her dedication to an off-season strength and conditioning program should make her a force on the court this season.

    'Nicole didn't play much as a freshman and really used it as a learning experience,' said Saindon. 'It is likely that Nicole will be a big part of this team and she will certainly step in at outside hitter while Natalie recovers from her knee injury.'

    Transfer Nina Reeves also has a chance to assert herself on the outside. Reeves averaged 3.29 kills per game at UTEP last season and spent the spring with the Sun Devils learning the new system.

    A pair of recruited middle blockers have also made the transition to the outside hitter position. Freshmen Danielle Fernandes and Kristen Trayser have shown enough athleticism to possibly make the difficult transition.

    'We signed four outstanding middle blockers and have plans to make two of them outside hitters or put them at the opposite position,' said Saindon. 'This is an exceptionally athletic group of hitters and I am confident they will be able to help us form a great offensive weapon over time.'

    Saindon describes Fernandes as a very good jumper and a very competitive player.

    'She is a tremendous athlete who is really quick and is a great jumper,' added Saindon on Fernandes (pronounced Fur-Nanz). 'She is a high-energy player and I think the fans will really like watching her. She has a great spirit about her and an outstanding character that will really show on the court.'

    Trayser fits an athletic mold at 6-1 and has experience at the opposite hitter position while playing club volleyball.

    'Kristin is a very good athlete who has excellent blocking and hitting instincts,' said Saindon. 'I expect her to be one of the more consistent freshman and come right in and contend for a starting spot.'

    In the Middle:
    Despite a record-breaking season from senior Mandy Stephens last season, the middle blocker position was one of ASU's weakest on the court. The Sun Devils finished last in the Pac-10 averaging only 1.69 blocks per game and were often taken advantage of in the middle by the other teams in the Pac-10.

    To combat the weakness last year, Saindon brought in a talented class of freshman middle blockers and expects the position to turn into a strength for the team this season.

    Filling the void will be Staci Smith (Gresham, Ore.) and Canadian Colette Meek (Sherwood Park, Alberta).

    Meek could be the gem of the recruiting class if her raw ability progresses like Saindon thinks it can. A member of the basketball and volleyball Canadian Junior Olympic programs, Meek has an unbelievable vertical leap and long arms that could create problems for opposing teams at the net.

    'Colette is an unbelievable athlete who is still very raw. She jumps and reaches well over 10 feet and that is not something not very many young women can do,' added Saindon. 'We think she is going to be a great prospect and has a chance to emerge as one of the best freshman in this conference.'

    Smith is ASU's tallest player at 6-2 and comes from an experienced club background out of the Northwest.

    'Staci is a pretty good sized middle who is very athletic and comes from a solid volleyball background,' said Saindon. 'She plays high above the net and as she gets stronger and more experience will become a significant middle blocker in the Pac-10.'

    Sophomore Tierra Burnley (Santa Clarita, Calif.) averaged 1.31 kills per game as a freshman and will contend for a starting spot after showing drastic improvement in her first year in the program.

    'We are happy with Tierra's progress,' said Saindon. 'She had a good spring and she certainly has a chance to work her way into the starting lineup and regardless will provide some good depth at the middle blocker position.'

    On the Setter Position:
    Any time you have to replace the second-best setter in school history, it won't be easy. Gone is departed senior Cheryl Anglin, who ended her career as a four-year starter with 4,296 assists. Freshman Rachel Mittelstaedt (Phoenix, Ariz.) and senior Giovana Melo (Ribeirao Preto, Brazil) are in a heated battle for the starting setter position. Last season the Sun Devils ran a two-setter system, but this year Saindon says he will prefer to go with only one quarterback on the court.

    'Giovana Melo and Rachel Mittelstaedt will have some good competition for the starting spot and that should make that position a lot more dynamic,' said Saindon. 'Either way, it is impossible to run a program without a backup setter and both players are going to be a huge part of our success. It would be like not having a backup quarterback on the football team.'

    Melo, who came to ASU as a junior college All-American out of Western Nebraska Community College, played in every match last season averaging 5.67 assists per game.

    'Either way, starter or backup, I see Giovana being a big part of this team with her positive attitude and her work ethic,' said Saindon.

    Mittelstaedt was the first part of the recruiting class that Saindon wanted to nail down. Described as an athletic and offensive setter, Mittelstaedt was the Phoenix Area Player of the Year as a senior at Xavier College Prep and a two-time all-state selection.

    'Rachel is the one kid that we wanted the most in this recruiting class because it answered our number one concern at the setter position,' said Saindon. 'She is a six-foot setter who has excellent blocking skills, and that will be an added dimension this program has not had in a while.'

    Mittelstaedt is also the definition of a student-athlete, recognized as a prestigious National Merit Scholar.

    The Libero/Defensive Specialist:
    A hallmark of Saindon's system is defense. A trio of talented defensive specialists will combine to make the libero position one of ASU's strongest on the court.

    'We plan on using three libero-type players in our system,' says Saindon. 'The substation rules in college volleyball are so liberal that I think using defense as our strongpoint will really fuel this team. Stephanie Kohner, Alison Lund and Sydney Donahue are all capable candidates and will compete to form a really exciting defensive team.'

    One of three seniors on the team, Kohner played in all 28 matches last season while recording 3.04 digs per game.

    Senior libero Stephanie Kohner will anchor a solid defense for the Sun Devils in 2004.

    Donahue and Lund are exciting freshman who Saindon is very excited about.

    'More and more the libero position is becoming a force in the college game, and we thought we got two of the nation's best in Sydney Donahue and Alison Lund,' said Saindon. 'Both are very dynamic and competitive and will find a way to get out on the court.'

    The Coaching Staff:
    Saindon, Cox-Spann and Coughlin form a unique all-Arizona State coaching staff. Saindon graduated from ASU in 1976 and returns to his alma mater with stops at almost every level of the volleyball community. Cox-Spann and Coughlin are ranked No. 2 and No. 3 respectively in school history in career digs and are among only 11 players in school history to record 1,000 or more digs and kills in their careers.

    'It is a great feature to have a coaching staff that has a link to the past of the program,' said Saindon. 'You always have a lot of pride in your school, but to come back and coach at your alma mater is really something special. The girls know that they can look to those two coaches and see the pride they have in the program.'

    On 2004 Schedule and Season Goals:
    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 14 matches against teams that advanced to the NCAA Tournament last year. Arizona State was picked seventh in the preseason Pac-10 coaches poll, with the six teams ranked ahead of them all being ranked in the preseason top 25.

    The Devils will be tested right out of the gates with a tough opening tournament hosted by perennial NCAA Tournament participant New Hampshire. The Devils will host Fordham, Tulane and Pacific during the three-day, six-match Tempe Buttes/Sun Devil Volleyball Classic.

    'The Pac-10 is the best volleyball conference in the nation. USC has won two straight NCAA titles and it is loaded top to bottom. It is our goal to start climbing the ladder in the conference and hopefully finish in the upper half of the league,' said Saindon.

    While reaching the NCAA Tournament is a goal of any team competing in collegiate athletics, Saindon emphasizes how important it is for his program to return to national prominence.

    'The barometer of success of any team is going to the NCAA Tournament and that is our barometer. That is what I want this program to achieve every year,' stressed Saindon. 'We'll get there, it is just a matter of when, and I really feel confident that this group of players is going to put ASU Volleyball back on the map.'

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