Arizona State finished 13-19 last year. They were in the bottom four of the Pac-12 with a conference record of 7-13. They lost seven of their last ten games. They fired their head coach, Sanja Tomasevic, and eight players on that roster transferred out.
It wasn’t a great situation for USC assistant coach JJ Van Niel to enter. However, he considers himself lucky.
“When I came in, there were nine kids here.” Coach Van Niel said, “I was really lucky. They were all in.”
Coach Van Niel said he gave a PowerPoint to the team in their first meeting, but the main message was: I’m going to make mistakes… we all are, so let’s own up to them and chat about them together. Well, the message must’ve stuck because not only has Arizona State bounced back, but they’ve already reached Van Niel’s goal, and they still have six games left.
“We set a goal as a staff for 20-22 wins in the first season.” Van Niel said, “I don’t want to say it’s gravy because as you’re playing, you are setting new goals, but I thought we could get 20-22 wins. However, I didn’t pencil Stanford as one of those.”
That’s right, Arizona State has already made it to 22 wins. They are 23-4, going undefeated outside the Pac-12 and winning massive games over Stanford and Oregon. They are currently ranked fourth in the Pac-12 and 17th in the NCAA Top 25. However, Coach Van Niel didn’t even know that.
“I don’t know where we are ranked right now. I never look at it.” Van Niel said, “Like people will tell me stuff. Like the first time we got ranked in the top 25, I got a bunch of texts saying “25.” I had no idea what they were talking about. Finally, my SID was like, “We are ranked.”
Van Niel admitted that Arizona State had difficulty recruiting this past offseason.
“I couldn’t even get local kids to talk to us this past recruiting cycle.” Van Niel said, “At least the older ones that were committing. A couple of kids didn’t even engage or hardly engaged.”
Arizona State’s season should help draw interest now from local kids. Van Niel hopes this season finally gets Arizona State on the map of local kids in the Phoenix area from clubs like AZ Sky and Arizona Storm.
“I hope now that maybe they will see that they should engage.” Van Niel said, “Maybe they’ll see we will build something here. I think we’ve proved that well, but we will see. I hope it helps with recruiting and that we can get in on the kids we wanted to be in on.
This season is not over for Arizona State. However, they are playing themselves right into NCAA Tournament talk. However, a recent loss against USC shined some holes in a team that had looked dominant in weeks past. USC attacked off the line with serves, and ASU was not ready. Also, ASU struggled mightly in the passing game, and that’s one of the strengths of this team. Grad Student Shannon Shields has been one of the best setters in the country this year, and it was just a rough game for a pretty consistent team.
Arizona State’s major game coming up is versus Oregon. The Ducks are currently ranked the #6 team in the country and are Arizona State’s final hurdle en route to the Pac-12 tournament. They upset Oregon in Eugene in straight sets earlier this year. Marta Levinska led ASU with 12 kills that match, but the Sun Devils outserved Oregon big time. The Sun Devils had six aces and left Oregon playing catch-up in the play with their serves.
It wasn’t just that, though. Arizona State outperformed Oregon in every category, from blocks to kills to assists. Arizona State played fantastic, and they must bring that back to come up with another upset victory.
This is the Sun Devils last chance to make a run in the Pac-12 before the move to the Big 12 next year. A move that Coach Van Niel describes as sad but an opportunity to experience new.
“I grew up in the LA area. I went to USC. I’ve only coached in the Pac-12, so it’s very sad to me that it’s gone.” However, Van Niel said, “It will be a fun new experience in the Big 12. We get to compete against all new schools. That is eleven new teams we will get to experience for the first time. It’s sad because I had places I loved to go in each Pac-12 town, but now I get to find new places to buy coffee. I think it’s always fun to play against new coaches, new systems, new people, and new cities. So, I think that will be a fun experience for us and our athletes.”
It’s been a crazy few months for Arizona State and JJ Van Niel, but amid all the chaos of being ranked and flying up the Pac-12 standings, one thing hasn’t changed.
“I think we can really build something special here.” Van Niel said, “That hasn’t changed. I’ve always thought that, but maybe now we can accelerate a little quicker.”
Featured Image Mandatory Credit: Sun Devil Athletics