Arizona State has quietly been climbing the ladder in the Pac-12.
From winless in conference play in 2017, coach Sanja Tomasevic’s first season the helm, to a 17-14 finish last season, 9-11 in the Pac-12, the program’s best finish in five years.
“We want to go to the NCAA Tournament,” said Tomasevic. “That’s our goal. That’s been our goal for the last couple of years.
“And we want to keep on climbing the Pac-12. We have more talent in our gym than last year, so that’s one thing that’s like super encouraging for us, because both sides of the net are pretty competitive.”
Tomasevic knows competitive.
The Serbian was a fierce competitor herself, the leader of the 2005 Washington team that won the NCAA title who was named the 2005 Volleyball magazine national player of the year. For that matter, Tomasevic still ranks third in both kills for a season at Washington and kills in a career and ninth in digs and went into the Husky Hall of Fame in 2016.
She played eight professional seasons before becoming an assistant coach at Miami. She joined the Arizona State staff in 2017 and then was promoted to head coach in 2017.
Arizona State has had success in spurts over the years. From 2007 to 2011, the Sun Devils never finished better than .500. Then, under Jason Watson, ASU broke through with four NCAA Tournament appearances in a row. Watson left for Arkansas and the program went 12-20 in one season under Stevie Mussie.
Tomasevic’s first team went 10-22 in 2017, but, as noted, 0-20 in the Pac-12. In 2018, the Sun Devils finished 14-18, 5-15 in the league. And then last year came the big bounce back.
But the Sun Devils have a new look as they prepare for the spring 2021 season after losing five seniors: libero Courtney Leffel (566 digs in 2019, 4.56/set), outside Jada Burse (219 kills, 2.55/set), setter Nicole Peterson (350 assists, 3.89/set), outside Ivana Jeremic (240 kills, 2.26/set), and setter Callie Jones (568 assists, 5.51/set).
“We have just three seniors, two juniors and then the rest of the 19 are freshmen or sophomores, like 14 kiddos,” Tomasevic said.
One of those seniors is 6-foot-1 outside Andrea Mitrovic, a Canadian who led ASU in kills (344, 3.02/set) while adding seven assists, 20 aces, 178 digs, and 27 blocks, five solo.
“She’s hitting the ball higher, harder, and then she’s passing a lot better than she did last year.” Tomasevic said. “Her all-around game is just sharper because she was preparing to go play pro.”
But those plans changed.
“She decided to stay here a little bit longer so she can improve her game and get her master’s,” Tomasevic said. “And it’s pretty cool to see her improving her game and seeing her expanding her toolbox as an outside hitter and hitting from every side of the court and the right-side pipe.”
Mitrovic, who played two seasons at Buffalo before transferring last year to ASU, competed with the Canadian national team this summer.
“She’s been doing really well and working really hard and just kind of being that silent leader,” Tomasevic said. “And she’s not really much of a talker, but she leads by example.”
Tomasevic also expects good things from 6-1 sophomore outside Iman Isanovic. The product of Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, had 216 kills (2.3/set), eight aces, 60 digs, and 31 blocks, 11 solo.
“She came in this fall,” Tomasevic recalled, “and said, ‘Listen, I want to be the best outside hitter in this gym. And if I need to give notice to the other two or three, I’m in.’
“And she’s been working really hard and she’s improved her game a lot, she’s definitely somebody to look for.”
One middle will be senior Megan Beedie, a 6-1 middle blocker from Cambridge, Ontario, who also played for the Canadian national team. Beedie led ASU with 57 blocks and had 281 kills.
“She’s a lot more physical,” Tomasevic. “She’s understanding the speed of the game better. I expect her to have a good year as well.”
One of the biggest pieces of the puzzle for Tomasevic was replacing Leffel and sophomore Annika Larson has stepped into the libero void.
“Annika has separated herself quite a bit from everybody else,” the coach said. “That’s been exciting, because replacing the libero from last year was a little bit more of a scare than anything else, but she’s doing a really good job.”
Two freshmen stood out during workouts, Tomasevic said. Marta Levinska, a 6-2 outside from Riga, Latvia, hopes to compete not only for the Sun Devils but for her country’s national team.
“She’s a lefty, 6-2, with an amazing arm,” Tomasevic said. “She’s going to be really good. I might be biased, but I think she might be one of the best freshmen that’s ever come to ASU. Definitely somebody to look for.
Freshman Ella Snyder, a 6-0 setter and Mira Costa alum, has made an impression, challenging setters Noa Miller (a 5-10 junior from Douglasville, Ga.) and Shannon Shields (a 5-10 sophomore transfer from Louisville).
With five sophomores and eight freshmen, the move to spring volleyball has been a blessing in disguise for the Sun Devils.
“Sure, it’s been challenging,” Tomasevic admitted. “It’s weird playing with the masks and all of the other stuff, but we know that the alternative is not playing at all … Usually we get to work on the fundamentals after their first year here. They come in as freshmen and they have 20 days to prepare for their first match. That’s what usually our season is like.
“So now this year has been different and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, this is awesome. Can we do this every year?’ Like, that’s not our call. Sorry.
“But it’s been good to have this time, no complaints on our end for that.”
Arizona State’s COVID restrictions include no more than six players at a time in the locker room, players are tested twice a week, and they wear masks at practice unless all players have current negative COVID tests. ASU has the benefit of having its own Biodesign Institute, where students can schedule their own tests on a daily basis.
After five months of practice, ASU will be able to put themselves to the test in January when Pac-12 play begins.
“Honestly, I feel as ready as I’ve ever felt with a team,” Tomasevic said. “Yesterday we finished our practice and I felt that if I had to play anyone in our conference right now, I’m in.
“It just feels good to know what you have and for them to know what their expectations are. And when you play in the Pac-12, it’s always like, whoa, this is it. You never know how good it’s going to be until you’re out there on the floor.”
But when youth is involved, there are always variables. For example, their first full scrimmage was a disaster.
“When we put the jerseys on for our first full scrimmage, after months of training, it was so bad. Like, Oh my God, it was so bad,” Tomasevic said.
“And I asked, ‘Okay, what happened?’ And they didn’t know. And the only difference was that we just put the jerseys on instead of shirts.
“So I’m glad we kind of like stumbled upon that. Since then, we’ve scrimmaged more often. We even did a game-based simulation, with highlight video being played, lights turned off, the crowd cheering, the paid crowd, all that stuff. We made it as much as we could game-like so we can get those jitters out.”