Sanja Tomasevic hopes she’s the one to steady Arizona State volleyball, a Pac-12 program that’s been reeling since late in the 2015 season when it was ranked as high as No. 5 in the AVCA national coaches poll.
But that was before senior Macey Gardner got hurt and was lost for the season. Gardner was on her way to becoming the national player of the year and the Sun Devils were a legitimate national-title contender. Then, however, they lost nine of their last 11, including in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
ASU finished that season 19-13, 8-12 in the Pac-12, and then saw assistant Linda Hampton-Keith leave to become head coach at NC State, soon after head coach Jason Watson left for Arkansas, and his replacement, Stevie Mussie, resigned as soon as the turmoil-filled 2016 season (12-20, 5-15) ended.
So this past December 21, Tomasevic, an assistant to and recruiting coordinator for Mussie last season, was elevated to head coach.
“The administration is not putting any pressure on me,” Tomasevic said. “They’re saying even if we don’t win a game they want kids to improve and they want kids to graduate and be happy and have fun while they’re doing it all. I feel like if you do those three things you’re going to win.
“The competitor in me is, OK, thanks for that, giving me the confidence that I’m not going to be booted,” she said with a laugh, “but at the same time the competitor in me makes me think we can get back to the middle of the pack if we get in the kids we’re talking to right now.
“We will surprise some people.”
There’s a lot of ground to make up in a tough league.
“The conference is just unbelievable,” said Tomasevic, herself a product of the Pac-12. “Some of the best volleyball players are in this conference. They’re freshmen and they play like adults, like they’ve been playing for 20 years. We might not have players as big as the Big Ten, but this kids are so volleyball smart and so volleyball savvy it’s unbelievable.
“What I love is every night it’s a battle. Anybody can upset anybody.”
Since getting the job, Tomasevic has hired former ASU star Amanda Burbridge, a Sun Devil hall of famer who is from Phoenix, and former BYU standout Carlos Moreno, the Brazilian who was the 2004 AVCA men’s player of the year.
“I’m very excited. I’m not great at training setters, but he’s pretty good,” Tomasevic said.
Her top priority, of course, was commitments and recruits.
“The response has been great,” Tomasevic said. “None of our kids who have committed before had de-committed. So all the kids who committed (from the 2018 class) are still committed and everyone from the 2019 and ’20 classes we’ve been talking to everyone is still interested. It’s cool to know that these kids love the university and love this school and see an opportunity to become good people and good volleyball players and get a great education.”
She said to expect some international players and players who transfer in.
Some players transferred out, including junior setter Kylie Pickrell, who went to NC State. Junior middle Jasmine Koonts went to Ohio State, junior outside Lexi MacLean landed at TCU and sophomore middle Mmachi Nwoke went to Kansas.
“While they were going through the process and I was applying and waiting they were doing other interviews a couple of kids came in and asked for permission to contact (other schools) and I felt like that was the right thing to do after everything that happened last year,” Tomasevic said.
“I know it was a risky thing to do, but even if I wasn’t the head coach I would want these kids to see what’s out there and if they don’t want to be here they don’t want to be here. My reasoning is this the only time in their lives they can be student-athletes and I want them to have the best experience of their lives. And if they don’t think they want to be here, because of everything that happened last year they deserved a chance to explore something else.
“They all found great places and I’m really happy for them. I want kids who want to be here and I have good relationships with all those kids and I wish them all good luck and I know they’re going to be great for those schools.”
Tomasevic said the remaining team participated in group counseling and that in her early meetings with them since getting the job addressed the problems of last year head on.
“They said they were afraid somebody new was going to come in and if somebody new came in, they were going to leave,” Tomasevic said. “They said they didn’t want to deal with it again.”
Among the key players back are senior middle Oluoma Okaro and sophomore outside Ivana Jeremic and senior libero Halle Harker.
Tomasevic, an outside hitter from Serbia, was the Pac-10 player of the year for Washington, which won the 2005 NCAA championship. The staff included head coach Jim McLaughlin, now head coach at Notre Dame, and Keno Gandara, now head coach at Miami.
She played for eight years professionally, including in Italy and Greece, before getting into coaching.
“I knew I wanted to live in America but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do here. I started thinking about getting a job from 9-5. A lot of my friends have jobs in business and sales and stuff like that and were asking me to come to work for them but I was trying to see what my life would look like without volleyball. I talked to Keno and Jim and some other friends and they said to try coaching. If it works, it works and if it doesn’t try something else.”
McLaughlin thinks her varied experiences will help her succeed.
“It’s a great opportunity and I’m happy for her,” McLaughlin said. “When you’re coaching these kids you’re trying to prepare them something beyond getting them ready for opportunities and you’ve got to be ready for them. I think she is.
“She knows and I’ve talked to her, but it’s tough. There are so many layers and great responsibility and it’s hard. But what makes it hard is what makes it great.”
Tomasevic said McLaughlin’s system will be the model.
“The Gold Medal Squared system is what I believe in,” Tomasevic said. “I’ve seen not only myself get better as a player but I’ve seen people around me get better. I believe the system itself provides sustainability and repeat-ability. Look at Washington all these years. Since that system was implemented in 2002 they’ve been a top-15 team in the country. It eliminates drama because it’s factual. It’s measurable and it’s something we can definitely apply in our gym and kids can understand why so and so is playing and the other person is not. If you keep the facts straight you put all the power in the kids’ hands. If you get the numbers where they need to be they’re going to play.”
Tomasevic was an assistant to Laura Neugebauer-Groff at Texas-San Antonio for two years before spending two years as an assistant to Gandara at Miami. Neugebauer-Groff said Tomasevic raised the level of work ethic for the players in her program.
“Laura gave me the best advice for a young coach. When I came to UTSA I had just come out of a pro gym and I could not understand why our players could not get something. I would tell them to do this and they would do something opposite and I was like, oh, my God, I told her already five times. It’s common sense. How does she not get that? And Laura told, ‘Hey, Sanja, listen, what’s common sense to you is not common sense to them. From now on, even if it’s the best player in the gym, just assume they don’t know.’
“So she completely changed my approach on how I talk to kids in the gym.”
Mussie, her former Washington teammate, hired her for the 2016 season, when Tomasevic served as an assistant and recruiting coordinator.
“I played volleyball since I was 9 years old and stopped when I was 32,” Tomasevic said. “That was a long time and volleyball is where my comfort zone is and I love and can’t imagine my life without it. When I was playing overseas and in America and back home, I always got to hear ‘One day you’re going to be a great coach’ from my teammates and from my coaches.
“And I was like, no way, I’m not going to be a coach. I didn’t go to college to be a coach.
“And I never understood, even on teams when I played professionally in a new country when I didn’t speak the language my teammates would always come to me to help them with something or what not. And I would think this is so weird. Does it say ‘shrink’ on my forehead or something,” she said with a laugh. “People just gravitated toward me no matter what. And I’m the kind of person where if you tell me you have a problem I take it as if I have a problem and I have to find a solution and help you.”
Accordingly, she hopes that translates into being a good coach.
“I loved it from day one. And I feel like I have to give back in a way,” Tomasevic said. “Because of volleyball and all the amazing people who have influenced my life growing up and while playing college and pro when you’re not around your parents. It’s a huge responsibility for a coach to help these young women become amazing humans and good people and have a good work ethic.
“And as much as I want to give credit to my parents I think my coaches took a big part in raising me and making me become the person I am today.”